Much as I like abstract strategy games, I have to concede that they can become a bit repetitive if you’re not careful. When there is no random element, and every possible move is clear to both players (as is the case with chess, for example), it is possible reach a point at which the same players keep making the same moves and each game is largely the same.

Onitama elegantly and effectively solves this problem, essentially by adding a random element to the rules.

The game is played on a 5×5 board and each player has five pieces — four students and a master. The aim is to either capture your opponent’s master or to move your own master into the opponent’s temple square.

What makes this game really unique, though, is that the possible combinations of moves are different for every game.

The game comes with 16 move cards from which you draw five at the beginning of the game. Two are dealt to each player with the fifth card being put to the side as a ‘draw card’. The first player can then take any of the moves indicated by the two move cards in front of them, after which they discard that card and take the draw card. The discarded card then becomes the next player’s draw card.

In this way, each player always has two move cards available and can see what their next move card is going to be.

With over half a million possible combinations of move cards, it will be a long time before the games start repeating themselves which massively improves the variability of the game. It also adds an additional level of strategy in that, by deciding which card to play and discard, you are able to exert some control over your opponent’s options.

The recommended age for Onitama is 14+ which, quite frankly, is nonsense. As with many strategy games, the rules are straightforward enough that they can be grasped by a nine-year old and probably younger. In many ways it plays like a simplified version of chess for which you don’t even have to remember the possible moves as these are in the cards in front of you.

Aesthetically the game is beautiful. The pieces are beautifully crafted and, combined with the artwork on both the board and the card, give the game a wonderfully Shaolin feel.

Overall, Onitama is a beautiful looking game that is very easy to learn and quick to play. The game also offers enough depth to keep us all coming back to it and, because it randomises the available moves, we can be sure that no two games will ever be the same.

Nine Men’s Morris

Many years ago, I picked up a “Classic Games Compendium”, a collection of boards and pieces needed to play a whole stack of classic, or traditional, board games. It also came with a pack of cards, because you can never have too many playing cards.

One game from this collection that has seen a lot of play over the past few weeks is Nine Men’s Morris. This is a game whose origins are lost so far back in the mists of time that no-one is quite sure where or when it first emerged, and it’s one that remains surprisingly playable.

Each player has nine pieces and the aim of the game is to form ‘mills’ a horizontal or vertical line of three men. When you form a mill, you can take one of your opponent’s pieces. When you reduce your opponent to two pieces, you have won the game.

It’s played in two parts. First, the players take turns to place their pieces and, once all of the pieces are placed, the players take turns in moving them.

It’s always tempting to try and form mills in the first (piece placing) part of the game but this, I think, is a mistake. When a player does this they tend to find all their pieces bunched up together and unable to move. It is far better to place pieces in order to achieve maximum flexibility later in the game.

Nine Men’s Morris is a solved game (pdf), for which the optimal strategy has been calculated and perfect play from both players will always result in a draw.

We are far from perfect.


Way back in the late 1980s I picked up an interesting looking strategy game called Centrepoint. Although I played it a few times, it never really caught on with my gaming group at the time and the game ended up at the bottom of a box — dragged around with me but never actually played.

A few weeks ago, the boys found it and asked if they could try it out. Of course I said yes, and the game has proven to have a lot more traction than I remembered.

It’s a game for two to four players that, rather breathlessly, suggests that it’s the best game to come along since Chess. Which it isn’t. But it’s not bad either.

As with chess, each player controls an army the units of which all have different moves. The aim is to get your standard bearer into the middle of the board — the centre point — before anyone else. The moves are pretty straightforward, although the circular nature of the board makes for some quirks that are best ironed out before starting to play, and the game moves along at a fair old clip.

As a two player game, it’s okay, and I wouldn’t recommend the three player version as this is seriously unbalanced with one player always getting crushed between the other two.

It’s as a four player game that Centrepoint really comes into its own. This is clearly how the game was intended to be played and, it’s in this version, that the rules really do work. What’s more, with four players around the board, the opportunities for ad-hoc alliances and non-aggression pacts lift the game above it’s pure strategy origins.

As far as I can see, Centrepoint is no longer published. This is a shame because it is quite a good little game that requires very little explanation but offers plenty of scope for a negotiated victory.

Zombie Dice

I have, over the past few months, come to quite enjoy push your luck dice games. These games all have the same — very simple — mechanic at their heart which involves rolling dice and calculating a score. Then you have to decide whether to re-roll to increase your score, but risk losing everything, or stop. The challenge comes from deciding whether to risk rolling again or whether it’s better to stay safe.

Zombie Dice is exactly the same, but with zombies. The game comes with a metal container and thirteen dice, which come with red, green and yellow. The sides of the dice are marked with brains, footsteps and shotgun blasts with the red ones being biased towards the blasts and the green ones being biased towards brains.

On each player’s turn, the player takes three dice at random, rolls them and puts any brains and shotgun blasts to one side. If you want to roll again, you draw more random dice so that (combined with any feet you have already rolled) you have three dice. And you roll them again.

When you decide to stop, you count up the brains and add them to your total score. If you didn’t decide to stop and reach three shotgun blasts, you’ve been blasted and you score nothing. And the first player to eat 13 brains wins.

Zombie Dice is a simple, portable and very quick to play game. It’s a fun way to pass ten minutes and I shall never tire of shouting Brainnns!


It’s probably no surprise to anyone that we have seen quite a few board and card games being brought out over the past few weeks. This weekend it’s been the turn of Tutto, and entertainingly simple push your luck game.

The rules are simple, you roll six dice and score if you roll three of a kind or a one or a five. Put the scoring dice to one side and decide whether to roll the remaining dice or end your turn. If you decide to end your turn, you get the points scored so far but if you roll again without scoring anything, all points for that turn are lost.

There are also cards to mix things up a bit and to encourage players to go for a “Tutto”, or full house, which is what you get when you manage to score with all six dice.

The game is played over a number of rounds until someone reaches a set number of points — or until it’s time to do something else.

The game is simple, fun and well balanced as evidenced by the fact that different playing styles — from very cautious to very reckless — can all be successful. Reckless means always going for a Tutto and alternating between scoring nothing and getting a massive bonus. More cautious players don’t allow themselves to be tempted by the bonus and steadily progress towards a win.

With my own approach I tended to strike a balance between the two extremes — which is probably why I kept losing.

Five Things #27

Song of the Water Bear by Laine Bell is a surprisingly effective story about tardigrades, from their own perspective.

I am constantly perplexed as to why so many people are people panic-buying toilet paper. Neuroscientist, Dean Burnett explains.

Sara Elsam talks to Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone about fantasy, bringing D&D to the UK and the birth of Warhammer.

Kieran Fisher argues Buffy the Vampire Slayer Is the Perfect Binge Watch. This is part of a series, all of which is worth a look.

Dana Najjar considers the billion year algae that hints at the origin of land plants.

Best Treehouse Ever

We’ve been playing quite a few games over the past week or so and one game that keeps on being brought out is Best Treehouse Ever. This is a remarkably playable combination of card drafting and tile laying, the aim of which is to build the best treehouse ever.

Each player starts with a tree trunk (card) and a hand of six cards representing rooms. Players simultaneously pick a room card and place it face down on the table. Once everyone has chosen a card, these cards are turned face up and each player has to add the room to their treehouse. Then each player passes their hand to the player on their left and the process is repeated until all cards have been either played or discarded, at which point scores are calculated and another hand of six cards is dealt.

There are a couple of additional rules to make things a bit more tricksy. Your tree cannot rise more than six levels, it can’t lean too far to one side or the other, and rooms of the same colour have to be placed next to each other. This means that you have to think a bit about what card you want to play and where to place it. And if you are not able to place a card, you have to discard one, so everyone always has the same number of cards in their hand.

As with Bärenpark, there is very little direct player interaction which makes for a very calm gaming experience in which most of the conversation leans towards being an almost co-operative discussion about how to build the best treehouses.

The artwork deserves a mention here, being appropriately cartoony with a sense of fun showing on each of the room cards. This really adds to the spirit of the game and makes the treehouse theme come to life.

Best Treehouse Ever is a game that is easy to learn and very quick to set up. The game also has enough depth to make it worth bringing out repeatedly. We’re having a lot of fun with it.

Five Things #21

KT Bryski provides a very different take on the story of Red Riding Hood in The Path of Pins, the Path of Needles.

In 2008 Rian Dundon spent 9 months on the road with Fan Bingbing, China’s biggest movie star, and gained a firsthand look at the country’s celebrity-industrial complex.

There are exactly two wolves in the wild in Flanders at present. Pups could be on the way.

Nick Tyrone discusses three things the left gets wrong. Repeatedly.

Ben Orlin presents The Game of Snakes. All you need is a pen and a bit of paper.

Five Things #19

Shades of H. P. Lovecraft in Nesters by Siobhan Carroll.

Was it just luck that Earth has plenty of oxygen? Lewis Alcott and Benjamin J. W. Mills suggest that breathable atmospheres may be more common in the universe than we first thought.

Luke at Start Your Meeples examines the enduring popularity of Carcassonne.

Ryan Billingsley suggests that if you want your kids to read, you should let them read whatever they want. This is a view I can wholeheartedly endorse.

And James Parker considers the joy of being middle aged.


Bärenpark is a tile laying game, the aim of which is — as the name suggests — to build a bear park.

Each player starts with a park area board and a single tile and each turn consists of three steps. Firstly, the player places a tile; then he takes one or more additional tiles (depending on the icons covered) and finally, if all the available spaces on an area board have been covered, the player places a bear statue. Different tiles have different vales and, once all of the area boards have been filled, these values can be totted up and a winner declared.

Bärenpark is a really simple game and one that is very easy to learn. Moreover, the design of the game is such that it is very easy to understand, at a glance, exactly what is going on. As with the best of games like this, however, this simplicity hides a surprising level of depth. While, on the surface, the game is essentially a spacial puzzle derived from fitting together the different shaped tiles, there is also a reasonable level of planning that needs to be taken into account.

The area board has various icons printed on it and the icons you cover determine which tile or tiles you can draw. This means that you have to think ahead a bit and to determine what tiles you will need in two or three turns time to most effectively fill the available space. Or, you can do what I do which is grab the highest value tiles first and then start trying to figure out how to fit them all together.

The fact that there is very little direct player interaction (grabbing a tile before an opponent is about the limit) gives the game a very gentle feel which gives rise to plenty of discussion about how best each of the players can solve the various puzzles in front of us. This is quite a change of gear for me — I usually want to crush my enemies and see them driven before me — but it does make for a genuinely pleasant game-playing atmosphere.

Bärenpark is a great little game — one that is easy to pick up but that retains enough depth to make it worth coming back to again and again. The indirectness of the competition also makes this a game that can be brought out and inflicted on people that aren’t used to (my) normal game playing behaviour.