Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Abalone at 25, new classic or just another game?

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
When it first appeared in the late 1980s and 1990 Abalone caused quite a stir and was widely available in non-game retailers. It won a bunch of awards at various game festivals and publications and the company even started a "North American Federation of Abalone." (Oddly, while abalone is a fish, the game's name is either a play off the graphic design of the word which can be read "3 2 ONE" on its side or from an odd combo of Latin and English  AB (Latin away from) + ALONE = ABALONE (Unity in strength) according to Vol. 1 No. 1 of the NAFA Newsletter in 1991. Evidently there was no issue No. 2.

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
Yet despite being widely available, still played and an award-winning game, Abalone is still no real contender for the "Classic" crown. I think the basic problem for the game is that there's really not all that much there there. One problem endemic to evenly matched perfect information games is the tendency to be  drawish. While it's very hard to actually stalemate a game of Abalone (I have read that it's possible) the course of the game between two evenly matched players is likely to be very much like a sumo match. Am awful lot of pushing and shoving that;s opportunistic but very little in the way of actual strategy.

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.


  1. I read with great interest your contribution about the game Abalone (also called Sumito, Marble Push or Wrestle Chess – all better names than Abalone according to me).
    Your description contains a part of truth and I dare say, some errors. I don’t intend to comment every line of it, but there’s one point I really want to discuss : your assumption that there’s very little actual strategy in the game.
    There used to be an interesting aceboard forum dealing with abalone strategy (in french), that unfortunately disappeared on april 23, when Aceboard went bankrupt , the day before you published your article. What a coincidence, and what a pity !
    Anyway, I think you should have a look at the approximately 13 000 plays registered on http://moggames.net/. What’s Moggames ? Moggames is the only place on the web where you can play abalone against other human players.
    Some of the best abalone players in the world play there. Have a look at their games, play with them, talk with them, and you will be convinced that strategy really exists in the game Abalone.

    1. I'm not entirely sure that you made your point. I don't doubt that Abalone is still pretty popular and that it has devoted fans. But just because a game gets played a lot and has fans isn't really evidence that there's much strategy there. Fluxx, for example, is hugely popular and yet no one would say it's very strategic. (I don't think I said there was NO strategy in Abalone, just not an awful lot of it for a perfect information style game.)

      A better rebuttal (I could be wrong, after all) would discuss some strategies, maybe outline a few that are well-regarded among regular players or point to the existence of some literature discussing the strategy of the game. As I said, so far there is just one article on Abalone strategy on Boardgame Geek, which is pretty sparse for a game that's been out so long and sold so many copies. Even Fluxx has four!