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Conrad Zimmerman avatar 5:15 PM on 04.12.2008  (server time)
On the Table: Abalone

While I adore video games, I'm equally fond of board and card games. On the Table is a weekly feature of my cBlog that examines some of these analog entertainments. If you have a suggestion for a game to appear in this column or suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know.

Some of the best games in the world are the most basic ones. Chess, Backgammon and Parchesi are all games that have persisted for centuries because they can be easily learned but played, literally, forever. Simplicity lends itself to strategy by allowing the player to think of things other than what the next step in play is. This week's game is a prime example of a simple concept evolving into deep, strategic play.

Abalone is a game of divide and conquer for two players. The object is to push six of your opponents marbles off the edge of the board. Each turn, a player moves one to three of the balls of his color in a line by pushing them forward or backward. They can be moved either along the line or parallel to the line. When moving along the line, opponents marbles can be pushed along with them, provided that the player is moving more of his own marbles than he's pushing.

The game's basic rules provide the framework for an intense strategic experience. Nearly every move in the game can create both opportunities to attack as well as weaknesses an opponent can exploit. Playing the game well requires a delicate balance of offense and defensive maneuvers and a keen eye for when to strike.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the game is quite attractive indeed. Sleek and modern, it would suit a contemporary decor quite nicely and makes an excellent conversation piece. The smooth-feel of the marbles provide an interesting tactile sensation as you push them along. It would be nice if the board and pieces were not made of plastic, however, as some will feel it looks cheap.

Up to four additional players can be added by buying new sets of colored marbles. These used to be readily available in stores, but it seems that they went out of production sometime in the late nineties. Finding colored marbles of the appropriate size would not be difficult, however, and they'd no doubt be more reasonably priced than the intended accessories were ten years ago.

There is a freeware version of the game produced by a fan available on the internet. It's incredibly simplistic, programmed for 16-bit Windows, but it gives a decent enough impression of gameplay to help hook you in to the strategy.

I can't recommend Abalone to everyone. It's a very good game, and is excellent for teaching abstract strategy to children. The problem is that you really have to want to become an effective player. Even though the rules do not require much effort to learn, you'll spend a very long time developing strategy for playing it and many, many games will run their course in a seemingly random manner before all the pieces manage to fall into place.


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