Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The changing maze of Quoridor

Quoridor is a game that I've come back to and found out that it is a lot better than I had remembered.

There's a very simple reason for that. I first played Quoridor during my 'so many games, so little time' phase, when I would play a game once or twice and then move on to a new one to try out. Now I'm more inclined to play fewer games but over and over again. Quoridor really benefitted from a more thorough examination.

Quoridor is one of those short, simple abstracts that has a lot more depth than its simplicity or brevity would immediately imply. Played out on a nine by nine grid, your goal is to get your pawn to the other side. Where the clever bit and the name comes in is that each player also has a supply of walls. Each wall is two spaces wide and will fit in between the grooved spaces.

On your turn, you can either move your pawn one space in an orthogonal direction or place a wall. However, you aren't allowed to wall anyone in. There must always be some sort of path for them to get to the far side.

You can play the game with two players or with four players but as far as I'm concerned, Quoridor is really a two-player game. More players feels off and makes the board to cluttered.

The meat of the game is the walls. You're are fighting to give your opponent the most time-consuming path possible while making sure they don't do the same to you. Moving the pawns is just acting out the conclusions that you've come to.

Which isn't to say you build a maze and only then start moving your pawn. No, sometimes you have to move to either force a decision on your opponent or escape the trap they're setting up.

In my earliest exposure to Quoridor, I was just using my walls to try and block my opponent. However, when a friend of mine had me sit down and play game after game with him online, I started to realize that I was missing a lot of important gameplay.

The first thing that clicked in my head and I felt like an idiot for not realizing so much sooner was that I could cut a line my opponent was building by playing a wall along the same line but with a one-space gap that they couldn't fill. 

From there, I realized that cutting was at least as important as blocking and that I would have to figure out how to react to my opponent's cuts. I realized that, like Go, Quoridor is a game of patterns. You need to see what patterns are emerging from the wall placement and how to use them for your own plans.

Of course, nine walls a piece on a nine-by-nine board is a lot simpler than the kind of patterns you're going to see develop on a Go board. On the other hand, a game of Quoridor is also probably only going to take you fifteen minutes to play, as opposed to the hours of a good Go game.

If there is one serious knock I would have to say about Quoridor is that, even by abstract standards, it feels particularly unforgiving. Particularly with players of different skill levels, the game can be decided by the halfway point and the weaker player is stuck being a rat running through the other player's maze. Which isn't that much fun.

However, if I have to be that rat and end up trapped in someone else's maze, at least I am getting to see the surprising depth in this pattern of walls.

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