Review: Abalone20 Dec 2017 1
Released 21 Mar 2013
Abalone sounds like it ought to be a kind of fish. It is in fact a variety of sea snail which has loaned its name to this abstract strategy game of the kind the ancient might have approved. There are two players, one with white marbles and one with black, on a stylised hex grid. Each turn you can push a group of up to three adjacent marbles the same direction into adjacent spaces.
Push is the operative word here, and it's where the game gets interesting. Turns out that marbles like to bully each other, but only when they've got weight of numbers. If a group of three marbles pushes, in the same direction, against two or one opposing marble, they force it to move too. A duet of marbles can similarly gang up against one alone. The idea is to win by pushing enemy marbles off the board.
Games like this seem tailor-made to befuddle the brain. At first you focus so hard on pushing away at enemy marbles you forget your own can get pushed too. Shunting three along to barge an enemy often leaves the one at the end exposed to a counter-push. If so, you're in trouble: your weight of numbers is now gone. And the marble you've been pushing will have a friend, aligned to push right back and thirsty for revenge.
So the dance begins. At first it's a beguiling, awkward thing to grasp. But once you've taught your brain to see in six dimensions and plan ahead a little, problems begin to emerge. Turns out it's very hard to compensate for the way that attacks leave the leading marble exposed. The only way is to try and line up protective marbles in advance and each move you make toward that turns out to have the same problem. The only sensible answer is to play as defensively as possible. And that doesn't tend to make for very interesting games.
The ease with which target marbles can escape by sliding one sideways exacerbates this issues. As does the fact this is a dry abstract, gasping for some theme like a dessicated man in the desert. It's certainly challenging and offers plenty of depth, but little in the way of hooks to encourage you to put the work in. You'll have to be the sort of person who thinks challenge is its own reward to enjoy the basic offering.
However, Abalone has a trick up its shell. like a lot of abstracts, it's very easy to mess around with the basic setup and still have the rules make for a satisfying game. You can change the number of marbles needed to win, for example, allowing you to make the game shorter and potentially more exciting. You can also pick a different default setup from the dull groups of marbles facing each other across the hexes. Rosettes, snakes and star patterns await the more adventurous player. Each combination offers new challenges and additional interest.
The adaptation makes the most of this flexibility in its challenge mode. This is a series of solo puzzles where you have to achieve an outcome - often pushing off a set number of marbles - from a fixed starting position in as few moves as you can. For me, this is where the game shines. Like Go, the open nature of the board lends itself to a vast array of possible combinations so there are a vast number of interesting puzzles to solve. The designers seem to know this. As well as several series of increasing difficulty, there's a daily puzzle to attempt as well.
Standard game modes are available too, including pass and play and solo sessions against competent AI opponents of increasing difficulty. There's also a network play option, but it's limited. Although a ranked play option is available, there doesn't seem to be any option to play asynchronously - it's live or nothing. Given that the defensive nature of the game can make it run long for an abstract, that's a pretty poor omission. Especially given that it's relatively easy to drop connection and lose a game.
Abalone is a classic implementation of a classic abstract with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. It's easy to learn but unfolds to have a rich, deep strategy, especially when you vary the starting setup. On the other hand, it's dry and offers little hand-holding for new players who are easily obliterated by the more experienced. How you feel about it will likely align with how you feel about abstract games in general. But the faults in online play aside, if abstracts are your thing, you'll find the shell of this snail pretty and the meat satisfying.