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More Morro

August 5, 2011
Bones

When I’m busy, I sometimes post rules to games I’ve invented without testing. The results usually lack…uh…any redeeming qualities.

One such game, which I posted a few months ago, is called Morro, the product of my desire to design an N-in-a-row game which is strategic, drawless, and balanced (most N-in-a-row games are tactical and have problems either with imbalance or draws, and they also bore me)

Against the odds, Morro has given me more food for thought than I expected it to. So now I bloviate. First the rules:

Morro is a game for two players on a square grid (I recommend 7×7 to start) with white and black stones.

Definitions:

  1. Row: any line of consecutively adjacent, like-colored stones. Rows may be oriented either orthogonally or diagonally. The length of a row is the number of stones in it.
  2. Drop: to place a stone on any empty space.

Rules:

  1. To start, White drops a single stone.
  2. From then on, starting with Black, the players take turns. On your turn, you must drop a number of stones equal to the length of the longest row (of either color) on the board. If there aren’t enough empty spaces left to do so, just fill up the board.
  3. When you create a row longer than any row created by your opponent up until that point, you become the leader.
  4. The game ends when the board is full, and the leader at that time wins.

When I first posted the rules, I got several messages to the effect that this would probably be a dumb mess, and I agree that the rules sort of suggest as much on first glance. But it’s not what it seems.

What’s it about?

The first key to understanding Morro is recognizing that both players often have an incentive to avoid taking the lead, or build long rows. Why? Let’s say you’re the first player to build 2-in-a-row. Up till then, you and your opponent have been going along placing one stone per turn. But when you build a row of two, your opponent gets to place two stones on his next turn. Because he gets first crack at placing an extra stone, he now has a little material advantage. Every time you retake the lead, you give a little material advantage to your opponent (Morro’s similar to my game Ketchup in this way). Of course, you have to take the lead sometime, so the material advantage you give away becomes increasingly subsidiary to positional issues as the game proceeds.

So, what do you do in the early game instead of trying to take the lead? You place stones so that, in the endgame, your opponent won’t be able to form long rows, but you will. I call this “clogging the lanes”. It involves carefully spacing your own stones (for example, spacing your stones a chess knight’s move away from each other seems to be important) and noting that the midpoint of each column and diagonal on the board is important: by placing a stone at the midpoint of a column you cut in half the longest row your opponent can build in that column.

But then your opponent’s stones get in the way and therein lies the game’s interest.

I hope this game turns out to be good, because some of it’s formal features are nice. It’s drawless, and I believe balanced even on tiny boards due to a cold element – the game is more about timing and position than about material.  And the rules are simple.

In one sense, the game is a success because it doesn’t revolve around the same tactical look-ahead as other n-in-a-row games. That was my original motivation in designing it.

On the other hand, the jury’s out about another possible problem. It turns out that Morro is hard. Try figuring out who has a forced win on a 5×5 board to see what I mean. I still have no idea. I’ve discovered some useful concepts, like clogging the lanes and knight’s-move spacing, but it could end up that Morro is like Othello, where the strategy is too obscure for it’s own good.

Time will tell. If I keep discovering more strategy as I play, this could end up being good. My intuition fails me presently.

A note on negative feedback

I mentioned earlier that Morro is like my game Ketchup in that both feature negative feedback (when you take the lead, a little penalty comes along with it). For those interested in designing games with negative feedback, I think a comparison is illustrative. In 2 ways, I like Morro’s negative feedback more than Ketchup’s:

  1. The feedback mechanism isn’t obvious – it’s more “baked in” and less “added on”. That may also be a problem, because the rules don’t let on what the game is about, which makes people suspect that it’s plain or stupid before playing. But this is true of all the games I love – they all hide themselves – so it’s a problem I’d rather keep. The game that inspired me to design games was Hex, and I remember wondering, after reading the rules, how there could ever be a good game in there, and then I played it and I went slack-jawed in wonder at how wrong I was. I want to recreate that in my own games.
  2. You don’t need a scoring track like in Ketchup to figure out how many stones to play. You know at a glance.

At this point, I have much more confidence that Ketchup is a good game. If Morro turns out to be bad, its negative feedback mechanism won’t be at fault. Rather it’ll be the win condition’s fault.

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