|Abalone in close up|
With a new variant for Abalone called Off Board apparently on its way to America, it's worth taking a look at how the original game has fared now that a quarter century has passed.
Abalone is in that family of games known as "abstracts" or "perfect information" games, so called because there are no hidden or random elements. Both players have complete information about the board situation at all times and perfect control over their own moves. The classic games of chess and go are probably the best known of this type of game, but creating new ones has been a fascination for game designers for generations.
Yet despite thousands of attempts, no new abstract has ever really threatened the preeminence of chess in the West or Go in the East. While neither of those classic games is the top dog among the denizens of Boardgame Geek's gamer hobbyists, both rate reasonably high and neither has any real context in the general culture. Both Chess and Go have their own devoted cadres of hobbyists with their own Internet sites, publications, tournaments, professional players and general infiltration into the popular culture. Some modern games have also achieved this status such as Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering, but there are themed games with random elements and/or hidden information.
|Standard set up for Abalone|
There were cash prizes for tournament winners and the other trappings of new game hype. I remember seeing a very nice over sized wooden version of the game played at Origins around 1995.
And it is a very nice looking game. The large glass marbles are striking and the unique, patented game board are very eye-pleasing.
Abalone is hardly dead. BoardGame Geek reported plays show it has steady fan base. In 2011, for example, there were 31 to110 plays reported each month by between 1 and 27 unique users, a very respectable pace for a two-decade old game. Its wide availability is attested by the fact that 3,555 BGG members report owning a copy.
Abalone's claim to fame is it's unique "pushing" mechanic, where the players battle over the board by using groups of two or three marbles to literally push a smaller group of one or two marbles as part of their move. If a marble is pushed off the board it is captured and the first player to push off six marbles wins the game.
It can be a very fast playing game, illustrated by many of ts fans who report playing a couple of dozen games in a session. it's easy to teach to children and unlike many abstracts it has a nice tactile element that's hard to replicate on a screen, so I think it has some resistance to being replaced entirely by electronic versions.
The original game is just two-player, but more marbles in additional colors can be purchased and there are some multiplayer variants. I have a third set of marbles and have played the 3-player variant. The new Off Board edition appears to be a 4-player version of the game.
|"A New Classic" Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct. 1991|
And this, I think, is its problem, While there are plenty of players who aren't into having a heavy dose of strategy in their games, they don't tend to be the players of perfect information abstracts. Abalone is, really, what I like to call a "trivial" game, in that it can be fun, but there's little incentive to indulging in a lot of analysis. In other genres game like this tend to have heavy luck elements such as the card games Fluxx and Munchkin or dice games like Cosmic Wimpout or Can't Stop. Not so much with perfect information abstracts where there's too much of a risk of becoming a solvable puzzle like Tic Tac Toe.
Among all the forum postings about Abalone on BGG there's just one short one on strategy, that points out the value of holding the center space on the board. That's just not much to build a "classic" game on after 25 years.