Four Cutting Boards
One of the hallmarks of abstract games is their low barrier of entry. Easy to learn, difficult to master, as you nerds love to say.
Manolis Vranas and Jamie Sajdak’s Shobu — which Google Translate informs me means “processing unit,” although I have no idea how they got that from the kanji for “victory” and “defeat” — is so easy that its three rules are printed on the back of the box. How delightfully brazen! Which is why, although I’m usually loathe to list a game’s rules, I’m going to teach you how to play Shobu right this instant.
One. Move one of your stones up to two spaces in any direction.
Oh, there’s more to it than that. As you can tell from your first glance, Shobu certainly lives up to its “beautifully crafted” tagline. Each copy arrives with four cutting boards stained in two different colors, polished river stones in black and white — no guarantee they’ve ever seen the underside of an actual river — and a length of rope. Smells good, too. Don’t let anybody tell you that board games can’t also be kitchen implements.
The reality of that rule is that you can move one of your stones that also happens to be on your side of the rope up to two spaces. Want to slide your stone forward? Sideways? Backward? One space, two spaces? It’s all legal. Pick any of the eight stones on your side and slide its polish across that stained wood. Unless you bump into another stone. Or unless you plummet off the edge of the board. Those are, in official technical parlance, “big no-nos.”
And although you might not realize it, this rule is already the oaken heart of the entire game. As every abstract gamer knows, those limitations are far more important than any sense of freedom. It isn’t long before your potential moves are hamstrung. Crud, they begin the game hamstrung, because your stones can only move forward, whether straight or diagonally. It’s only natural that after a few moves every stone, your own and your opponent’s, will be blocking moves. And that’s important, because the second rule is entirely reliant on the first.
Two. Match that move with another of your stones on a board of the opposite color.
This is where Shobu stops behaving like a processing unit and starts looking like a match to the death. So you moved a stone two steps forward? Now you get to move another of your stones two steps forward — provided it’s on the other color of board. More than that, while your first move was “passive,” halted by anything it bumped into, this is your “aggressive” move, able to push a single stone in front of it. Even off the board. In fact, that’s your ultimate goal. So start shoving around those opposing stones.
Just like that, it all clicks into place. Every turn is built around two moves that are really one move. Your first stone slid two spaces forward? Then your next stone does the same, except it can bully a rival stone out of position. Of course, the inverse is also true. Want to make an aggressive move that pushes an enemy stone off the board, but can’t first make a parallel move work? Too bad. You’ll have to figure out something else.
This very soon generates an intriguing sense of give and take, bully or block. Sometimes both at once. A single passive move might wedge itself in between two enemy stones, or put a friendly stone behind it — two stones are too heavy to push — or simply slide out of reach of an enemy stone, although the boards are so small that very few spaces are isolated for long. With that same move, you might trigger an aggressive action that removes an enemy stone and blocks a potential passive move on your opponent’s next turn. It’s a lot to ask, and not every move will pull triple duty like that. But preparatory moves can often have rippling consequences, including major landslides that upend the situation on two boards at once.
Three. Clear all opposing stones from a single board.
That’s it. Each board has four stones of each color. Remove all enemy stones from a single board and relish your opponent’s banishment to the holy mountain.
It will surprise precisely nobody that this is easier said than done. It may prove more surprising that this is when it finally gets truly interesting. Only having a single stone on a board doesn’t mean the game has been thrown; if anything, it brings your possible moves into sharper clarity. At its best, I’ve witnessed matches where both players were down to one stone on different boards, with desperate attritional exchanges happening on the other boards. Feast and famine both at once, by both players at once. In such a situation every option is loaded.
Then again, it doesn’t always go that way. In practice, while the endgame shines, that’s only after the field has taken shape and every move’s impact has been imbued with a certain weight. Meanwhile, early and midgame moves often have the appearance of careful preparation rather than the actuality of it. Possible moves are so limited that certain optimums become readily apparent: stack your stones behind each other, hide between rival stones, stay out of range of diagonal thrusts, and be ready to accept that in spite of your preparations, pieces are plentiful and the boards are constricted, and that means stones will be traded tit for tat. Naturally, that doesn’t entirely diminish the game — it matters which stone you’re trading, and where, and what you’re opening up by those sudden omissions.
But just as each match’s final half is often directly cerebral, the first is often formless. There are good moves and bad moves, but two equivalent players are likely to trade pieces until the final conundrum slips into focus.
Or maybe I just suck at the midgame.
Welcome to the reality of evaluating abstract games. The things are notoriously difficult to assess. There are exceptions, of course. Particularly in retrospect, after a game has endured a few decades and seen its adherents debate and expound its strategies, all’s fair in calling an abstract game a masterpiece. But in the moment, these things are often more about novelty than enduring quality. The double-sided pieces of The Duke. The mirrored moves of Onitama. The summoning powers of Tash-Kalar. These each demand brain-burning analysis, preemption of an opponent’s intentions, and utmost spatial precision. It’s only natural to quail at the prospect of saying you don’t get it. Like I mentioned in a recent essay, to lose at chess is to fail at life. That’s a sacrifice you’d be stupid to make.
Which is why I’m calling Shobu a masterpiece.
Nah. I’m not quite ready to call it that. To its credit, it produces real moments of tension between measured caution and calculated aggression. There are some tremendously difficult choices to make, in particular once the boards thin out and someone takes a real stab at victory. Before that moment arrives, however, I’m less convinced there’s as much to explore as it might first seem. A masterpiece, perhaps not. Instead, I’ll call it an abstract game I’m willing to investigate further.