zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Showing posts with label abstract. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abstract. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reviewed by Another Gamer -- Board Game Reviews by Josh: Abalone Review

This past winter I mentioned that Abalone was played on a Scout outing. I didn't give it a full review, but overall I think it's a good 2-player game. It is very easy to learn and play, even for kids down to about seven years old.

Josh Edwards is a well respected reviewer on the web, here is his review:

Board Game Reviews by Josh: Abalone Review

It's Your Move!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambit – Is Chess Good for Schools?

Okay, if you have been reading my blog, or even just read the title block, you know where I am going to come down on this.  I teach chess in my son’s grade school.  Nonetheless, there are issues with teaching chess in schools:  promoting an elitist attitude, scaring kids off, and finding adults to help!  At the same time, there are alternative games that encourage some of the same thought processes. 

First of all, chess can be elitist.  There will be kids who join to prove they are smarter than everyone else.  Worse, there are parents who push their children into chess to prove to the world that their kid (and by extension, the parent) is smarter than everyone else.  I have been to conferences for gifted children where chess clubs were promoted specifically for gifted children, and I have mixed emotions about it.  Chess is a great way to provide more challenge to gifted child.  It doesn’t focus too much on one academic area, and doesn’t feel like “school work”.  Lastly, because chess is “the game of kings”, there are behavioral expectations that go with the game, including playing quietly and with self-control and good sportsmanship.  I worry about gifted children growing up to be “egg-heads” and lacking the softer, interpersonal skills that are so necessary for success at work and in relationships.*  I don’t want to see chess become the exclusive territory of the gifted, however.  “Normal” kids need fun mental challenges that help nurture the thinking processes and teach personal skills too.

Yet, so often (and maybe because of those gifted programs) those “normal” kids are scared by chess, feeling if they are not “smart enough” to play the game.  I frequently hear adults say this very thing; we should expect their kids to feel the same way.  This just isn’t the case.  Anyone can learn the game.  The child, or adult for that matter, may never be the next Bobby Fischer or Judit Polgár, but can love the game and get something out of it nonetheless.  I am a great example of this; I love chess and yet, with a rating in the low 1400’s, I am only a class C player.  I read chess books when I have the time, but honestly I don’t expect to even break into the B class at 1600.  Having fun is far more important than winning or even being a great player.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t game at all!)

Lastly, finding the adults who want to participate is difficult.  In the public school system for Columbus, OH, there has been an employee specifically hired by the district to provide those schools with a chess program.  That is by far the exception to the rule, and that completely leaves out private schools and small districts.  It’s sometimes tough to find adults to teach the gifted kids.  Finding someone to deal with the rest of the school population can be nearly impossible.

Nine Men's Morris - Promo image at Amazon
If chess proves to be too much of a problem, what can be done?  Don’t give up; start a gaming club instead.  There are plenty of classic, quick and relatively inexpensive games that are suited to teaching problem solving skills and sportsmanship.  A short list of abstract games would include Reversi (Othello), Mancala, Backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris.  These games do not need a teacher/coach who is familiar with the game.  The rules are more simple and straightforward and the strategy not as deep as chess.  

There actually are some advantages over a chess club with this approach.  First of all, younger kids can be included with games like checkers.  There are a lot of games that are variants on checkers, both more and less difficult.  As the kids get older, they could be introduced to pool checkers, which someday I would like to learn.  Furthermore, the list isn’t limited to just abstracts.  My wife has had great success playing 20 Questions for Kids as a team game with the after school program.  There are teachers running gaming clubs at schools who are playing some of the other types of games I discuss in this blog.

Games are so important to intellectual and social development that I think all kids should learn to play them.  If your school doesn’t have a chess program, consider a gaming program.  If there isn’t someone to start it, why not you?  If none of that is available, at least play at home.  If you keep playing and reading, I promise to keep writing!

It’s Your Move!

Related Posts:

Related Links:
Othello – Board Game Geek entry
Mancala – Board Game Geek entry
Nine Men’s Morris – Board Game Geek entry
Backgammon – Board Game Geek entry
20 Questions for Kids – Board Game Geek entry
Judit Polgár – Wikipedia entry
Bobby Fischer – Wikipedia entry

* A few years ago, it was suggested to my wife and me that our son might be gifted.  I am not sure how that actually is measured, but I do know that he is a straight-A student.  Our concern isn’t that he is provided an advanced curriculum to further advance his intellect, though that would be nice.  Our main concern is that he learns empathy, compassion, teamwork and leadership, growing up to be a productive citizen and a faith-filled man.  That’s our job as a parent.  In my engineering career, I have met lots of incredibly smart people who couldn’t lead hungry Boy Scouts to lunch, and can never see when someone is hurting.  That’s not who we are raising Daniel to be.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Pocket Fishermen – Hey! That’s My Fish

My version - Mayfair standard edition (Photo by Neven Rihtar)
Okay, this game won’t actually fit in your pocket.  My version probably could if you repackaged it and, well, had somewhat larger pockets.  (The box was sized to be visible on the shelf, which makes it larger than really needed.)  That’s not the point though.  The fact is that this is one of those games that every family should own.  I will review why I believe in this game, the one big downfall it has, and the three different versions (as of today’s announcement).

Hey! That’s My Fish (H!TMF) is a very simple game to learn.  In reality, it is an abstract game, with perfect information.  As such, it would provide a great stepping stone for games such as chess.  Chess has three primary strategic elements: time (who has the initiative), space (including freedom to move) and material (who has the most valuable set of pieces on the board).  H!TMF has two of those three elements, time and space.  Since everyone has the same number of pieces that all behave the same way, material is not an issue.  The theme really isn’t present, but does make for a cute presentation.

Photo by Chris Norwood
How does it play?  Sixty hexagonal tiles are laid out in rows, making the “board”. Each player takes a turn initially placing his or her penguins on tiles.  After penguins are placed, players take turns moving their penguins in one of the six directions through the sides.  After a penguin has moved, the owning player collects the penguin’s start tile from the board, leaving a hole.  Penguins can move as far as they want until they either run into another penguin or a hole, at which point they stop.  The game is over when no one has a legal move left.  Each tile has one to three fish on it, and each player counts the fish on the tiles they collected.  The player with the most fish wins.

H!TMF  is simple enough for your average 5 year-old to play.  However, it's a GREAT game for any age! Your little one will understand what they are doing, but the strategy is a bit deeper.  When I really love it is when the kids leave the table and the gloves can come off.  About halfway through the first adult game, most people have The Great Light come on, and they realize this is pretty vicious as everyone tries to cut their opponents off and strand them in a corner.  A vicious little abstract that plays up to four people in 20 minutes – I’m all over that!

It is this simple game play and cute figures that leads to the one real issue H!TMF  has.  My 13 year-old sees this and thinks of it as just a “kid’s game”.  Most people do not see it that way, but I can see how a young adult might want to separate themselves from it.  So, while it is a great family game, and I can’t say that enough, not everyone in the family will rave over it.  Though that’s probably true for any game.

The game publishing house Fantasy Flight Games just announced that they have obtained the rights to H!TMF, and will publish their version later this year.  It has previously been published by Mayfair games in two different versions: the standard version and a “deluxe” version with cute plastic figurines.  All of the versions play the same way, but the artwork is a little different.  Fantasy Flight puts a lot of effort into game components, so this will undoubtedly be a great edition to own.

H!TMF Deluxe (Promotional image from Mayfair Games)

2011 Version from Fantasy Flight (Promotional image by Fantasy Flight)
Fantasy Flight also announced that H!TMF apps will be available for both iPhones and Android phones.  The Android app will be $4.99, and it would be natural to guess the iPhone app will be priced similarly.  That’s an app I probably will skip, primarily because I am cheap, and chess and Words for Friends is the limit of my mobile gaming.

The board version though, is a must own for me.  Here are the vital statistics:

Hey! That’s My Fish
                Ages:                     8 and up (perhaps as low as 5)
                Time:                     20 minutes
                Players:                 2-4  

 It’s your Move!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Knightly Devotions

This is my third year of teaching chess in our son’s grade school. Contrary to what I expected, it gets tougher every year. While I have some great ideas I have received from others who have run scholastic chess programs, they are only partially helpful. Many of those programs are aimed at competition, and we just aren’t there. In fact, I have learned there are at least three big obstacles to starting a scholastic chess club: the emotional maturity of the child, the level of chess knowledge they come with, and when they join during the school year.

First of all, let me say that our school chess club is based upon the idea that chess is a classic ability everyone should know, improving logic and problem solving skills and promoting sportsmanship. Subsequently, no one is ever turned away. This principle is largely responsible for this set of problems, so I realize I have made my own bed.

chessThat said, the administration agreed with me at the beginning of the year that primary school children in general would not have the ability to sit still and play chess. Therefore, a child has to be in fourth grade to join. Since the primary is in a separate wing of the school, being “beyond the double doors” has meaning akin to a rite of passage. Using this existing distinction to define the privilege of joining the chess club is accepted more easily. This is not a hard and fast filter; we admitted a second grader based on faculty recommendation and consultation. This boy has shown he already knows how the pieces move and he is focused. At the same time, a fourth grade girl who has been with us all year apparently has not yet learned how all the pieces move. There is some suspicion she is pretending to be confused to gain attention. Even some of the older students cannot remain quiet, and must be reminded they are disturbing other players’ thoughts. The noise and distraction get in the way of teaching, even for the mere ten to fifteen minutes I would like, just as they would in the classroom. Even when a lesson manages to slip in, the difference in maturity shows. Younger players are less likely to move center pawns out early, even when instructed repeatedly. It seems the younger children shy away from the kind of confrontation early center play can start.

Another obstacle is the variation in the children’s “chess maturity”. I currently have students that have never played the game before this year, and I have students that have been in the chess club all three years. Their needs are obviously different. My wife is the school librarian, and acts as the faculty advisor to the group. She is willing to take the new learners and teach them the moves. Our idea at the beginning of the year was that we could divide the group between us, with me teaching the next level of play. However, it has become apparent there are at least three groups that need attention. There are those learning the moves, those learning very basic concepts (control the center of the board, protect the king), and finally the students who are looking at somewhat more advanced ideas (doubled rooks, bad bishops). As this goes forward, I suspect there will be more differentiation.

Add to this the constant inflow of new students to the club, and we sometimes take two steps forward and one step back. It can be a bit frustrating, but I will firmly stand by the commitment to teach anyone who wants to learn, even teachers who show up! More volunteers would be great, but very few people can come in after school.

Most of the chess programs I have seen that are highlighted in the news, or who write about their success, are based on the idea that they will take students who are already chess players and take them to tournaments. There we see the best and brightest. We are far from that goal, though I would love to be able to do that, but my group of kids is just not there yet.

If you have any suggestions, please let me know. What qualifies me as a chess coach for the school is not any great ability to teach, and obviously (if you have been checking out my chess rating on the left) not any fantastic skill in chess. I am just the guy who said “yes”. I would love to hear thoughts on how to make it a better chess experience for all.

Roll on!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mass Market Moment – Blokus

Blokus is a family of games that started in the hobby gaming world and crossed over to the mass market, assisted by the purchase of publication rights by Mattel. The game won many awards, including a Mensa Select award. (Don’t tell the kids, but it also won a Teacher’s Choice award in 2004.) It them spawned several additional versions: Blokus Duo (aka Blokus for 2 and Travel Blokus), Blokus Trigon, and Blokus 3D (aka Rumis). With a simple set up rules and colorful pieces, it draws in potential players, appeals to children, and makes the whole series a set of excellent abstracts.

Photo by Tom Rosen
The original game Blokus is a four player game in which players alternate placing one of their geometric shapes on a board, covering as much as the board as they can by game end. The shapes are made of squares starting with one square and continuing up to every shape which can be built with five squares. The catch is that one player’s pieces can only touch at the corners, which makes it difficult to fence an area off from opponents. At the end of the game, players receive a negative point for every square (not piece!) that is not put in play. Positive points are received for using all of your pieces and for using the one-square piece last. Highest score wins. Stepping back from the board after the game is done shows a pretty mosaic that leaves observers saying, “That looks cool!”
Blokus 3D, originally known as Rumis, also won several awards. The objects are now three dimensional, as might be guessed. The scoring is different, with each player scoring positive points for the number of cubes visible from directly above the board. Negative points are earned for cubes left over as before. Since this is the one game in the series I haven’t played (though we do own it), I can’t say much more.

The two player rules for Blokus have each player using two of the four colors, as if there were two teams of two colors. A better approach is taken by the next game in the line to be published, Blokus Duo, which originally was named Travel Blokus. It is also sold exclusively at Target as Blokus to Go, which allows the pieces to actually snap in place for play in a moving vehicle. Regardless of the name, the difference between Blokus and Blokus Duo is merely the number of players and the start location. Duo is strictly a two-player game. This is my favorite form of the game. The board is smaller and makes for a very tight game.

Blokus does not play well with three players. Play starts from the corners, which means one player has an opponent on both sides; the others have opponents on one side only. The player in the middle is squeezed, and will nearly always do poorly. Blokus Trigon attempts to address this. The board and pieces are made of triangles rather than squares, which results in some strange shapes. The overall board shape is hexagonal, which allows three players to evenly space themselves out. There is equality with four players too, but the game tries to be a little too much. I, for one, have trouble visualizing what I want to do.

I can hear some of you thinking, “I need to buy THREE games, Blokus Duo for two, Blokus Trigon for three, and Blokus for four?!” No. Unless you really want to travel with it Blokus Duo isn’t needed. Many people play two player Blokus by using one color per player, and using a third color to fence of the board, reducing it to the size of Blokus Duo (14x14). Similarly, Blokus Trigon can be played with two colors and the two outer rings of spaces marked off on three sides. As for playing with three players, I would still play Blokus. Blokus Trigon is just too oddly shaped, and while it might be a more even game, it isn’t any more fun. Just buy and play the original Blokus with the strongest player in the squeezed position, or rotate through that position in several games of match play. Since the game plays in roughly 20-30 minutes, that’s a possibility. Therefore, while all of the variations are good, the original Blokus is the purchase to make.
Good Casual Gaming! Kid Friendly!

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This past weekend was the annual trip our Scout Troop takes to Angola, IN. We spend a few hours on the iced toboggan run of the nearby state park as the focal point of the weekend – 35mph worth of fun! Since it’s a three hour drive, though, we go up Friday night and come back Sunday morning, which leaves quite a bit of time for games. We have a big gym available to us at the National Guard armory where we stay. Much of the gaming is dodgeball and other physical games, but there is some boardgaming that goes on, too.
Typically, the Scouts play Magic: the Gathering, Axis & Allies, and a few other games. Apples to Apples seemed to be big this year. It’s always interesting to see what the Scouts bring themselves, and to see where there interests lie.
I brought an assortment of games that I consider travel games. Those are games that, at least individually, would easily fit in a briefcase or backpack for playing on the road or trail. Of the games I brought, two made it to the game table:
clip_image002Hive. This game has been a hit for a while now in the Troop. In fact, two other leaders have copies now, so it gets played fairly regularly on outings. It is an abstract strategy game for two players in which you move your different “bugs” around the hive in unique ways in an attempt to surround your opponent’s queen bee. There isn’t much theme, much of a storyline, in this game. It has been described as “the new chess”. I won’t go that far, but it does have the same strategic elements as chess: time, space and material. The rules are few, the components are great (you can wash them in the sink if they get dirty!), and it is a LOT of fun. There is a bit of “brain-burn” to it, but not too much. I would say more than checkers, but less than chess. Hive may not work for kids younger than 10 years old.  It takes around 30 minutes to play. 
clip_image003No Thanks! This is not a new game, but it is new to me. I had just recently purchase it, and was eager to play it. The game is a reverse auction, in which you pay to not take a card. Each card is worth points, and you are aiming for the lowest score. Very light on rules, they only took a minute to read, understand and teach them. No deep thought is required. The components are cards and small chips, which is perfectly appropriate for this game. This game doesn’t even pretend to tell a story, but is great fun. It played in about 15 minutes, so we played nine times! No Thanks! Is designed for 3-5 players, but we stretched it to six for a couple of games without an issue. This game should work pretty well with younger children.  This was a great purchase!
thumb-up Kid Friendly!
I also played a game brought by one of the other leaders. I only managed to play it once, but it proved to be a lot of fun:
clip_image004Abalone. This is another 2 player abstract strategy game, in which you place a group of marbles on a hexagonal board across from your opponent. You then attempt to align your marbles so that pushing a line of them (maximum of three marbles) against a smaller number of your opponents pieces shoves them off the board. This was a good, solid game, again with few rules but some thought needed. I personally enjoy Hive a little more, but Abalone is probably a little bit easier to grasp.  It would be a great introductory abstract for children. Playing time is roughly 30 minutes.
thumb-up Kid friendly!
Roll On!