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Conrad Zimmerman avatar 5:30 PM on 02.17.2008  (server time)
On the Table: Quarto

The last couple of weekends have been downright brutal to my schedule, hence the lack of tebletop goodness. This week's entry is a bit brief, but I wanted to make sure I got at least something up. Expect a return to form next Saturday now that some of the craziness has calmed down. Apologies to both of you who read this.

I used to work for a small, family-owned chain of board game shops. On my first day of work, was introduced to what has become one of my favorite casual strategy games, Quarto. Countless hours were spent challenging my co-workers and customers in this quick but cerebral game.

Quarto is, in essence, just an advanced version of Tic-Tac-Toe. There are sixteen pieces, one for each of the circles on the 4x4 grid board. No two of these pieces are exactly alike, but they all share common traits of height, shape, color and density. Every piece is either tall or short, light or dark, round or square, solid or hollow. The object is to complete a row of four (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) where the entire row shares one trait.

Players do not possess any of the pieces and they are drawn from a pool. Finishing a row would be quite simple if you could choose which piece you would play each turn, but you're not allowed; Your opponent chooses for you. So, on your turn, you opponent will select a piece from those remaining in the pool for you to place on the board and then you choose one for them.

This means that you must always be aware of which pieces are remaining to be played, which rows have the potential to be finished and how many turns remain until one of you has no choice but to hand over one which will win the game. It's an aspect of the game that I absolutely adore because, in essence, you really have nobody to blame but yourself when you lose.

As players become proficient in playing Quarto, much as in Tic-Tac-Toe, the likelihood of draw games becomes fairly considerable. To combat this, there is an advanced rule that can be added in which squares of four like pieces also qualify as a win. Using the advanced mode of play, after much painstaking research on my part, I have only found one possible board configuration that does not result in a win for either player. There might be more, but once in every few thousand rounds makes for a very replayable game.

It's also a very attractive-looking game, perfectly suited to a coffee table or parlor, and makes for an interesting conversation piece. The simple, all-wood design is both pleasant and intriguing. With rules that take only slightly longer to explain than it takes to ask about it, you can have people playing it in no time.

There is a computerized version of the game with AI written by the game's creator available as freeware. While that's a fine way to get an introduction to the strategy, there's no option available to play with a human opponent. Having a game like this on a download service like PSN or Live might be nice (particularly in a pack of other board games, as it's a pretty simple game to be demanding average download prices), but there's something visceral about playing the game on an actual board with physical pieces that is really satisfying. I honestly can't see myself playing this online.

All said and done, Quarto is an excellent, simple strategy game. It takes less than five minutes to play a round but is compelling enough to keep you coming back again and again.

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