If I said, “iconic ancient abstract strategy game” I’m willing to bet that many of you out there would think Chess. Chess is a popular and iconic game in the west and I find that most people know what Chess is even if they don’t know how to play it. The game Go is like that in the east. An iconic abstract strategy game Go has been around for millennia. That’s right millennia. Go originated over 2,000 years ago in China. Sometimes it is erroneously likened to Chess even though they are not similar (there are much more similar games to Chess in Japan called Shogi and in China called Xiangqi).
Go presently has about 27 million players worldwide. That seems like a large number but remember the population of China is now measured in billions. I’ve found that Go isn’t to common in the U.S. I’ve only ever found two stores that sell Go sets (one was a novelty shop that just sold Eastern items, the other is a legitimate board game store) and the only Go players I’ve ever met were online. Since I admire Go’s complex strategy and simple rules I figured I’d give Go some attention and maybe spread the world about this amazing game.
Overview: Go is played by two players on a large 19×19 grid. Go pieces are small “stones” and a player places one stone on the board per turn. Unlike a lot of games with a similar board Go stones are placed on intersections rather then on the squares. The object of Go is to capture as much of the board and your opponents pieces as possible by surrounding them with your pieces.
Mechanics Overview: Go is a very simple game. A Go player will find themselves thinking strategically and tactically as they try to capture territory. Players will need to learn to seize large areas of the board and protect it from encroaching enemy stones. The scoring mechanic is also very interesting as players win points for how much board they control exclusively which is a mechanic I haven’t seen in many other games.
I find the mechanics somewhat similar to Blokus and I wonder if the inventor of that game didn’t have Go in mind.
How is it played?: A beauty of this game is it is very simple. Easier to learn and more complex then even Chess.On a player’s turn they place a single stone on the board.Stones can be placed anywhere that is open so invading another player’s territory is a big part of the game. Stones can only live with “liberties.” A liberty is an open intersection next to the stone (thus a stone placed in the middle of the board with no other stones around it will have 4 liberties). If a stone ever has no liberties it is captured and added to the point total of the other player. Stones of the same color right next to each other share liberties which can make them harder to capture.
Scoring is the one thing about this game that I find complicated. Players have to count up all the territory enclosed by their stones and add any captured pieces to the total. It’s a simple concept but the board is so big this task can be daunting. The first few times I played it was on the computer and I was more then happy to let it figure it out for me. After some practice though scoring becomes fairly easy and there are a few tricks players use to make it simpler.
Another interesting thing about this game is how it ends. There is no set ending to it. Players have to agree on ending the match. Often times there will come a point in the game where no headway can be made by either player. It is considered impolite to decline an offer to stop and continue playing in this situation. Many times scoring is unnecessary because one of the players will realize their position is worse and surrender.
The Downside?: I don’t have any complaints about the mechanics and the game itself. Who am I to argue with 2,000+ years of eastern history anyway? But there are some meta-game downsides. First, the game is going to require a lot of time and practice to get good at. That’s just the way it is with these ancient strategy type games. It can be played casually just like Chess but don’t expect to compete with any regular practitioners. Second, if you’re living anywhere but the Far East good luck finding an opponent. Through the miracles of the internet it’s not actually that hard, but I like playing my board games face to face. Also as a new player, playing against people on the internet sometimes got me flamed for being bad (although I must say there were many players willing to teach). If playing over the computer and getting kicked around by good players doesn’t bother you this will be less of a problem.
Conclusion: If you’re a strategy gamer like me try out Go a few times to give yourself some culture. Strategically it has no parallel. Some lucky ones might even find a club or another practicing player somewhere. People more interested in the casual, pick up Blockus, that’ll be more your speed.
Interesting Facts: Aside from the deep rich history of the game and the famous Eastern philosophers and personalities who have played it did you know that Go is one of the few games that people have yet to design a competent computer program to play? Programs that have been created are rocked by Go masters in a matter that was described in one article that I read as “pathetic and sad, [the computer was] unable to realize that it lost long ago.”
Why do I say this? The machines man. If you ever find yourself facing Skynet as the last defense of humanity challenge that sucker to a game of Go!
RescueRangerMatt signing off.