Abstract (themeless) strategy games such as chess, draughts, Go and Reversi/Othello are among the most popular and enduring that people play. How does Abalone stack up against these?
I was provided with a copy of this game for review purposes.
The first thing you notice when you open Abalone’s eye-catching hexagonal box is how simple its contents are. Two pleasingly solid sets of 14 marbles – one black, one white – and a black hexagonal board. That’s it.
There are no convoluted rules to learn: it’s more like draughts than chess in this respect. The instruction booklet, such as it is, is just four pages long. From opening up the packaging, you can be all clued up and playing for the first time within five minutes.
The board itself initially seems light and plasticky but is actually strong and durable and stands up to repeated play. It comprises 61 holes that can hold individual marbles. A six-sided ‘moat’ runs around the outside, ready to catch any marbles that are pushed over the edge.
And that’s the aim of Abalone. Players take it in turns to move between one and three connected marbles in an attempt to push six of their opponent’s pieces off the board. This is accomplished by achieving numerical superiority. Two marbles in a line can push a single opponent. Three can push up to two. But since pieces in Abalone can move in any of the six hexagonal directions, a player can have strength along one axis and yet be vulnerable on a different one. It’s essential to marshal your marbles effectively and outmanoeuvre your opponent – who, of course, is trying to do the same.
That’s the essential challenge of Abalone. Can you find the right balance between defensive solidity and attacking potential? Can you devise multi-move combinations to keep one step ahead? The more aggressively you pursue victory, the greater the risk of opening yourself up to your opponent’s attacks.
That constantly shifting strategic balance is what makes the game most appealing. However, it’s also the game’s biggest weakness, as I soon found out. I played my first game with Toby, whose instinct is to go all-out. We had an enjoyable game of attack and counter-attack that lasted less than 15 minutes. Next I played against Isaac. His natural style is cautious and defensive. We soon reached a situation where both of us were reluctant to over-commit. Stalemate.
Apparently this is quite a common problem with Abalone. A moderate player can frustrate even a skilled opponent by playing not to lose rather than trying to win. An ordinary game may take 20 minutes. But a defensive stalemate can easily drag on for an hour or more without resolution.
It’s a fundamental flaw that has been addressed with different starting layouts and rule changes to encourage more adventurous play. Nonetheless, we found it all a bit frustrating when games got bogged down.
Having said that, Abalone has a lot to commend it. Its simplicity is appealing. And yet the fact you have to consider potential attacks from up to six directions gives the gameplay a complexity that is closer to chess than draughts. I also liked the way the raised edges around each hole on the board facilitate easy pushing of sets of marbles in any direction, rather than having to pick them up and move them individually. Marbles also make a satisfying ‘thunk’ when they tip over the edge into the moat. The game really shines in the small details.
Abalone is a two-player game for ages seven and over. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for players much younger than that. Kara (six) is an experienced game-player and picked up the rules easily enough but soon grew bored. She isn’t sophisticated enough yet to grasp long-term strategy. But for Isaac (ten) and Toby (eight), this was much more appealing. Indeed Toby won his second game against me fair and square. He’ll be a chess grandmaster one day …
My conclusion? Abalone will definitely appeal to players of a strategic bent. So if you prefer chess to Pie Face, you will probably like this. It’s simple to learn, hard to master and requires a playing style that is different to other similar games. The game didn’t catch our imagination immediately. However, three weeks after our first attempt, the boys and I are still playing it. It’s a slow-burner that we will keep coming back to after others are long forgotten.
Abalone is available at a recommended retail price of £24.99.