The Eleven: Abstract Strategy Games

Often on this blog, I’ll criticize a game for a lack of theme.  But honestly, I don’t need a theme – I mostly get annoyed when a theme is present that is completely disconnected with the gameplay (Knizia, I’m looking at you).  Abstract strategy games don’t generally rely on theme, but focus on long-term strategic planning.  Many abstracts have no luck, and those that do generally have low levels of luck.  They also tend to have relatively simple rules, and tend to be a battle of wits and skill.  So, without further ado, here are eleven abstract games that you should check out.


image by BGG user IronMoss
image by BGG user IronMoss

Blokus (2000, Bernard Tavitian) is a game about getting rid of all of your pieces.  The board a 20×20 grid of squares, and each player has their own set of 21 Tetris-style pieces, each made up of 1-5 squares.  I believe every possible combination of those squares is represented.  Players take turns placing one of their pieces on the board.  Your first piece goes directly in a corner, and every subsequent piece must touch your other pieces ONLY by the corner.  You can touch opposing pieces however you want, but you can’t overlap.  If you ever can’t play, your game is over.  When everyone is out, you score.  Each remaining square you have left is 1 point, and you want the lowest score to win.

Blokus is a very visually striking game because the pieces are a nice translucent plastic.  It’s very simple to play, and is a perfect information game where all of your pieces are available for the entire game and everyone knows what you have left.  There are a lot of strategic decisions to be made in placement, and the game is highly accessible for all ages.  It’s for 2-4 players, but I’d say don’t play with less than 4 (unless you have the travel version, which is made for 2 only).  In fact, I think it’s one of the best abstract options out there for exactly four players.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The Duke (2013, Jeremy Holcomb/Stephen McLaughlin) is a two-player game that plays a lot like Chess, but with some luck and changing abilities.  The game is played on a 6×6 grid of squares, and the pieces are wooden tiles that are drawn from a bag.  You begin with your Duke and two Footmen on the board, and on your turn may use a piece or draw a new one.  New pieces must be placed adjacent to your Duke.  To use a piece, you simply select one then follow the instructions printed on it.  Each piece has a 5×5 grid printed on it with symbols that tell you if the piece can move, jump, slide, or attack.  When you have used a piece, you flip it over.  The opposite side has a new set of instructions to use next time you use the piece.  The object of the game is to capture your opponent’s Duke – the person who does is the winner.

The Duke is a game that plays like Chess – individual powers of different pieces, capturing a piece for victory, a sort-of militaristic theme – but that takes the concept in entirely new directions with random draw of pieces, variable powers, and just in general more that you can do.  Chess has zero luck, and people have dedicated their lives to studying its intricacies.  The Duke has some luck, and thus will be much more difficult to “solve”.  I also find it to be more fun because I don’t feel like I’m going to get creamed by someone with more experience.  I might, but I always feel like I have a chance.  This is probably my favorite of the games on this list.

image by BGG user MasqGames
image by BGG user MasqGames

Epigo (2011, Chris Gosselin/Chris Kreuter) is an abstract game that features programmed movement as you try to push your opponent off the board.  It’s played on an 8×8 grid with three squares removed from each corner.  Both players have tiles numbered from 1 to 7 that are placed on the board.  You also have seven orders in hand, also numbered.  Each round, you will choose three Orders and orient them in the way you want the corresponding pieces to move – if you want 6 to go left, orient the tile with the 6 pointing left.  You then reveal each in turn, and the higher number goes first.  If both numbers revealed are equal, they cancel each other out.  You can push a single opposing tile, or through multiple tiles if you have more in the line.  If a player has three tiles go off the edge of the board, their opponent wins.

I often refer to this game as an abstract version of RoboRally.  I love programmed movement games to begin with, and this one is really fun, simple, and has a lot of variants included in the box.  Unfortunately, support for the game seems to have dwindled a lot since its release, and I don’t know if it’s currently in print.  There are a few copies available, but your best bet might be the iOS app.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Hey, That’s My Fish! (2003, Günter Cornett/Alvydas Jakeliunas) is an abstract that has a theme, albeit a very light one.  You are penguins trying to collect the most fish by moving around ever disappearing ice floes.  The board consists of 60 hexagonal tiles, each with 1-3 fish.  Players have 4-3-2 penguins (with 2-3-4 players), and take turns placing them on various tiles that only have one fish.  Once all penguins are placed, you may move one on your turn.  It can move as far as you want it to in any direction from its hexagonal ice floe, but cannot cross holes that are created on the board.  Holes are created when you leave a tile – it goes into your supply to add to your score.  When no penguin can move any more, the game ends and players add up their fish.  The one who collected the most wins.

The theme in this game is probably the one of the strongest on this list – it makes sense that penguins would take fish with them when they leave a tile, and would probably leave a hole in the ice where they pulled them out.  The game could easily be played on hexes with dots on them and a pawn to move around, but the theme here makes the game more accessible by giving people a visual purpose for playing.  This is a game that works well for 2-4 players, and is great for both kids and adults.

image by BGG user Astinex
image by BGG user Astinex

Hive (2001, John Yianni) is a small two-player abstract game with no board.  It also has a theme – bugs – but the theme here is not as strong as Hey That’s My Fish!  In Hive, each player has 3 ants, 3 grasshoppers, 2 beetles, 2 spiders, and a queen bee on hexagonal tiles.  On your turn, you can add a bug to the hive, but you must always touch only bugs of your color when you place (exception: the first turn).  Whenever you move a bug, you must always keep the hive in one piece.  Moreover, each bug has its own movement rules.  The queen can only move one space at a time (a space is defined as along an edge of another piece).  The spider moves exactly three spaces every time.  The beetle can only move one space, but can climb on top of other pieces, essentially locking them down.  The grasshopper can hop in a straight line over a line of bugs.  The ant can move anywhere it wants to along the perimeter of the hive.  The object of the game is to completely surround your opponent’s queen.  As soon as that is accomplished, you win.

Hive is a brilliant quick abstract game that has the feel of a Chess match in a much more compact package.  Because of the Bakelite pieces, it’s the most portable game I own.  You can literally play this game anywhere (and people have).  It’s easy to learn, and it a good strategic experience to boot.  This one is a must-play for abstract fans.

image by BGG user CapAp
image by BGG user CapAp

Ingenious (2004, Reiner Knizia) is a pure abstract game of matching colors on hexagonal dominoes.  Each of the 2-4 players has a rack of six dominoes, as well as a personal scoreboard.  The game is played on a grid of hexes of variable size, depending on the number of players.  On your turn, you simply place one of your dominoes on the board, then score it.  Count the number of identical colored symbols radiating out from each side of the domino, then score that number for that color.  End your turn by drawing a new one.  If the score for any of your colors reaches 18, you have an Ingenious, and you get another placement before drawing back up to six.  When no further placements can be made, the game is over.  Your score is the score of your lowest scoring color, and the high score wins.

This is a really good abstract game that proves Knizia does NOT NEED TO SLAP A THEME ON EVERYTHING.  It’s got a good building aspect with interesting, if somewhat convoluted, scoring.  The “low score is your score” thing is a Knizia trademark, having been used here and in Tigris & Euphrates.  It’s fairly easy to understand once you get going, and is just in general a good game.

image by BGG user Sentieiro
image by BGG user Sentieiro

Kamisado (2008, Peter Burley) is a game I like to refer to as Checkers with colors.  It doesn’t really play anything like Checkers – the only similarity is that both are played on an 8×8 grid.  In Kamisado, the squares of this grid are made up of eight different colors, one per row and column.  Both players have a piece matching each color that begin the game on the row closest to their controlling player.  For the first turn, a player may move their piece any number of squares in a single direction.  You must stop when you run into another piece or the edge of the board.  The square you land on determines the color your opponent must move, and the square they land on determines which piece you must move.  If a player successfully gets a piece to the opposite side of the board, they win the round.  That piece becomes a sumo – it can’t move as far, but now can push pieces if they’re right in front of it.  Matches can last anywhere from 1-15 rounds, and the player who wins the most is the ultimate champion.

This is a great game that I’ve never played anywhere but online at Yucata.de.  The strategy here is really all about looking ahead and trying to trap your opponent into being forced to allow you to win while not falling into the same trap your opponent is plotting.  Like most abstracts, it’s incredibly easy to learn, but there’s a great depth of choices present.

Qwirkle - image by BGG user Toulose
Qwirkle – image by BGG user Toulose

Qwirkle (2006, Susan McKinley Ross) is a game that is all about matching colors or shapes, but not both.  Each of the 2-4 players has a hand of six wooden tiles, and each tile shows one of six shapes in one of six colors (there’s three of each combination in the game).  On your turn, you can place as many as you wish in a line, following one of two placement rules – all tiles in the line must be of the same shape but different colors, or all tiles in the line must be of the same color but different shapes.  When adding tiles, you either add on to an existing line following the rule it uses, or add on to a single tile, thereby establishing the rule for that line.  Once you have placed, you score one point per tile in the line you just created.  With clever placement, it’s possible to create more than one line at once.  If you manage to complete a line with all six possible tiles, you have scored a Qwirkle and get double points for that line (12 instead of 6).  When one player has played all of their tiles, they get a bonus five points, and the player who has scored the most is the winner.

Qwirkle won the Spiel des Jahres in 2011, which is almost unheard of for pure abstract games.  But it’s easy to see why – it’s a very well designed game with lots of strategic choices for the gamers and immense educational value for children, as well as easy accessibility for people who don’t play a lot of games.  It gets compared to Scrabble a lot, since you end up creating a pattern that looks like a colorful crossword, but Qwirkle really is its own thing.  It’s a great game, and a great abstract.

image by BGG user nello
image by BGG user nello

Six (2003, Steffen Mühlhäuser) might just be the simplest abstract game on this list.  It’s for two players, one red and one black.  On your turn, you place a hexagon of your color down so that it touches at least one other hexagon.  Your goal is to make a particular shape with six of these hexes – either a line of six, or a triangle, or encircling one other piece.  When you run out of pieces to place, you pick your pieces up off the board and move them.  This might disconnect other pieces from the main grid, and those pieces are lost.  The first player to make one of the three shapes is the winner.

This game is ridiculously easy to learn.  You’re trying to make one of three shapes – go.  It’s very minimal, and really quite pretty to look at when it’s all laid out.  This is an abstract where there is absolutely no luck, so it really is skill versus skill.  This is one of my favorites, and one I really wish I had on my shelf.  Someday.

image by BGG user hoje
image by BGG user hoje

Völuspá (2012, Scott Caputo) is another abstract with a theme, this one surrounding Norse mythology (the original version, Kachina, had a Native American mythology theme).  Each player has a hand of five tiles, and on your turn you play one of them.  As in Qwirkle, you will be creating lines, but here, each piece you play has a special power.  Loki (#1) turns all adjacent tiles to value zero.  Valkyrie (#2) scores a line when the other end is also a Valkyrie, regardless of values in between.  Skadi (#3) can be exchanged for another tile already on the board, taking its place in the line.  Fenrir (#4) has a value of 4 times the number of Fenrirs in the line.  Dragon (#5) can be placed on top of another tile to negate it.  Troll (#6) cannot be placed next to, except with another troll.  Thor (#7) and Odin (#8) have no special abilities, but are very strong in values.  After placing your tile, if it was the highest valued in the line, you score one point per tile in the line.  You can create multiple lines in this way, scoring each.  Once all tiles have been played, the player with the highest score is the winner.

This is very much an abstract game, but I think the theme here is really well tied in to the mechanics.  Still, it does come down to a numbers game.  The tile identities are mostly tied into helping you remember what each tile does, kind of like Hive.  And it looks a little like Qwirkle in that you’re creating a kind of crossword, but it plays very differently.  I enjoy it very much – I need to do a review of this one sometime.

image by BGG user Purple
image by BGG user Purple

ZÈRTZ (1999, Kris Burm) is the third game in the so-called GIPF project, a series of six two-player abstract games that were all designed by Burm and can be integrated using some expansion rules.  ZÈRTZ is also the only one in the series I’ve actually played face-to-face, so consider it a stand-in for the whole series.  In this one, you have a bunch of rings set up in a hexagon (using 37 or 48, depending on the level of the game).  On your turn, you can place a marble or capture one.  If you place a marble, choose a color (white, gray, or black), and put it on one of the rings.  When you do this, you must also remove one of the empty rings on the edge of the play area.  If you can capture a marble, however, you must do that instead.  Jump over a marble with another as long as they are adjacent and the next space is empty.  If you can set up multiple jumps in a turn, all the better.  Any marble can capture any marble, but you win if you collect three of each color, four white, five gray, or six black marbles.

The games in the GIPF project are well known for practically being works of art in their beauty.  Plus, they’re really good abstracts.  I like ZÈRTZ because it eschews the traditional format of a game where each player has their own color piece.  Here, neither player owns a color, and in fact will probably be trying to get a mix in order to prevent the other player from gaining a minority.  Plus, the adding of marbles as the board shrinks adds a really interesting aspect to this game.  So I can wholeheartedly recommend ZÈRTZ, though I’d also love to play GIPF, DVONN, PÜNCT, YINSH, TZAAR, and TAMSK (which is not officially a part of the GIPF project, though it was originally and got replaced by TZAAR).


You may be asking yourself, “What about Go?”  To my shame, I still haven’t played it.  “What about Chess?”  I think I’ve offered enough alternatives to Chess that I don’t need to answer that question.  “What about Checkers?”  OK, now you’re just being ridiculous.  “What about…”  You know what?  There are a lot of great abstracts out there, and I haven’t even scratched the surface here.  Tell me some of your favorites, and if you don’t really play abstracts, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for games to try out.  Thank for reading!

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2 comments

  1. We have recently fallen in love with the Blokus family of games. We play the full version with my in-laws on the weekend, and got a used copy of Duo, which we play at home a ton. I’m yearning for a copy of Trigon that’s UNDER $40, but I’m not sure that’s in my future. Eventually, I’ll get desperate enough to fork over the $40.

    I’ve played Voluspa on Yucata, and really liked it. I’ve considered getting a physical copy… Thanks for the reminder. I’ll have to look at that again.

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