When I’m confronted with playing an abstract game, it usually only takes about 15 minutes for me to start wondering why the hell we didn’t just play chess instead.
You see, other than chess, I’m not a fan of abstracts. I tend to find them dry brain-burners and would pretty much play anything else with a theme. Even if that theme is as dry as trading silk in Carthage, it’s better than pushing blocks of wood around a square board.
So, I was pretty surprised that instead of a dry abstract, Diaballik is a fast-paced game with a good amount of strategy and decisions packed into its very simple frame.
Anyone who has played Ultimate Frisbee [or, you know, soccer — ed.] will recognize the inspiration for this game. The game is played on a 7×7 grid with your seven pawns lined up against your back rank. One of your pawns carries a ball that can be passed in a straight line any direction and any distance as long as the path isn’t blocked by your opponent. You can move 1 pawn twice or 2 pawns one each and pass the ball, but the ball-carrier may not move. Get your ball to your opponent’s back rank and you win.
It’s an incredibly simple game to pick up, and yet there is definitely more to it than just pushing pawns. Trying to block your opponent while setting up an escape-proof win for yourself takes some planning. I’ll admit that I lost several games against the easiest AI before figuring out a strategy that worked.
Speaking of AI, there are four levels of AI in the game, and the AI is very good (although I suck at games like this, so take that with a grain of salt). The highest level of AI, unfortunately, seems to have no time limit on it’s “thinking” algorithm, so turns can stretch into several minutes of waiting. It is challenging, but this destroys the quick play which is one of the game’s best features. There is no online multiplayer, but the option for local play using the iPad as the board works great. I’ve been able to play several matches with my kids, and it has become one of their favorites on my iPad.
Included in the package is an “alternative” version of the game setup. In this version, 2 of your pawns are exchanged with 2 of your opponent’s. So, you begin with pawns already in a winning position, you just need to get the ball to them. This version is fantastic and brings the 10-15 minute games down into the 5 minute range. Losing these games feels a little bit like you fell for the Scholar’s Mate, but winning them is just as exhilarating. It’s a good option and it’s nice they included this variant along with the base game.
I have to say that I wasn’t looking forward to this assignment at first. An abstract? A game that hasn’t been updated since 2011? Damn you Agricola, where are you? But, in the end, I have to say that I’m incredibly happy that I’ve played it. The graphics are simple, yet clear and well done and the AI is fairly challenging (while also being prone to analysis paralysis…the Expert AI can think for an eon each turn). My only wish was for some online interaction, as I’m sure my kids will tire of it at some point and being able to find new opponents would be a welcome addition. That said, it works great as it is and if you enjoy a quick abstract, I cannot recommend it enough.
The game was played on a iPad 2 and iPhone 4 for this review.