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Ban the ban: essential game design advice (with examples)

no bans!

If you’ve read the rules to more than 3 board games, you’ve probably read a rule phrased like so: “You may not [take some action].

Why do such rules exist? The most common reason is, during play-testing, the designer discovered players want to take an action that would hurt the experience – for example, a too-powerful action every player would take every turn if allowed. The most obvious fix is to ban it.

Banning an action is usually a bad solution. Here I explain why and what to do instead.

A player’s actions never come from nowhere – they usually originate in the rules. What I mean is: rules create a “space of permissible actions” in players’ minds, and the actions they want to take are inside it. When a player wants to do something bad for play, it’s because the rules suggest she can.

As evidence, consider: for any game, there are countless not-explicitly-banned actions players could take but don’t. For example most games don’t ban switching sides whenever you want, lighting the board on fire, or flipping it. But no one does (except 10-year-olds and the guy below), because nothing in the rules suggests them.

table-flipper

I will keep putting this same gif in my posts over and over until I’m dead.

So. If players want to do something they shouldn’t, it must be inside the space of permissible actions. And when you ban it, you send a mixed signal: that the action should be inside the space of permissible actions, except it isn’t. This makes a game hard to learn (when new players make the same illegal move over and over) and hard for players to find flow during play (because they’re always checking to see if what they want to do is legal).

If bans were the only solution, they’d be a necessary evil. Happily, there are usually other solutions to not only fix the problem, but improve your design even further.

The exact solution depends on the problem’s specifics, but often it’s about incentives. Specifically, an action is so powerful, all players would take it all the time if allowed. This common case is an especially good opportunity to ban the ban, because it gives you a chance not only to allow more options and cut cognitive overhead, but to create an effect essential for a great strategy game: speciousness.

Speciousness is a term I use to describe the way good strategy games trick you into thinking bad moves are good. Speciousness means apparently good or right though lacking in real merit. You can read a discussion of speciousness here, but here’s the short version:

If you’re trying to design a strategy game of any depth, you face a dilemma: you don’t want players to feel lost in a strategic fog (because that I-have-no-idea-what-to-do feeling is discouraging), but nor do want want them to easily know what makes for a good move (because then the game will lack depth and surprise). How do you avoid both problems at once? Answer: you tempt players into making moves that feel more right than they actually are - that’s speciousness.

One way to do this is to include turn options which feel natural and powerful to the players, but turn out to have some cost.

You see where I’m going. If players repeatedly want to make a too-powerful move, rather than ban it, impose a cost. You’ll not only fix the problem and expand the space of options, you’ll also create speciousness (even if you can’t create speciousness, it’s still a good idea to avoid bans for the reasons given above, but speciousness is icing on the cake).

To make these ideas clear, I’ll describe examples from my own games. The first illustrates how replacing a ban with a cost creates speciousness, and the others show how ban-lifting can apply in other circumstances.

Case Study #1 – Catchup

A game of Catchup, in early mid-game

Catchup, my most popular game, is a neat case, because it deploys the advice above twice over.

First, the game’s central mechanic is to impose a cost on what would otherwise be the clear best move-type.

It’s a simple abstract stone-placement game where the goal is to build the largest connected group of stones on the board. The obvious thing to do is to connect your stones in a clump in the center of board, because it both grows your own largest group and cuts your opponent off from stretching her largest group across the board. The game would be broken if there were nothing more to it.

Early on, I tried various conditional bans to prevent clumping – that is, you could only enlarge your groups under certain conditions – for example you could only make a large group by connecting together small groups of a certain size, etc. These schemes all failed.

Then I hit on an idea: you can place your stones wherever, whenever they want, but if you increase the size of the largest group on the board, your opponent gets an extra stone on her next turn. That’s the price you pay for making a strong move. It created a temptation: you really want to enlarge your biggest group because it’s the goal of the game, it’s right there for the taking and it just feels right, but if you do, the extra stone you give your opponent will hurt. Speciousness.

Even after that rule was in place, there was another ban in those early versions: to prevent frequent ties, players were banned from placing stones such that their largest groups were the same size. Here I’d banned a move not because it was too strong, but because it created a structural problem. Like most bans, it complicated the rules and forced players to repeatedly check whether their intended moves were legal.

Eventually, I realized I could lift the ban by using tie breaks: specifically, if the players’ groups are the same size when the game ends, they compare their second-largest groups, and so on until they come to a pair which aren’t the same size. Whoever owns the larger wins.

This had a profound effect: it made ties impossible, simplified the rules, made play smoother, and to my surprise, dramatically deepened the game (for reasons too complex to discuss here). It turned Catchup into one of my proudest achievements. It also reinforced the value of lifting bans.

Case Study#2 – Stinker

Stinker-Example-Ressponse

I like this example because Stinker isn’t even a strategy game – it’s a party game and the design goal is laughter, yet the advice above applies – an indication of how general it is.

Each player has a jumble of letter tiles (like Scrabble tiles). Each round, a prompt is read aloud and each player races to form a response to that prompt with her letter tiles. A judge decides which response is best each round, and that response gets points. It’s like a cross between Bananagrams and Apples to Apples.

Early versions had a ban: players weren’t allowed to make responses using fewer than 20 tiles. I’d made this rule because players form their responses under time pressure, which encouraged them to make short responses with few letters. If players only make short responses, the game is less funny.

But the ban also made the game harder by forcing players to count their tiles while responding, and to fit answers within strict length constraints. It only worked for word-lovers and crossword enthusiasts, but I wanted a game for a broad audience.

Eventually I took my own advice and allowed players to use any number of letter tiles, but I changed the scoring rules to compensate. Each round’s winner no longer gets a fixed number of points; instead she gets a point for each letter in her response, which encourages long responses and neutralizes the time-pressure incentive to make short ones.

Players now make responses of a variety of lengths, depending on their proclivities, skill, and available letters, and the game is a schmillion times better for it. Stinker’s now one of my favorites among my designs, and players of many stripes routinely go wild for it.

Exception to the Rule

There may be rare occasions where banning is the right choice. Usually only in simple designs without other sources of cognitive overhead, so players have enough mental space to grapple with a ban.

A good example is Yavalath, a game built almost entirely around a single banned move: it’s a simple abstract n-in-a-row game where you win if you make a row of 4 but lose if you make a row of 3.

A 3-player game of Yavalath

A 3-player game of Yavalath

Because the entire game is built around the banned 3-in-a-row, the banned move has the attentional spotlight to itself and the cognitive overhead it introduces feels less like a distraction and more like the game itself.

But that’s about as far as that goes. Unless you’re designing an austere abstract game like Yavalath and a ban is its centerpiece, you’ll improve your design by lifting bans. If you’re designing a Euro-type game, for example, you should almost certainly ban the ban.

Nick Bentley

top photo courtesy Viewminder

Cat Herders: The Cat Herding Game of Herding Cats

Cat-Herders-Pieces

Nine cats have escaped into the park. They’re grumpy and would prefer you leave them alone. Nonetheless, you employ a team of animal control agents and your job is to round up the cats. You win by nabbing five cats.

Background

When I post a new game I usually start with the rules, but here I’ll discuss this game’s origin first because I designed it in a new way (for me). It may be worth reading if you’re into board game design – otherwise feel free to skip down to the rules.

Back in BoardGameGeek’s early days, before it was the sprawling infotropolis it’s become, there was a user named Thi Nguyen who wrote eloquently about games. Among his posts was a geeklist, titled Elegant Simulations, which has burrowed as deeply into my cerebral furrows as any among the thousands of things I’ve read on the site since. It still pops into my head with metronomic regularity.

What’s an elegant simulation? It’s a game that simulates the feel of a (real or fictional) situation’s overall dynamics with minimal rules.

Many “thematic” games don’t actually feel thematic to me. They may have a schmillion little contingency rules which are supposed to mimic details of some scenario, but they feel like nothing anyway because they don’t capture the overall dynamic of whatever they’re supposed to be simulating. Without it, thematic detail turns into senseless clutter.

Elegant Simulations, by contrast, focus on getting the central dynamic right, foregoing detail. It’s hard to do, especially since you can’t always do it via literal translation from the real world, but the designs that nail it feel like little miracles to me.

If you want to try examples from Thi’s list, I recommend Street Soccer and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. You can try Street Soccer on Little Golem. Not only does it feel like soccer, but If you play a lot, you’ll find it’s deeper than it first seems (the highest rated player at Little Golem has an ELO rating of over 2100, which is surprising given how luck-driven the game seems at first – it’s full of hidden subtlety).

Cat Herders is my attempt at an elegant simulation. I’m motivated by a desire to design games with broad appeal, and games that “feel like something” are easier for many to grok than the themeless combinatorial games I normally design. Note Cat Herders is also a 2-player combinatorial game, so I’m trying to both have and eat my cake.

I started with the theme, and I chose rules to make players feel like they’re herding cats. The central idea is that the act of moving a Herder to capture a cat sends the cat scurrying away. The only way to capture a cat is to surround it despite its scurrying, which forces you to divert Herders away from the other cats you want to capture.

I had that basic idea from the beginning, but it took time to get the right form. My initial versions allowed players to place their Herders anywhere on the board, in spots from which they couldn’t move, and had cats moving away from them in straight-ish lines. Idiotic. It failed to feel thematic, and despite many modifications, these features always combined to create a clump of Herders in the middle of the board, with all the cats scurrying around the edges until trapped against a wall.

Eventually I discovered a cat-movement rule which would allow cats to move away from Herders more realistically and unpredictably (instead of running directly into the arms of Herders as they often did in earlier versions), and I required that Herders move in from the edges of the park as they would in real life, instead of parachuting in. Consequently, cats now often run away from the edges and no longer get more easily trapped there than anywhere else. It also created a tension between placing and moving a Herder, adding what turned out to be a key layer of strategy.

So now I’m happy. Without further ado,

The Rules of Cat Herders

Cat Herders is a game for 2-players.

Components

9 grumpy cat miniatures, each of which I’ll represent here as this token:

Grumpy-Cat-Token

15 blue Herders for player one and 15 red Herders for player two, which I will represent here with these tokens:

Herder-Token-1Herder-Token-2

The board:

Cat-Herders-Board

The outer row of brown spaces is called the Wall and the green spaces inside are called the Park

Setup

There are two different setups: the Beginner Setup, and the Standard Setup. Abstract game enthusiasts should head right to the standard setup up, but if you’re not accustomed to spatial strategy games or you’re playing with a kid, consider using the Beginner Setup.

Beginner Setup: place Herders on the Wall according to this picture:

Cat-Herders-Beginner-Setup

Standard Setup: place Herders on the Wall according to this picture:

Cat-Herders-Standard-Setup

Regardless of which setup you use, to complete the setup, place the nine cats on random empty Park spaces. For example:

Cat-Herders-Initial-Cat-Layout

Turn Rules

1. Players take turns. On your turn, you must either place a new Herder on any empty Wall space, or move a Herder already on the board 1 or 2 empty Park spaces in a straight line in any direction.

2. After you have placed or moved an Herder, you must move any cats which are now adjacent to that Herder, as follows:

3. A cat always moves to an empty Park space adjacent to it. It always moves to the adjacent space least surrounded by Herders (has fewest Herders adjacent to it). If there are multiple spaces with the same minimal number of herders adjacent to them, the moving player chooses which space the cat moves to. For example, let’s say the red player chooses to move his herder as as follows:

Cat-Movement-Example

Now the player must move the cat. He can move it to any of the three empty adjacent spaces, because each of those spaces is surrounded by three Herders and it has no adjacent spaces surrounded by fewer than three Herders. 

4. If, after moving a Herder, a cat adjacent to it has no empty adjacent spaces to move to, it stays where it is (but must move otherwise).

5. If multiple cats are to be moved, you may move them in any order you like (you can sometimes make it so that a cat doesn’t move at all, as in rule 4 above, by ordering their movements in a particular way).

6. Capturing cats: if at any time during your turn, a cat is adjacent to at least two of your Herders (regardless of how many of the opponent’s Herders are adjacent to it), remove it from the board and place it in front of you.

First player to capture 5 cats wins.

Example Game (apologies for poorish resolution)

Note there is an error in this game: slides 24-25 show a red capture that shouldn’t have happened because red didn’t move the cat correctly. I transcribed the game without checking that it was all correct. I’ll try to get an error-free example game up at some point.

Variants

1. Try adding the following rule: For each cat you capture, you must remove one of the capturing Herders from the board (i.e. a Herder must escort each captured cat out of the park). This introduces a touch of negative feedback which could be necessary to balance the game at high level play (mind you I’ve no evidence it’s imbalanced – for structural reasons I won’t discuss, there’s a good chance it’s fairly balanced as is, but never hurts to have a backup plan, especially since I suspect the game may support high-level play).

2. For a longer, more involved game, require that a cat must be adjacent to at least three of your Herders to be captured, instead of two.

3. Another way to complicate the game in an interesting way is to have cats move two spaces each turn instead of one, following the cat movement rule described above for each step.

4. Try starting the game with no Herders on the wall at all.

5. You can also play the game on larger boards with more cats, and also on differently tile boards, for example a square grid.

So there you have it. I’d like to see if, with the right graphic design and miniatures, it has commercial potential. I imagine its market niche would be similar to that of Hey, That’s my Fish.

Grumpy Cat icon courtesy Mathieu Beaulieu
Herder icon source: Internet

Nick Bentley

Odd Example Game and Notes

Above is an example play of my game Odd. It’s a pure abstract strategy game, in both structure and spirit. Before I discuss it, here are the rules:

It’s for two players, and it’s played on any tessellated surface with stones of two colors.

Definition: A Group is a set of adjacently connected, like-colored stones on the board, containing at least 5 stones. The picture below shows a board with two groups on it.

group-example

There’s one 5-stone red group and one 6-stone cream-colored group. The other islands of stones don’t count as groups because they both contain fewer than five stones.

Rules (of which there are only two)

1. The board starts empty and the players take turns. On your turn you must place one stone of either color on any empty space.

2. The game ends when the board is full. Player 1 wins if there is an odd number of groups on the board at that time and Player 2 wins otherwise. Important: when counting groups, count groups of both colors.

Of the (too many) games I’ve designed, I love only a tiny handful. In that group, Odd is the one I discuss least, I think because it was the easiest to design. It came to me complete in ~30 seconds, in the savant-ish way games come to the great Christian Freeling. It’s also the simplest of my games rules-wise (but not strategy-wise).

In contrast, my other favorites among my abstract games, Catchup and Glorieta, took years to get right (3 years for Catchup and 5 for Glorieta, and I might not be done with Glorieta). All that mentation leads me to talk about them. In the meantime, Odd quietly sits there, being what I want it to be.

I thought I’d end the silence by posting the example game above. Because it’s strategic, smallish board sizes are good for beginners, so I’ve presented a game played on 61-cell hexagon.

The game was between two players who had each previously played only a few times. Beginners often play Odd from the inside-out, the above example included. Experienced players have no such tendency – expert(er) games are more strategically interesting but hard for an inexperienced player to understand, so I decided to go with a beginner game.

Note that depending on your preferences, you can set the threshold minimum number of stones for a group, and in the example game above it was set to 5. This number may need to be different at high level play, for the sake of balance and because the minimum number should be higher for larger boards.

So what’s going on here? Well, the first thing to know is that, because each group must have a certain threshold number of stones in it to qualify as a group, you have to plan far in advance to create groups or prevent their creation, and the shape and placement of each group affects your ability to create or prevent the creation of other groups. It’s hard to describe how it feels in practice, but to me it feels like playing a few simultaneous games of Hex somehow multiplexed onto the same board.

For a board like the one in the example game, the Even player generally aims for 4 groups, and the Odd player usually aims for 3 or 5. In the example game above, you can see that Odd won with three groups.

These goals will vary depending on the board shape/size/tiling and the minimum number of stones needed for a group. I don’t yet know what combination of those factors will lead to the best possible experience.

A reasonable guess is that it’ll work best with a setup where Even tries for 4 or 6 groups, and the Odd tries for 3 or 5. To achieve that, the board should be a little bit bigger than the one in the example, and maybe a little oblong, while keeping the 5 stone minimum.

On the other hand, I’ve played some delightfully epic matches of this on hexhex7 board with minimum group size of 7. That version is really only for experienced players who love this kind of game – everyone else will feel hopelessly lost.

On a braggy side note, years ago I sometimes played the aforementioned hexhex7 version of Odd against the consensus best Hex player in the world (at the time – I don’t know who’s at the top anymore), and though he demolished me without breaking a sweat in every other connection game we played, I won Odd more often than I lost against him.

Anyway, if you want to try the game, I strongly urge you to start on a small board like the one in the example.

Nick Bentley

How can board game publishers predict which games will sell?

predicting-board-game-success

I’ve spent ~14 years designing table games with no intent to publish them. I do it because designing them is, for reasons unknown, a reliable kind of ecstasy.

However, to give myself a new challenge, I might pivot (at least for a while) to designing games with commercial intent. Maybe.

To understand the challenge, I want to know how the board games industry and market work. So I’ve been studying them, and writing about them to force careful thinking (which means what I write is sometimes wrong; you’ve been warned).

One thing I’ve learned: it seems to be a hit-driven business. Successful publishers usually make much of their money on one or two big-sellers, and the rest are a wash. But because it’s hard to predict which game will be a hit, it’s hard to avoid publishing duds, which is costly.

In an earlier essay, I discussed a strategy for dealing with this unpredictability. I argued that, rather that make a bunch of games and see what sticks, as many publishers do, a hit-making strategy might work.

The argument originated in the observation that games can become perennial best-sellers even if they’re not distinguished as games per se, as long as they find some way into the public eye. Just being in the public eye seems to be a big leg up.

I suggested that, instead of spreading resources over many games, a company might concentrate resources on one or two games in an attempt to drive broad awareness for them. This strategy would include a) focusing on games with potential for mass-market adoption; b) instituting best-in-class production values and branding; and c) aggressive/creative marketing and distribution (more aggressive than most game publishers currently engage in). The idea’s similar to what the movie industry’s doing now – studios have learned they can boost their chances of a hit by making big-tent superhero movies with stratospheric production values and promoting them to death.

My essay took heat from gamers, who understandably don’t want companies to pivot away from them to serving the mass-market. Also, gamers would rather games succeed on merit than through marketing.

From a player’s point of view, I prefer that too. I can’t stand the movie industry now because so many production companies have adopted a similar hit-making strategy. Theaters are dominated by bloated orgies of brimstone which leave me with a headache and a vendetta.

hollywood-makes-my-head-hurt

But note the strategy doesn’t have to produce dreck. Apple employs a similar strategy and their products are wonderful. In board games, Days of Wonder does as well (The company says it doesn’t put money into marketing beyond what goes into the box, but I don’t think that’s true, because it spends big to make high-quality mobile apps, which act as effective if non-traditional marketing for the physical games. It just so happens that this tactic is also a source of revenue, which blurs the line between marketing and product.)

So I stand behind my proposal, but acknowledge that, in the hands of the wrong companies it could make the world a drab place for gamers. As often happens, what’s good for a business can be bad for others.

Thankfully, whatever its merits, there are other strategies to consider, and that’s what I want to discuss here.

In this case, I’m going to discuss ideas inspired by “fast failure” strategies, which are in vogue thanks to books like The Lean Startup and advocacy from tech industry titans such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (whose motto is “Move fast and break things”).

His neck still bothers me nonetheless.

His neck still bothers me nonetheless.

Generally speaking, fast failure means inventing ways to make cheap, accurate predictions about whether consumers will adopt your product without committing heavy resources to making it.

The practice tends to work for technology companies, because writing and deploying code is so cheap you can make and sell an actual, if minimal, version of your product, to see how consumers respond. If they don’t like it, you can quickly move on to the next iteration or next product. It doesn’t work in other industries, such as drug development, where a prototype can cost tens of millions of dollars and failure can result in manslaughter.

Game publishers, who are somewhere between these two extremes, already have methods to assess whether their games will sell of course. The question I want to focus on here is: is it possible to do it better?

The motivation is that many publishers’ evaluation processes may not be as systematic or scientific as they could be. My impression is that a publisher will typically test a game internally and with play-testers and if everybody likes it enough and it satisfies some rules-of-thumb (having to do with rules simplicity, range of players, playing time, etc), they publish it.

But how predictive is that kind of evaluation? Enjoyment, per se, for example, may not predict whether a game will fly off retail shelves. I know many games that don’t sell well but which nonetheless earn rave reviews from the folks I teach them to, gamers and non-gamers alike.

What we really want to know is:

a) if a person walks into a store or browses online and sees your game mixed in with all the others, will she buy it preferentially over the others?

b) how likely is someone to teach your game to others (this being the most common way games spread)?

Ideally, we would observe people in these situations to see how they behave. How can we come as close as possible to doing that, as cheaply and quickly as possible?

I don’t have firm answers but I’ll share a few thoughts. Here’s one possible answer to the first question:

In-Store Comparison Test - A publisher could partner with a bricks-and-mortar store to place a retail-quality prototype on store shelves. Then they could recruit targeted customers to visit the store, browse shelves, and discuss which games they’re most/least interested in purchasing and why.

This one is nice because you’ll probably learn stuff every time out based on what the testers say not just about your prototype but about all the games they look at. Publishers could learn valuable stuff by doing this even without a prototype to show, including ideas about how to come up with better prediction heuristics.

I emphasize the prototype must be retail-quality, complete with professional packaging and graphic design, because it’ll be sitting on a shelf next to real retail games. It makes prototyping more expensive but I think it’s necessary because those elements seem essential to a game’s success (Compare, for example, Bananagrams with other versions of the same game -Bananagrams is a huge hit and the others aren’t.)

If it’s true packaging/graphics/branding are essential, then two other things may be true as well:

1. Publishers might benefit by developing methods to quickly create retail-quality prototypes in-house, since they have so much more predictive value than the alternative.

2. Publishers might benefit by thinking of themselves as a branding/graphic design/packaging design companies as much as game developers (no doubt some already do).

I like the In-Store Comparison Test, but doubt it’s enough, since many game purchases aren’t impulse buys. Many buyers already know what they’re after when they go to the store, because someone taught them a game and they’ve decided to buy it.

That means we also need to predict how readily a game will be transmitted from person to person. That’s why the “easy to teach” and “short play time” rules-of-thumb are so valuable to publishers – those qualities generally make games more transmittable.

But while those qualities help, I doubt they’re very predictive by themselves. Some short, easy-to-teach games don’t transmit and other longer, harder-to-teach games do, thanks to compensating qualities. How to make better predictions about transmitability? Here’s the only answer I’ve been able to muster:

Post-Play Comparison Test – Here again you’ll need a retail-quality prototype. Bring a few games, your prototype among them, to a target customer’s house and teach them all (possibly over a few days; more on that in a moment). Make sure the other games are real, commercially successful games against which your game would compete if brought to market, and that the participants don’t know which of the games is yours.

After participants have played all the games once, ask which games they’re most likely/eager to teach their friends/family, and have them write down a ranked list of all the games, ordered by this criterion. Also, make sure they include in their rankings games they already know and love, but which you didn’t teach or play with them, because your game will compete against those too. You may have to compensate your subjects for their time (though many people are happy to learn games for the experience alone).

The weakness of this process is it’s time-intensive – you’ll have to repeat the experiment several times to get a handle on how your game rates generally, which is slow. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any other way to do it. How can a person know if they’d like to teach a friend a game without first playing it themselves?

It might be possible to carry out this experiment in one evening if you only bring two games – your prototype and a competitor game. If you’re confident the competitor game is a good comparison case, that might be enough when included with comparisons with games the participants already know. If you teach/play more than one game in a session, however, there might be a play-order effect due to player fatigue, so you’ll have to control for that over the course of multiple tests.

Notice both the In-Store Comparison Test and the Post-Play Comparison Test involve…comparisons…between retail-quality prototypes and known, successful products. Even if the specifics of my proposals turn out to be suboptimal, I think this “direct-comparison principle” will prove critical to good testing, whatever the specific form. It appears most game publishers don’t do such comparison testing (or do they?)

The Big Question: are there better ways to test the commercial prospects of a game than I’ve described here?

I’m also interested in ideas regarding how smaller publishers can make retail-quality prototypes cheaply/efficiently, since I doubt truly effective testing can be done without them. Alternatively, if you think this is assumption is wrong, I’d like to know your reasons for thinking so.

Nick Bentley

An observation about why some people don’t like board games (and how to cure them of that terrible affliction)

table-flipper

As a hopeless board games nutcase, I have a hard time understanding how anyone, ANYONE, can avoid being compelled, as if by some behemoth unseen force, to spend every waking minute of their lives thinking about, playing, and designing table games.

Being an inquisitive nutcase, about two years ago I began looking for people who claim not to like board games (as if that were possible hahaha no seriously that’s not possible) and asking them about why. I’ve learned some things which may be of interest to anyone keen to cultivate new game partners or expand the game market. Notably, there appears to be one dominant factor in turning people off board games. Ready for it?

Folks who dislike board games care more about board games than than the rest of us

What I mean is, those who dislike board games invest themselves more heavily in their outcomes, to such an extent that their identities are affected. When they lose, they feel they’ve endured a public demonstration of their ineptitude. When they win, they feel they’ve subjected their opponents to the same.

Game outcomes influence such folks’ sense of themselves, their social status, and the social status of others. That’s stressful.

I call this Over-investment Syndrome and a strong majority of the haters I’ve spoken to have it, which has surprised me.

But now that I’ve thought about it, it makes a tiny bit of sense. Board games may be the most intimate kind of games. The players are in the same room, at the same table, looking right at each other, as one eviscerates the others. It’s like that scene from Saving Private Ryan where the American and the German are wrestling on the ground and the German manages to get on top and slowly sinks a knife into the American’s chest over his whimpering pleas to stop. By the way don’t click that link unless you’re the opposite of squeamish.

There appears to be two distinct types of sufferers:

Type 1: these sufferers dislike competition generally, in games and life, because it feels like a needless kind of one-upmanship, which inevitably and pointlessly makes someone feel bad. A lot of women seem to fall into this category.

Type 2: these sufferers (mostly men) are the opposite: they’re not opposed to competition, and even relish it, but they don’t want to unleash the competitive beast in an endeavor which seems to them unreal or unimportant. My dad is the canonical example: he’s one of the most competitive people on Earth, and secretly believes everyone is out to screw him and that his only recourse is vigorous preemptive screwing (which sounds bad but he’s actually awesome). He’s like “Why agonize over a mere game when I can go out and fight someone to the death in real life?”

How to cure Over-investment Syndrome?

Now, you may argue: “Why should you want to cure it? Let people do what they will. No one likes a missionary, especially one on a dumb mission” Or at least that’s what the hemisphere of my brain that’s always trying to save me from myself whispers just before I shut it down like I’m a dolphin. I’ve no idea why I should care but I do. Let’s roll with it.

First, it’s important to make sure your subject does in fact suffer from this malady. Although it’s a common problem, there are other reasons people fail to play board games, notably:

1. The subject has never played board games before and so doesn’t have any opinion about them at all, or maybe thinks they’re just for kids.

2. The subject thinks there’s something unseemly about them. She suspects they’re a disreputable indulgence. I’m guessing this is a byproduct of the Protestant Ethic which has so greatly shaped our culture, and I’m not sure it’s wrong (I shudder to contemplate how much more I could do for the world if I spent as much time designing say, better solar panels, as I do designing games; alas I don’t know how to pick my obsessions).

So ask your subject questions about how playing games makes her feel. Maybe even present the three factors I’ve described. and ask which description fits her best (one thing I’ve learned, however, is you won’t always get an honest answer, because some people don’t want to cop to the embarrassing idea that game outcomes affect their sense of themselves. You’ll have to be subtle. The best option, if possible, is to try playing a game with your subject. If losing makes her agitated/sullen, you have your diagnosis).

Assuming your subject does suffer from Over-investment Syndrome, then what?

Answers:

1. If strategy isn’t important to you, play party games.

2. If strategy is important to you, play co-operative games, like Pandemic, where everyone wins or loses together.

3. If strategy is important to you but you don’t like cooperative games, suggest a game which feels like “multiplayer solitaire”, like Fits.

All three genres avoid triggering Over-investment Syndrome to one extent or another (and I’ll wager that they all owe at least some of their popularity to that fact).

Note, you won’t be playing these kinds of games with your subject forever, and that shouldn’t be your goal. The best cure for Over-investment syndrome, in my experience, is simply to get someone to play games a lot. The more someone plays, the less invested she’ll feel in the outcome of any one play. She’ll realize that the outcome is insignificant and forgotten as soon as the next game starts.

For hard cases, you might consider a progression: start with party games, move to cooperative games, then multiplayer solitaire, then whatever you want.

4. If you can get into a conversation about the nature of games and the appeal they hold for you, try telling your subject this: when you take your turn, don’t think of the purpose as to beat your opponent. The purpose is to present to your opponent an interesting, challenging puzzle for her to mull. You’re really taking turns gifting puzzles to each other.

5. Buy a game you think you will be terrible at, introduce it to your subject, and resolve to play it only with her and never anyone else. Handicap if necessary or otherwise set things up so that your opponent will win more than you. Losing is harder than winning and you, as a game-lover, don’t mind losing nearly as much as your game-resistant subject. So find a game where you will be forced to struggle and your opponent will thrive. Then be sure not to ever, ever get upset about losing. If you ever seem less than perfectly sanguine about losing, it’ll reinforce in your subject that idea that there’s something real at stake.

I have a brilliant friend with whom I played games early in my obsession, and for years, without telling me, he made it his goal not to win, but to lose as narrowly as possible without my discovering his intent. Nearly every play was a barn burner and I came out on top more often than not and I think I owe much of my obsession to that experience.

Of course I was a bit embarrassed when he later told me what he was up to, but he needn’t have told me, especially because as I improved it got to the point where he no longer needed to try to make it narrow. It just happened because we were evenly matched. He could have just seamlessly transitioned to playing with normal intent. That’s an ideal script for turning someone onto games and I urge you to give it a try.

6. Finally, whatever else you do, proceed slowly and never press your case. Again, no one likes a missionary.

Nick Bentley

Board Game Publishers are Doing it Wrong

2nd prize is a set of steak knives. 3rd prize is you're fired.

Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

I’ve been getting interest from game publishers, which has lead me to study the game industry/market. Now I’ve got thoughts about what publishers are doing right and wrong in their efforts to sell games, and this essay is about one of those. Fair warning: it’s about business strategy rather than games, per se. 

Bear in mind I’ve not worked in the game publishing industry. If my thinking is naive, please correct me. I’m happy to trade embarrassment for wisdom. 

As I now understand things, there are two facts about the board games market that strongly shape its dynamics:

Fact #1 - The lifecycle of a board game which has crossed over into mass market success is often very long.

As Eric Hautemont, CEO of Days of Wonder says (in this talk):

…the big difference is how long they last. To put some things in perspective, the best selling board game today, in terms of number of units sold, if not profit, is still a game called “Monopoly,” which was the best selling title back in 1935. Now that’s kind of like if Errol Flynn was making more money this year than Brad Pitt. Or if Cole Porter was outselling Lady Gaga…

This means there’s a gold ring available for a company that can achieve mass-market success: large, self-sustaining annual sales in perpetuity, without a huge marketing layout. Settlers of Catan has achieved this, for example, as has Ticket to Ride.

But this also means only a minuscule fraction of published games reach mass market success. The reason such games have long life cycles is that the non-gamer public only has so much attention for games and most of that attention is on games they already know. Non-gamers don’t like learning rules and have emotional attachments to games they already know. They generally talk about and play these games only, which spreads them further, which is why the sales of best-sellers are self-sustaining. These same factors which encourage long life-cycles create a tall barrier to entry for new games, which keeps the total number of mass-market successes low.

Furthermore, games that don’t reach mass-market success are weak business. Board games have thin margins and you need economies of scale to make them profitable. In addition, a game without sufficient mass-market penetration is far less likely to be sustained by word of mouth, which means you have to market it, which cuts further into what little margin you have. From a profit point of view, most board games aren’t worth continued publication.

Fact #2 - The board game market is increasingly saturated.

Boardgamegeek’s database has around 100,000 games in it, and they’re not all dreck. Large and increasing numbers of published games are good, and they’re all competing for our limited attention.

So, if you’re a board game publisher, you’re competing in a saturated market that only admits a minuscule number of games into the charmed circle of mass-market success, and your business will be toil and trouble unless you get admitted to that circle. What do you do? Well, aim for mass-market success. But how?

Let’s start by trying to answer the question: what’s the difference between games that achieve mass market success and those that don’t? The answer might provide guidance.

It seems obvious that, whatever the answer, quality isn’t enough, and is probably best thought of as a prerequisite rather than a determining factor. This is true both in board games and every other saturated market. Are Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus among the best, most mind-blowing musicians you’ve ever heard? Are they even in the top 50? Are Monopoly or Connect4 the best games you’ve ever played? Yet all are massive best-sellers. Surely you need some level of quality in your core product to compete, but beyond that quality isn’t decisive.

If quality isn’t enough, what else do you need?

Consider the curious case of Bananagrams, the best-selling new word game of the millennium. Huge, perennial best-seller.

The game is a slightly tweaked version of an old public domain game called Pick Two. There’s nothing original about it, and before it was sold as Bananagrams, the game wasn’t nearly as popular.

How did it get so huge? Well, there are two differences between Pick Two and Bananagrams:

1. Bananagrams has a funny name and is packaged in a canvass banana. Bananagrams has a cool brand.

2. Bananagrams has a company behind it, who promote it and push to get it in the public eye. In fact, that company depends on the continued success of Bananagrams for it’s survival, because, though it publishes other games, Bananagrams is responsible for the lion’s share of its revenue.

I don’t think this is a fluke. I’ve come to believe Bananagrams embodies the core difference between a mass-market evergreen game and all the others, at least for recently published games (because of their long life cycle, some current bestsellers found mass market success by different means in earlier times, when the market was different). The recent mass market successes all have this in common:

1. Strong brands

2. Companies that invest heavily in promoting those brands, or have otherwise found some way to get them broadly into the public eye (such as by winning the Spiel des Jahres).

This is reflected, for example, in the large number of recent best-selling board games that rose to success while published by companies focused entirely (or almost entirely) on that game. Bananagrams, Blokus, Pentago, Set, and Wits and Wagers, to name just a few recent evergreen bestsellers, all fall into this category. When your company’s survival depends on a single game, you push it harder and more creatively than you can if it’s just one game in a line-up.

Besides one-game companies, there’s another kind of company that produces a lot of bestsellers: 800 pound Gorillas, like Hasbro. Companies with so much money they can do heavy brand investment for more than one game.

Either way, it comes down to whether you can create an awesome brand and somehow create enough awareness for it that it can rise above 10,000 competing games and get some real mass-market awareness.

This isn’t surprising. Heavy, focused brand investment is critical in every other saturated market too. Lady Gaga may not be the greatest musician in the world, but she she has a unique, attention-getting brand and she’s one of the best promoters alive.

Important Note: in the board games market, brands are attached to games, not to publishers. Mass-market consumers (i.e. non-gamers) don’t know or care who published a game. They only care about the game itself. Which brings me to my next point:

What are game publishers doing?

If you want to be Lady Gaga, you have to POUR yourself into creating a brand and doing everything you can to promote that brand. You have to create broad and lasting market awareness for yourself, because without that, you have no chance of overcoming the tough barriers to mass-market success (which, remember, is really the only place worth being if you’re a board game publisher).

I can think of a dozen game publishers off the top of my head, however, who produce lots of games and spread their resources over all of them. In a saturated market this is a bad strategy. By spreading their resources out in this way, they make it harder for any of their games to achieve the broad consumer awareness required for mass-market success. It’s like rolling a thousand-sided die and hoping a particular number will come up.

I suspect publishers do this for two (maybe three) reasons:

1. Twenty years ago (or even 10) the market was much less saturated and you could more easily succeed by publishing a bunch of different games concurrently. Companies are operating on old assumptions.

2. Publishers erroneously think of themselves as the brand, and not their games. Probably because they started out selling to gamers, who are different from mass-market consumers in that, for them, the company can be the brand.

3. Maybe they’re happy just selling to gamers? This means they’re happy scraping by. As a gamer, of course I love that so many companies cater to me, but if I were on the other side of the transaction I doubt I’d be satisfied.

Anyway here’s what all those companies should do: eliminate all but their top-selling games from their lineups, and concentrate resources into promoting the few that make the cut. Make a few products amazing and then do everything you can to make sure the whole world knows about them and thinks of them fondly, and get them into every conceivable retail outlet. That’s how you compete in a saturated market.

Three subtleties here:

1. When I say “concentrate resources”, I’m talking at least as much about time/attention (the ultimate limited resources), as I am about money. A company’s collective attention should be focused on one or a few games.

2. I’m not arguing companies should refrain from publishing new games. I’m arguing they should kill games that aren’t among their most promising, thereby keeping the total in publication small and their resources concentrated. I’m arguing for severe Darwinian selection.

3. Once a company has at least one game in the magic circle of mass-market success, then it may be ok to branch out, because, as mentioned, maintaining that success once you have it isn’t nearly hard as getting it in the first place, which frees up resources. Hasbro can do this, for example. Most companies aren’t in that position.

I believe even a company like Days of Wonder, one of the multi-game publishers that understands what to do in a saturated market (they only publish one game a year, they put a ton of resources behind each, and make excellent, in-house digital versions for each to help mass-market consumers get over their inhibitions about learning new rules – and their sales show it: a “failure” for them still sells 20,000 copies), even they could benefit by more aggressive product-killing, because a number of their games have little chance of getting to that self-sustaining point where they spread by themselves.

If I were Days of Wonder, in addition to publishing one game a year, I’d start killing games. I’d kill a bunch up front and then one game a year thereafter, to keep the total in publication stable. Or at least I’d set some kind of sales threshold: if a game doesn’t achieve a certain sales growth number by a certain point, kill it, because it’s unlikely to get into the magic circle where it spreads itself.

This strategy isn’t new. It’s proven valuable in other saturated markets, even for large companies that already enjoyed broad brand awareness. For example, famously, it’s the strategy Steve Jobs adopted for Apple on his return to the company in the 1990s, which lead to one of greatest turnaround stories in the history of corporations. Jobs killed almost all of Apple’s product line. They went from 350 products to 10, but those 10 were a) great; b) sexy; and c) promoted everywhere.

Of course, the success of this strategy depends on how effectively you can use the resources you free up by killing products to either:

a) accelerate the market uptake of those remaining (which means creative, aggressive marketing, something at which many publishers don’t excel, and which seems difficult to do for games generally (here’s a good article about some of the difficulties) – it also means redesigning your product occasionally to improve the degree to which it sells itself – see Mindtwister, for example, which has redesigned its big hit Pentago more times than I can count); or

b) develop new games which are more likely to penetrate the mass-market than the ones you’ve killed.

…and you have to make sure the games you push are really good. If you only bet on one horse, it had better be a fast horse.

Even though this strategy isn’t new, it’s grossly underutilized in the board games industry. Maybe a few publishers will happen by this article and change things up. If you’re one, and it turns out I’m right, you’re welcome and hire me. If I’m wrong, well, that’s what happens when you listen to some random guy from the internet.

Update: I’ve written about an alternative strategy here.

Nick Bentley

Abstract Games for iPhone and iPad – The Definitive List

My vision after spending 1 billion hours staring at my devices doing research for this.

My vision after spending 1 billion hours staring at my devices doing research for this.

This is a (regularly updated) collection of iOS apps for luck-free 2-player abstract strategy games, including links to the iTunes App Store for each. It was a pain to collect them (it required searching for and testing A LOT of apps) but I did it, because I care about these games. I need help keeping it current, so I’ll be grateful to anyone who links to games I’ve missed in the comments, or better apps for the games I have listed. Also, if you find problems with any of the apps listed, please comment about that as well.

Classics

Multiple apps exist for each classic game and I’ve tested many. I’ve listed the best app I know of for each game.

9 Men’s Morris - Create lines of 3 of your own pieces in a row to capture your opponent’s pieces. Win by capturing all but 2 of your opponent’s pieces. The app features online and local multiplayer, or play against the AI. The online part is done especially well, with ELO rankings, a good chat system, and other goodies.

Checkers - Capture opponent pieces by jumping over them. Win by capturing all your opponent’s pieces or blocking him so he can’t move. Play against AI at several levels or against another human. Great user interface that highlights legal moves. You can play with or without the compulsory capture rule.

Chess (t Chess Pro) - The most famous western abstract game gets an app worthy of its stature. Everything about it works beautifully, it has all the features you’d expect , and many others you don’t: really strong chess engine, position editor, opening libraries, an integrated ebook for learning the game, etc.

Connect 4 - One of the simplest of the classic games. Drop chips into slots to be the first to a row of 4. Play against the computer, with friends via bluetooth or pass-and-play, or over the internet. Lots of achievements to play for, several different game modes, and even has cut-scenes and exploding chips. Ridiculous.

Dots and Boxes - Players take turns drawing lines between dots on the board. When a player draws a line that completes a box, the player “owns” that box. Whoever owns more boxes when the game board is full is the winner. Play locally, online, or against an AI with several difficulty settings.

Fanorona - Classical game probably invented in the 1600s, from Madagascar. Capturing game where you capture enemy pieces by moving your own piece toward or away from a line of enemy pieces. Features online play, or you can play against an AI at several different difficulty levels.

Go - The Emperor of Boardgames. 2000 years old and deep as the ocean. This is perhaps the most well-done app on this list, but also the most expensive ($19.99). Way too many features to list here, but lacks online play. If your main desire is online play, try this one, which is cheaper and has many admirers.

Gomoku - A simple, ancient game from the far East. Place stones to be first to create a row of 5. Play against one of four levels of computer opponent or against a friend. Multiple board sizes to choose from. You can start a game by bumping your phone with your opponents’.

Hex - Hex has among the simplest rules of any game, and yet it’s deep. It’s also the main inspiration for teeming hoards of abstract game designers (to the extent that they teem), me included. Play against computer opponent or over the internet against players all over the world (the computer opponent is weak).

Mancala - Another ancient game. Scoop up pebbles from a pit and sow them, one at a time, into other pits. A simple but very well done app. Includes play statistics, Three difficulty levels for the computer opponent, and multiple themes for the board and the pieces.

Pente - This game is like Go Moku above (you try to complete a row of 5), except it has a capture rule and a few other enhancements. Play against a friend or 3 levels of computer opponent. This is the best Pente app I could find but it ain’t great. The app is old, the AI is weakish, and it plays oddly.

Reversi (Othello) – Well known game where you flip rows of your opponents’ pieces by bracketing them with your own pieces. Player with the most pieces on the board when it’s full wins. Play against a human or variable-difficulty computer opponent. Includes undo function. Auto-saves games when you exit the app.

Shogi (Japanese Chess) – This game, one of the most popular in Japan, has only lately become well known in the West. Many who play it, me included, end up liking it more than we like regular (Western) Chess. Captured pieces can “parachute” back into battle, which changes everything. Excellent, feature-rich app.

Tafl - Game of unequal sides invented by Vikings (!!!) hundreds of years ago. One side tries to help his King escape, while the other side tries to capture him. Has lots of features and pretty graphics. You can play against humans in realtime or via email, or against the computer opponent, but the computer opponent is weak.

XiangQi (Chinese Chess) – The national game of China and reportedly the most-played game in the world. It’s like regular (Western) Chess, but the pace is faster and there’s more action. There were tons of XiangQi apps to choose from, and this one is amazing – ridiculously feature-rich. Favorite feature: hundreds of Xiangqi problems to solve.

Modern and Obscure Abstract Games

These games aren’t as well-known as those above. In rare cases there were multiple apps for the same game and here again each link is to the one I consider best.

22 Apples - Move around the board and be first to collect 11 green apples or 11 red apples, or force your opponent to collect more than that. 3 different variants available, and 3 different AI levels. Or play against friends via pass-and-play, or over the internet. Includes leaderboard/achievements.

Abalone - I almost put this in the classics section, but I put it here because it’s a flawed game in that it’s prone to stalemates and over-defensive play. However, the app, which is excellent, fixes the problem by allowing various initial marble layouts and even has an editor that allows you to set up your own board.

Alchemy - Combine different pieces together in stacks and prevent your opponent from doing so. Stacks occasionally explode. Play against a friend via pass-and-play or against the computer opponent at different difficulty levels. Good graphics and competent computer opponent.

Animal Chess (Dou Shou Qi) - Simple, Chess-like game popular in China. Each player tries to move her pieces into her opponent’s “den” area. Not super-deep and as such good for playing with children. Play againt AI opponent or a friend. No online play. Cartoony animal graphics.

Arimaa - A popular modern abstract. Players race to move a piece from one end of the board to another. The app is high-quality, with lots of features: tutorials, various difficulty levels, handicaps, play against humans or computer opponents, rating system, email games, the ability to replay games, and more.

Chekked - A cross between Chess and Checkers. You capture like in Chess but your pieces can stack and get more powerful like in Checkers. The identity of the pieces you start with depends on your previous win/loss record. 8 different AI opponents with different styles.

Clara - This is like Hex in the classics section above, except there are no spaces on the board. You place objects in an open field and try to connect them to create a chain across the board one way before your opponent can create a chain to cut you off. I don’t know much about the app – I haven’t played it.

Coffee - This game is like Gomoku above, but your opponent can limit where you place a stone on your turn. The game is quick and light. Play against computer opponent or other humans over the web. Features chat, ranking system, and nice graphics. Note: this game has nothing to do with actual coffee.

Connect6 - This is like Gomoku above except players place 2 stones per turn instead of one, in an effort to form a row of 6. The result is a much better game, imo. The app features computer opponents, pass-and-play against a friend, internet play, and puzzle-solving challenges.

CubeSieger - Player take turns placing cubes on a board and moving them, slowly turning them into stacks. So it requires 3-dimensional thinking. Features local bluetooth play, internet play (with opponent matching option), GameCenter integration. Has a weird “free play” mode where you just play around with the blocks.

Diaballik - This game is a little like rugby or soccer: you pass a ball between your pieces to try to move it to your opponent’s side while your opponent tries to get his own ball to your side. Play against a friend via pass-and-play or against a computer opponent. Two different variants of the game are available.

For the Win - Each player has ten tiles (2 each of zombies, pirates, monkeys, aliens and ninjas). To win you must connect 5 into one big clump, with certain restrictions. Has AI opponent with several difficulty levels, pass-and-play for up to 4 players, tutorial, leaderboards, and among the best graphics on this list.

The Game of Gale - (iPad only) Old square-grid connection game from the 1960′s. Also known as Bridg-It. It’s most famous feature is that a perfect winning “point pairing” strategy was discovered for the player who goes first. If you know the strategy, it’s not much of a game. Play locally against a friend or against an AI.

GIPF - (iPad only) I haven’t tried this one, there are no reviews, no information about the app’s features, and it seems to be an “unofficial” version – proceed at your own risk. The game itself is the central game in the most famous collection of modern abstract games, the GIPF series, and it’s great.

Hey, That’s my Fish! - An ice-floe with a bunch of penguins on it is breaking up and you try to get your penguins on the biggest chunks and strand your opponent’s penguins on the little chunks. Play against AI or human opponents on several different board layouts. Includes an optional move-timer with several settings.

Hippos and Crocodiles - Place pieces to crowd out your opponent and make it impossible for him to place his own pieces. One player’s pieces are shaped like hippos and the others’ like crocodiles. Play against computer or online against other humans. Features chat, high scores, rankings, and great graphics.

Hive - Take turns placing and moving pieces on a table, such that all pieces stay connected in one big group, and try to surround your opponent’s “queen” piece. Features online play, pass-and-play, and several levels of AI opponent – each level can only be unlocked by beating the level below it. The graphics are 3D.

Horror Vacui - Charming retro graphics. Players place pieces of different temperature, affecting the temperature around them. Player with the most “normal” temperature pieces on the board when it’s full wins. I haven’t played this one, and there may be a luck element (anyone know?).

Kamisado - Colorful Chess-like game. Where each player moves on her turn determines which piece her opponent is allowed to move on her next turn, which is mind-bending. The goal is to move a certain piece from your end of the board to your opponent’s end. Several AI levels; the high levels are killers.

Khet - In board game form, this Chess-like game is famous for using real lasers. Your pieces are mirrors and you have to use them to direct your laser to what is essential your opponent’s king. The app can be a bit buggy, seems to crash sometimes, and of course no real lasers. But lots of features and good AI.

Kismat - Kismat is inspired by one of the most unusual abstract games ever invented: Tamsk. Your pieces are sand-timers. When you move a piece, you flip it, and if a sand-timer runs out before you move it, it’s dead forever. Play against the AI, via pass-and-play, or (amazingly, given the crazy timing issues), online.

The L Game - This is a historical curiosity – it was invented by lateral thinking expert Edward de Bono as an attempt to build an interesting strategy game out of a tiny number of components, in this case a 4×4 grid and 4 pieces. I’m not sure if it succeeds, but it’s a fascinating attempt.

Let’s Catch the Lion - Up in the classics section there’s a game called Shogi, which is an excellent, even timeless game, but can be hard to learn. Let’s Catch the Lion is a supersimple version of Shogi, often used to teach children. Doesn’t have a ton of features, but it does what it does well. Includes AI opponent.

Lines of Action - A borderline classic – has had some international competitions. Players start with pieces lining the edge of the board, and each tries to be first to move her pieces into one connected clump. Play against not-super-strong AI or against friend; not online. Crisp, lovely graphics.

Mana - This one is for iPad only. Winner of an international game design competition Concours International de Créateurs de Jeux de Société. A fast, Chess-like game with unusual mechanisms. Play against AI or friends via pass-and-play. Features a game timer for high-pressure games.

Martian Chess - Chess-like game where the pieces change sides depending on where they land. Score points to win. Play against another human via pass-and-play or over the web, or against the computer opponent. Beautiful, soothing graphics. This app is free but it has ads (you can disable the ads by paying a small fee).

Momentum - Elegent, twisty little game where you place marbles on the board, which in turn repel opponent pieces off the board, forcing your opponent to take them back. The goal is to be the first to get rid of your marbles. Features online multiplayer and solo modes, along with a ranking system and scoreboard.

Neutron - Players take turn moving their own pieces and the neutral piece. The goal is to be the first to surround the neutral piece or carry it to your home row on the board. You can play against a friend via pass-and-play or against an AI. I haven’t played this one, but it appears there’s no online play.

Pentago - One of the most commercially successful modern games. It’s like Gomoku in that you try to complete a row of stones. But here one quadrant of the board is rotated 90 degrees on every turn, which leads to surprises. The app is a non-official version and I don’t have much experience with it.

Phalanx - On the one hand this is an uncredited ripoff of Epaminondas, a famous game by Eminence Grise designer Robert Abbott. On the other hand, it’s a fairly well-done ripoff of a very good game. However: it has no AI, which is a bit criminal these days.

Symmetry - The goal is to have the most stones on the board when it’s full. If you create a symmetrical pattern of pieces in a subgrid on the board, all the pieces there are switched to your color. No ability to play online or against a friend. You can only play against the AI, but you can share scores on GameCenter.

Through the Desert - Famed game designer Reiner Knizia’s take on the connection game genre. You create chains of camels across the desert. The app is good, except it’s too easy to accidentally put a camel in the wrong place, especially on the iphone. Decent online play, but hard to find an opponent.

Tix  - You place cubes on a board, move them, activate them and inactivate them. The goal is to inactivate all your opponent’s pieces. Play against a friend with pass-and-play or against 3 levels of computer opponent. Includes achievements. Great graphics and smooth play.

Trax - Simple, deep game, which could just as well have gone in the “classics” section, given that it’s widely admired and was invented in 1980. Place pieces on a board and try to be the first either to form a loop or a line in your own color. Play against a friend with pass-and-play or against the computer opponent.

Versus - Score points by moving pieces to various locations on the board, but your pieces can be moved by opponent pieces which act like magnets, or even converted to the other side. There are 2 game-modes (fast and slow), and you can play against a friend via pass-and-play, but note: there is no computer opponent.

Virus Wars - Deep, rich game that originated as a paper-and-pencil game in Russia, or so I’ve heard. Well done app with online play, bluetooth play against friends, or play against an AI that can be monstrously hard. Comes with a good tutorial and graphics that nod cutely to the game’s paper-and-pencil origins.

Vorble - 3D game played on a sphere tiled with hexagons and pentagons, like a soccer ball. You battle for control of the tiles. Play online, locally, or against AI. It’s also got a bunch of variants to play, a number of achievements, and a leaderboard on GameCenter.

Wizard Hex - Transmute your pieces and use special piece powers to gain territory. Maybe the best graphics I’ve seen – like playing with enchanted amulets from Middle Earth. Play against the computer, with a friend via pass-and-play, or over the internet. Features voice chat and internet leaderboards. For 2-4 players.

If that still isn’t enough for you, check out this list of abstract games from ipadboardgames.com. There isn’t a ton of overlap between their list and mine: they have games that include luck elements, single-player puzzles, and some stuff which doesn’t meet the strict inclusion criteria of my list. One nice thing is every game is fairly thoroughly reviewed.

Last updated 10.9.13
Nick Bentley

See also: my definitive guide to abstract games online

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