Sunday, January 13, 2013

The 8x8 Board


Chess has been with us, in one form or another, for centuries.  Scholars still debate from where we got chess, and even why it is called 'chess'.  It is a very established game, and even those who don't know how to play, know what it is.  Because it is ubiquitous, chess is a good family game.  There is a global community of chess players, and an international body to rank players.  One can find dozens of good, simple websites to explain the rules, and hundreds of books to explain the theory.

Chess sets are also very easy to find.  They come in many, many different themes, in wood or pewter or resin or plastic.  Everything from Nintendo or Star Wars characters to historical battle participants.  If you are very industrious, you could make your own, perhaps out of clay, Legos, wood, or whatever. That might be a fun family project.

The chess board is setup the same way every time.  And while it may look daunting at first to learn, there are plenty of mnemonics to help.  "White on right."  "Queen on her own color."  And these pieces go alphabetically from center to sides: Bishop, Knight, Rook.

Chess teaches sportsmanship and patience. The game itself also exercises not just short term memory but working memory.  A player has to not only remember what the plan was from turn to turn, but while formulating that plan, the player plays out the game in their head.

“If I move here, then my opponent would likely move here or here.  If they move here, then I will move
here.  And then they will move...”

...on a board, three turns from now, that I’m imagining in my head.

One also has to not only solve the problem in front of themselves, “How do I accomplish this objective?”, but one has to deduce what an opponent’s response will be.  What objective are they trying to accomplish, and at what point will they break from that to prevent me from reaching mine.

There is also the risk taking aspect to the game.  One shouldn't become too attached to any individual piece.  It may be worthwhile to sacrifice a piece in order to win the game.  The question is, how much risk, and when?

The game is, no doubt, brilliant, not just in its game play, but in the positive aspects it can have on children.  But the game has equally monumental drawbacks.

Astute readers will notice that white is using the Spanish opening.  Black is using the Berlin defense.  And that underscores the problem with the game.  Chess has such a rigid structure, that there is a finite number of ways the game can end.  That is what has given computers the chance to beat humans, through simple brute force.  The computer can evaluate every possible move, and then pick the one that leads to the highest number of favorable outcomes.  It can then make that calculation over again after each turn, and, through simple brute force, beat a human.

Coupling that rigid structure with the age of the game, and, for humans, the game becomes more about study and memorization than it does about creativity and problem solving.  This opening, the Spanish opening, gets its name from the Spaniard, Ruy Lopez, that quite literally wrote the book on it in 1561.

It was this sort of brute-force solution that prompted Omar Syed to publish the rules to an alternative to chess in 2002.  He wanted a game that relied on creativity to such a degree that it would confound a computer, but was simple enough that his then four-year-old son, Aamir, could play.

The result is Arimaa.


Arimaa can be played with a standard chess set, or with a set you make yourself.   Z-Man Games publishes an Arimaa set, too.

Instead of pawns, Arimaa has rabbits.  Each piece is a type of animal, and each animal is meant to be bigger than the one that follows.  Sort of like the old lady that swallowed a dog.  She swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, and so on.

Arimaa has the elephant, which is bigger than the camel, which is bigger than the horses, which are bigger than the dogs, which are bigger than the cats, which are bigger than the rabbits.  And that size relationship is important.  During a game, a larger animal can trap, push, or pull a smaller animal.

The objective of the game is simple, get a rabbit to the other side.  And since each player has eight, it sounds easy enough.

Unlike chess, pieces don’t have complicated and archaic movements to memorize.  On each turn, a player gets four spaces of movement.  That’s it.  Those four spaces can be used by a single piece, or divided among any number of pieces (obviously up to four).

There is something to keep in mind.  When you decide to use one of your animals to push or pull one of your opponent's smaller animals, you spend one of your movement allowance on your opponent's piece.

Unlike chess, pieces are not captured.  There are four pits on the board.  If any animal finds himself alone over one of these pits, they fall in, and are removed from the board.  As long as there is a friend in an adjacent space, to hold a hand, as it were, the space is completely safe and just like any other space.

So far, the game is simple, and these rules alone offer enough variety to make a computer work harder.  But wait... there’s more.

Unlike chess, there is no prescribed starting position.  Each player may set up their pieces in any order along the first two rows on their side.  Baffling.  Computers seem to think so.

And the possibilities for creativity are staggering.  The rules are simple, the concept is simple, yet there is so much potential in this little game.  I simply love it.   If I personally never get around to playing another game of chess, I won’t complain.

Like chess, this game makes a good correspondence game.  Your child could play against a penpal.  Though, I don’t guess people have penpals anymore.  It would be more likely against granddad via email.

This game could also be set up in a corner of the house and left alone.  You and your child taking a turn when you have a free moment and happen to pass by.

But the game isn’t perfect.

Like chess, it is only two players.  For a family of four, it can be a little anti-social.

And while my son does enjoy this game, he has never beaten me at it.  That isn't a complaint.  Even though he hasn't won, he keeps trying.  And he should.  I don't think children should be allowed to get discouraged and give up.  They should be coaxed into trying again.  Trust me, one day my son will beat me.  And one day, he’ll find that I can't beat  him.

The reason, however, for this imbalance is, this game has no random chance at all.  It all comes down how much thought one puts into it.  Get distracted, lose focus, and your opponent gains a huge advantage.  There are other games where one can be more relaxed and more social.  So, when gathered around the table on a Friday night, having laughs and fun while playing games, you won’t find yourself playing this.

Chess and Arimaa are a couple of very good games, but they may not appeal to everyone. So, what, you may ask, if we added lasers?


Khet is just such a game. It is a two-player game where pieces move on a board and in a way that is familiar to chess and Arimaa players. The difference, for this game, is the laser.

In opposite corners are small laser diodes on permanent pieces. The players take turns moving their pieces around the board, and firing their lasers. Some of the pieces have mirrored sides, to deflect the laser. Some of the pieces can be stacked. When a laser strikes the non-mirrored side of a piece and causes the translucent plastic to glow, the piece is removed. The object is to eliminate the opponent's king, or Pharaoh.

The game can feel a bit like a gimmick with the laser, but the theme of the game will appeal to a different audience. The frivolous fun the laser adds isn't to be underestimated, either. The concert of pieces reflecting or deflecting the laser expands the attention of the player and adds a new dimension to any strategies that may carry over from chess and Arimaa.

Like chess, Khet does have prescribed starting positions, but the game does have different configurations. The pieces could start in one of the different prescribed set-ups.

Like Arimaa, the game has very simple rules for movement. The different pieces on the board just have different properties in regards to mirrored edges and stack-ability. On a players turn, they simply move a single piece one space, or turn a single piece one face.

Chess has a defined beginning, middle, and end game. In chess, the opening few moves help set a tone, marking the center of the board. Once that tone is established, there is a defined middle game where the players try to control the center and develop pieces. As an advantage is realized for one player, the game moves into a defined end game. Since the Khet pieces start distributed through-out the board and not just on each players' side, the game has an in media res sort of feel. The players aren't starting at the beginning, they are jumping into the action, and feel like they are in the middle game of chess.

The game does have a few drawbacks. Like chess and Arimaa, the game is two-player. The game is also solely based on focus and skill.

The biggest drawback, however, is acquiring the game. Unlike Arimaa and chess, which can be played with anything made or found, Khet relies on the lasers and mirrors.

The game also doesn't have the age and volume of literature of chess and doesn't have the community of chess or Arimaa. In some regards, however, this is a good thing. Since no one has written a book on every gambit in Khet, it still feels fresh and original.

With either of these three games, players can develop concentration and memory skills while they build multi-steps plans to win.

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