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June 26, 2003

Favorite Games XIII

Two games of the "classic" variety today... And a special bonus.

Abalone is a game almost without peer, in my opinion. There just aren't that many simple, clean, easy-to-teach abstract strategy games of the caliber of chess and checkers that were invented in the last 20 years, and I think Abalone fits that description. It is a simple game of marbles on a hexogonal board. The board is designed to that the marbles can be pushed in any of the six directions, and this is how you move in the game. A line of 1, 2 or 3 marbles can be moved in any direction (by pushing one end or by shifting them to a parallel spot). If you move them by pushing one end, you can also push along a smaller number of your opponent's marbles (2 can push 1, 3 can push 1 or 2). The object is to push your opponent's marbles off the board while preventing your own from being pushed off. Simple, direct, but strategically unique. Unlike chess, the strength of a piece is less determined by its position or type than by its connections with others, by which direction the lines it forms can be moved. Unlike checkers, the act of taking a piece often puts you at risk of losing piece immediately, so you have to plan how to withdraw safely from attacks you make. It is a game of two forces meeting and probing one another for weaknesses, shifting and trying anew, reinforcing or withdrawing when their own weak spots are hit. I liked this game enough that I took a copy to work several years back and introduced it to the chess-players I worked with. Together, we developed a full notation (complete with an ability to back-off moves to a prior state of the board), wrote up over two dozen "puzzles" (find the move that guarantees a win) and played game upon game. If there's a flaw here, it's in the need for a chess-clock to control time and prevent endless maneuvering in the safety of the mid-board. But chess clocks are easy to get, and with just that addition there's nothing like a good game of Abalone. (There are variations of Abalone for 3 or more players, but the game is at its best in its original, 2-player form.) This game has had a very hard time catching on in the USA (it's gone through at least 4 publishers that I know of), but it's well worth giving it a look.

Illuminati is a card game with which only a few can compare. Years before Magic, this was the game you could find people playing over and over, trying to find new and interesting combinations. (Comments here will specifically focus on the 1999 Deluxe Illuminati edition... but I've been playing this one since it first came out, and loved it despite the tiny, hard-to-shuffle cards). It's a simple game at heart (most of the greats are). Each player takes the role of a secretive conspiracy trying to conquer the world. Each turn, you look at the cards that are available (groups both real and fictitious that you could use to enhance your control of the world) and try to work them into your power network (a layout of cards arranged so arrows point out of one card lead to arrows pointing into others). Sometimes you want to control them, sometimes take them away from others, sometimes destroy them utterly; it all depends on which Illuminati you are playing at the time, and that's what makes the game so good. Like Cosmic Encounter, every game can be different, because each Illuminati has its own special power and its own victory condition. There are fewer Illuminati than there are aliens in CE, but Illuminati also has the large deck of groups, which make it so you never know what pawns you'll play with this game. Add in expansion sets for more cards or for more options in play (the "Y2K" set adds Illuminati, groups and special cards to the deck, while the "Brainwash" set adds the option to shift world opinions and so enhance or weaken all groups of certain types). There's a lot of luck to play (you can't make any action automatic, so there's always a 1 in 12 chance of failure no matter how well you set it up), and a fair amount of repetitiveness in the mid-game (turn up a group, spend to get a 10- control chance, take it over, shift to a more defensible spot, move to next player), which are the two things that keep CE rated slightly higher to me, but Illuminati is still well worth getting to know. (The Y2K expansion set is scheduled to be re-printed very soon, by the way, and contains several cards that are well worth having, including the Church of the SubGenius!)


Illuminati had a brief period as a CCG, in the form of "Illuminati: New World Order". INWO isn't a bad game at all, but the CCG format invites (in fact, encourages) you to pre-build decks with specific combinations of cards, whereas the fun in Illuminati was always the unpredictability of what groups would show up this game and the need to plan a strategy based on whatever you were given. INWO was fun; Classic Illuminati is more fun.

Special Bonus Review: Dice Games Explained Properly is an invaluable little book by Reiner Knizia (you thought I'd left him out of today's reviews, didn't you?). In it, he offers the rules and strategies for over 150 dice games, some traditional and some original, along with a good chapter on calculating probabilities, advice for how to determine good bets when gambling with dice, and countless observations on which mechanical ideas and strategic options are interesting and worthwhile. Games are nicely organized within large families, then by progressively more complicated mechanics within each group. Variants in both names and rules are given in case the game is called something different or played differently in some parts of the world. The book could use a fancier layout (it is very tricky to tell if a paragraph is more comments on the previous game or transition into the next, for example), but you simply will not find a book about games that offers more breadth and depth of insight, from the simplest of dice games to the reasons behind arbitrary-seeming casino behavior. This one is pure gold, wrapped in a very reasonably priced paperback cover.

Funagain Purchase Links
Illuminati Y2K
Illuminati Brainwash

Posted by ghoul at June 26, 2003 05:51 AM

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I'm not a big competitive-game player for a variety of reasons, one of which is that for a long time I hug around with a very competitive crowd. I've played Illuminati exactly once. The cut-throaters were busy slaughtering each other, so of course I won. After that, I was in their sights, so I knew playing wouldn't be as fun. Sigh.

Posted by: Ginger at June 26, 2003 08:09 AM

I've seen Abalone many times in gaming stores, but never have had the temerity to pick it up. A lack of possible opponents is probably the reason--although now that might not be such a problem.

Posted by: Paul at June 26, 2003 09:17 AM

Half the fun of Illuminati IMO -- it shares this with Apples to Apples and Munchkin -- is the weird combinations that end up in people's networks.

"The KGB is running New York. Didn't you always kinda suspect...?" And that one's not even especially weird.


One way to play Illuminati, Ginger, is *not* to play to win -- play to spoil. That's immense fun, especially with the cut-throaters.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 26, 2003 09:18 AM

I'm with Dorothea... One of the nicer features of Illuminati is that just playing is fun, even if bad luck or hyper-competitive other players limits your effectiveness. The one negative can come if those hyper-competitive players actually go all the way to eliminating you from play... but that's rather hard to do, and rarely worth it for them (unless they're the Servants of Cthulhu, and then you'll probably be able to get other players to help defend you).

I frequently just take Discordia, UFOs, or the Church of the SubGenius in and do strange things just for fun. I may not win; folk who play board/card games with me know that I really don't much care (I like winning... but I like playing games for its own sake!). If I can have, say, the Moral Majority fall under the direct control of the Feminists (without being the Bermuda Triangle, for whom weird control chains is easy), or make Comic Books the most powerful Media group in the game (and, in a Brainwash game, that can matter a lot), I feel something has been achieved.

Posted by: Ghoul at June 26, 2003 11:04 AM

I've played many Illuminati games as spoiler -- it's just too much fun hacking away at opponents when their card trees get really complex.

I need the Y2K expansion. To me, the world influence set (the original is all I can go by) added too much to the game -- we rarely used it.

Where else would you find Gold Fish Fanciers and Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow?

Posted by: Scott at June 27, 2003 11:07 AM

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