Blither is a simple capture and territory game for two players.
Each player takes all the pieces of one color.
Players place one piece of each shape along the two sides of the gameboard closest to themselves, with the only restriction that no piece should start next to any other pieces.
Choose a starting player.
Players are trying to capture groups of their opponent’s pieces. The goal is to be the first to have captured at least one of each of their opponent’s three piece types.
On a turn, the player moves one of their pieces already on the gameboard one space to an adjacent unoccupied space. After they move, the player must add a piece from their supply matching the type of the space they moved onto, placing it onto any unoccupied space on the gameboard.
Finally, all of their opponent’s groups are evaluated (each type forms a different group), and any groups that have no liberties (empty spaces around them) are removed from the board. The capturing player keeps one of each type of piece that was removed, displaying it clearly on their side of the board. If a player has one of each of the three types of their opponent’s pieces, the player immediately wins the game.
In this first move of the game, the Red player moves their Star piece onto a Square space on the board. They then choose any space on the board to add another Square piece.
In this example, the Red player is moving their Square piece onto another star space on the board (next to the Blue player’s group of Circle pieces). They will then add another Star piece on the space indicated, after which the Blue player’s group of two Circle pieces will have no empty spaces around it, and both pieces in the Blue Circle group will be removed. The red player will keep one of the Blue Circle pieces and display it on their side of the board.
Blither was inspired by the Abstract Games Magazine Unusual Board Spaces Game Design Competition, specifically, by the game Hox, which is described as an example for the competition. It was also inspired by Blooms, by Nick Bentley, and Slither, by Corey Clark. Mechanics from both games have been adapted here, and the name Blither is a portmanteau of the two. I am especially happy with this design because, at least to me, Blither also feels like both of those games.
You can watch a game of Blither on YouTube from when it was played as part of the Twin Cities Playtest event in May 2021. I do also introduce the game and the rules before they play.
About the Components
The number of pieces of each type is not meant to be limited. But in practice, I have not seen a game where any player used more than 14 of one piece type. (That said, I haven’t seen that many games yet.) It would of course be theoretically possible to use many more than that. I have played a game or two with a limited number of pieces (9 of each type), and that seemed to go okay as well.
I have spent some time working on 3D printed components for a physical version of the game, but I haven’t finished printing them out yet.
Why is it interesting
If you’ve played Blooms and/or Slither, you already know why those games are interesting. Briefly, here are my takes:
Blooms feels like an expanded version of Go, both because it’s on a hexagonal board, but also because there are four colors in the game. (Each player owns two of them.) The choice of which color to place is an expansion of the decision space in a similar way to how there are additional liberties for each board space. (There are 4 in Go because it’s a square grid versus 6 in Blooms because it’s played hexagons.) I am by no means an expert Blooms player, but my impression is that you must analyze each color’s liberties alone as well as in tandem with your other color, which is more than just double the thinking, but fortunately, the board is much smaller overall. Abstract Strategy Games magazine had a feature article on Blooms (and hexagonal Go in general) in their 20th Issue, and I do recommend it.
Slither is a very interesting version of a connection game because you get to move your pieces. As a connection game, the goal is to form a connected group of stones from one side of the board to the other. But because you get to move your pieces, (and the name is particularly apt here), those lines of stones end up slithering around the board over the course of the game. In Slither, you move a stone, and then place a stone, (although unlike Blither, the move is optional). This is, of course, an expansion of the decision space of a traditional single-placement connection game (Hex is probably the most well-known) because the movement opens up many more possibilities for connection in a single turn. David Ploog has written a nice article about Slither that introduces the rules and goes into more depth on why the game is interesting.
Blither combines some of the mechanics of both Blooms and Slither. But I’d argue it does so in such a way that expands the decision space in a similar way to how both of those games expand the decision spaces in respect to their direct predecessors. In terms of how it feels to me to play Blither, I’d argue that Blither is to Blooms what Slither is to Hex.
Blooms and Go and Slither and Hex are all in a family of abstract strategy games that connoisseurs of such games refer to as combinatorial. Combinatorial games are games for 2-players with no reliance on luck or hidden information. Some definitions say the game also has to be finite (meaning it can’t end in a draw). People who value combinatorial games also tend to value the following game attributes: elegance and simplicity. I could definitely write an entire article about just the previous sentence, but I won’t go into detail about what that means just now. Blither is combinatorial, but it might be that the number of components (hopefully not the number and complexity of the rules) is beginning to impinge on its claim to elegance and simplicity.
Right now, I feel like Blither is one of the better games I’ve designed. I hope you’ll give it a try.
I updated the rules explanation in this post to my current favorite version (v1.1). Also added a couple of visual examples.
I’ve been thinking about criteria for reviewing abstract strategy games. In particular, I’d like to end up with a list of ratings, (not just one) that give the reader a sense of how the game plays in comparison to other abstract strategy games.
As an aside, I’m not using the term combinatorial, although I do prefer those games, both because I don’t want to limit the scope of games reviewed to those criteria, and also because I feel the term is hard to understand and explain to someone not already familiar with the nuances of game rules (and abstract strategy game rules in particular). I will certainly indicate the presence of any non-combinatorial elements in the review, and maybe even “at a glance” as part of the rating section. Maybe something like this:
– Number of players: 2
– Luck: Yes/No (If yes, maybe with some details.)
– Randomization: Yes/No (With an indication how.)
– Hidden Information: Yes/No (Again, indicating where.)
– (More needed?)
My goal, to be up-front about it, is eventually to start a new game review site, focused on abstract strategy games. That site’s mission will be: To promote and evangelize the beauty of abstract strategy games.
Here are the criteria I’ve come up with so far:
Strategic complexity – How strategically complex? I.e., how far ahead can I think about my turns with any real expectation of implementing a specific strategy?
Tactical Complexity – How individually complex are each of my decisions in a given turn? How many factors are there influencing my decisions based solely on the game’s state in a single turn?
Rules complexity – How easy is the game to understand and begin playing? How well are the rules written?
Game Readability – How easy is the game to understand at a glance? Can an experienced player take in the game’s state and gauge whether a player’s position is superior or inferior to that of their opponent?
Game Depth – How deep is the game? This could mean a lot of things, but for my reviews, it will mean how much can experienced players be said to be playing at a “different level” from beginner players? Or in other words, how much do the game decisions made by an experienced player change versus the decisions of a beginner player?
Spacial Engagement (Geometric Engagement?) – How much does the game rely on the player visualizing the positions of game elements in relation to one another or in relation to imagined elements?
Mathematical Engagement – How much do mathematical equations or general math principles (counting, etc.) play into the tactical decisions and / or long term strategies in the game?
Originality – Have I seen games like this before? Do I feel like there are new ideas in particular that deserve calling out in this particular game?
Physical Beauty – If this is a game played with standard components, or PNP, it may get dinged here, but since I am attempting to promote abstract strategy games to the general populous, it’s actually a super important criteria.
Overall Elegance – This could be expressed dispassionately as a ratio of rules complexity to strategic depth, but I actually think of it more as an expression of my feeling of satisfaction with that ratio. Did playing the game feel like more than the sum of its parts? Did it inspire me to think about it?
Again, I’m definitely looking for feedback about these. In particular:
– Is there anything obviously missing? Are there other criteria you use when judging a new game?
– How are the names? Any you feel should change or that you feel could be articulated better?
– Is “Overall Elegance” even needed? It’s probably the most subjective, but the concept I’m attempting to capture is just how it feels to play, which is absolutely subjective. Is there a better way to say that, maybe one that doesn’t seem as subjective?
– I’m thinking about doing a scale (probably 1-5) for each of these, and giving the game a score based on the sum total, or possibly an average. Thoughts on that final score?
– Are there other game ranking schemes you particularly like? I’d appreciate pointers to any that break the review down into a list of criteria like this. (I know there are more of them out there, but I’ve only managed to “find” a few links so far.)
This entire thing essentially came about because I was thinking about the term “combinatorial game”, and whether I wanted to use it along with (or instead of) “abstract strategy game”. When thinking about a rating system for Abstract Strategy games, it’s a no brainer to indicate whether there are elements that fans of “pure” thinking games might not appreciate: randomization during gameplay, hidden information, player manipulation, and generally just anything that gets in the way of the player determining their win or loss through skill alone. Generally, this is why the combinatorial term came about. (Although some might argue that it came around the other way, from actual academic game theory, as it was definitely used there first.) But I feel like it was only co-opted by game designers because “abstract strategy” has been used too frequently in the board game industry at large to describe games that are only abstract in theme, and don’t meet the other criteria.
If you visit the wikipedia page for abstract strategy, you’ll see the description carefully adds qualifiers like “almost all…” and “most…” or “many…” when describing the no luck and no hidden information qualities. It’s a controversial term.
I’m partial to the term “abstract strategy” though, partly because I just like its connotations. Abstract thought is one of the things that sets us apart from other species of life on this planet, and has far-reaching implications for humanity and civilization. Not to mention that games essentially wouldn’t be possible without it. In addition to the reasoning I gave in my original post, I also feel that the term “combinatorial” hasn’t reached critical mass yet, and not enough folks know what it means for it to be super useful. (Thus, I went with Abstract Meeple rather than Combinatorial Meeple, though both have a ring to them.)
Back to my thought-process: Indicating the presence of any of those non-combinatorial elements in a review will be easy, but some games that contain one or more of those elements still feel like abstract strategy games to a greater or lesser extent to me. I want to be free to review those games, and also want to communicate that feeling and quantify it somehow in my rating system.
But simply telling my readers that a game “feels abstract” seems too subjective, and also, it won’t give them enough information about whether they might also share that feeling. So I realized I’d need to break it down. Which led to the question: Why do games feel like abstract strategy? This led to my list of rating criteria.
And somewhere in making the list, it occurred to me: All the issues of combinatorial (or not) being equal, I have the same problem when comparing two completely combinatorial games. Other than my personal feelings about them, how would Chess rate any differently from Go? I thought about it some, and that also influenced the list. (In particular, the addition of Spacial and Mathematical engagement.) As it says in the post, I’m definitely looking for feedback on all of this. Feel free to post a comment, or head over to BGG and join the discussion.
Tonight, a chess variant is sitting at the top of r/gaming. That itself is probably newsworthy, but watch the video below of Speed Chess (apparently unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show 2015) to see why I’m now dying to play this real-time chess played on a touchscreen.
Finally, this scene is apparently from a UK sitcom called Bottom.
And while I’m at it, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Chesh for at least a couple of weeks now. I’ve been waiting to say anything about it here until I played it, but the since I wanted to post the Speed Chess video above, I felt it deserved inclusion in this post. Here’s the trailer:
From what I’ve gleaned from the internet, it’s a random chess variant with hundreds of possible pieces. I like the glitch-tank aesthetic. Remains to be seen whether I’ll also like the randomized gameplay.
tl/dr: I just submitted an app version of a board game I call Root Down to the app store. The app will be free, and represents not all that much effort on my part, but if there is interest, I’d like to update it with AI and multiplayer.
What is it?
Root Down is a 2-player abstract strategy game where the main mechanic is that pieces flip from a state where they can move (kickers) to a state where they cannot move (roots) after every move. The key is that kickers must also be next to a root in order to move, and the number of spaces they move is also determined by the number of kickers next to each root. I spent an evening and adapted the game for iPad, and have now iterated on it a couple of times to the point where I think I’d like to get it out there and see if there is additional interest. There is no AI, and the game can only be played on an iPad with two players. Consequently, I can’t imagine it will get that much interest, but I still want to put it out there and see what happens.
Here are a couple of screenshots:
(Yes, I know this looks awful! I have lost any html skills I maybe once had!)
The full rules for the game can be found in this public google doc.
I could probably wrote an entire additional blog post about what features I decided to include and ultimately decided against including in this simple game. As I mention below, I essentially wrote the initial version of this app in an evening. Probably four hours tops. I knew I wanted to put it out there, get it in the app store, even though it’s pretty minimal in what it does. That initial version basically just had the following:
2-player “pass and play” multiplayer (on the same device)
a rules popover
end-game popover with final scores
Yes, that was it. I spent another couple of hours adding the following:
an edit button on the game screen — This allows you to change the opening setup, and initially I thought it would be useful as a “poor man’s undo”, but it can’t undo capture counts, so it really doesn’t work for that.
a feedback button — This just opens the standard email popup.
an Abstract Puzzle logo that fades out to the home screen — This doesn’t look as good as I wanted it to, and I’m still debating pulling it from the next build. The problem is that I didn’t have a version of the logo with a transparent background, and the black on red ended up just looking okay, but not great.
App Store Submission
Apple rejected the first version because they didn’t like this bit in my app description: “This is an app experiment. There is no AI (yet), nor are there the other typical bells and whistles usually present in iOS board game conversions. If there is interest, I plan to add an interactive tutorial, asynchronous multiplayer, an AI to play against, universal (iPhone) support, and whatever other features are requested.” I removed all of that, and replaced it with a call to use a “submit feedback” button on the app’s menu.
Subsequently, (this morning), I found a bug in the end-game scoring. I’ll be rejecting the binary, and resubmitting in the next hour or so.
I got enamored enough with the game that I wrote up the rules, and wanted to post them on BGG to get feedback, but I didn’t have a name. I started thinking about the pieces in my game that activate, and how they sort of put out tentacles to the pieces next to them, kind of like roots on a tree. Eventually the Beastie Boys’ Root Down popped into my head, and the name was set. Eventually I re-wrote the rules to incorporate “roots” and “kickers”, and “kicking it root down” from the lyrics of that song. I think it works pretty well, actually, for an otherwise themeless abstract. Eventually, I did post the game to BGG. I have also submitted the game to the actual BGG database, where it is pending approval.