It's the last issue of 2008, so it seems a good time to look at what is probably the best game to be designed in the last decade.
Interestingly, for a game worth such high praise, it is a game which has yet to be commercially produced, although there are indications Z-Man Games may well be changing that with a commercial set in the new year.
The game in question is Arimaa, a brilliantly designed board game by Aamir Syed and Omar Syed, who brought the game to the public in 2002.
When you see Arimaa set up on its 8X8 board your mind is immediately drawn to chess. While the game was obviously influenced by chess through its development, anything you know about chess in terms of moves, mechanics, rules, or strategy will do you little, if any good, with this game.
Arimaa is beautifully a completely unique gaming experience.
Arimaa was designed to be difficult for computers to play. Something that is not the case with chess where computers are now at least equal to all but the very best players. With that goal in mind the number of possible moves at each turn in Arimaa is about 500 times that of chess.
To show that Arimaa is beyond a computer there is a reward of $10,000 for the first person or company who can build a computer program (with off-the-shelf programming tools) that can defeat a selected human Arimaa player prior to 2020.
As stated, Arimaa is played on a chessboard, except that four squares are distinguished as trap squares. A piece isolated on a trap square (unsupported by an orthogonally adjacent piece of the same colour), is removed from the game. That is the only way to capture a piece in the game, so the four squares are key locations to both attack and defend during the game.
Each player begins with an array of 16 pieces. These are, in order from strongest to weakest, one elephant, one camel, two horses, two dogs, two cats, and eight rabbits. The pieces may be arranged in any order a player wants, along the two closest ranks to his side of the board.
The objective of the game is to move a rabbit of one's own colour onto the home rank of the opponent. One also wins should they eliminate their opponent's eight rabbits.
Unlike chess, each piece in Arimaa has the same basic move ability. A turn consists of making one to four steps. A step has a piece move into an unoccupied square one space left, right, forward, or backward, except that rabbits may not step backward. The steps of a turn may be made by a single piece or distributed between several pieces in any order.
Stronger pieces may also move weaker pieces around the board, allowing them to drag opponent pieces to the aforementioned trap squares. A player may use two steps of a turn to dislodge an opposing piece with a stronger friendly piece which is adjacent orthogonally (think rook move). For example, a friendly dog may move an opposing rabbit or cat, but not a dog, horse, camel, or elephant. The stronger piece may pull or push the weaker piece. For example, when pulling, the stronger piece steps into an empty square, and the square it came from is occupied by the weaker piece.
The relative strengths of the pieces is a key factor in Arimaa, seen again in the ability to 'freeze' pieces. A piece which is adjacent, (directly beside) a stronger opposing piece is frozen, unless it is also adjacent to a friendly piece. Frozen pieces may not be moved by the owner.
The interaction of pieces relative to their strength adds incredible strategic depth to Arimaa.
Yet, the mechanics are strikingly simple, since pieces all move the same, and you only have four steps per turn to work with.
While limited in the amount of movement per turn, determining what an opponent might do in response to anything you do is difficult, because a player can move one, or up to four pieces on a turn. As a result you are often working on your own strategy, while keeping yourself in a position to react to a number of threats from an opponent on any given turn.
You can find the rule set for Arimaa online, and it can be played using chess pieces, but really you will want to create a custom set because this game deserves its own play pieces. Fantastic game, with simplicity, elegance and depth. Make sure you give it a try.
-- CALVIN DANIELS
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Dec. 31, 2008 - Yorkton, SK. Canada