Great software. Shame about the game.

Abstract board games are amongst the oldest entertainments devised by humanity. And despite the dominance of ancient classics like Chess and Go, abstracts are still being designed and produced in the modern age. Abalone is one such, originally released in 1987, and now taking the jump to the iPad.

Like most abstracts, it’s pretty simple. The game is played with marbles on a hexagonal board. You can push a group of one to three marbles as one move, so long as they all move in the same direction. If you can line up more marbles along an axis than your opponent, then you can push them backwards. The aim is to push your opponents’ marbles right off the board.

Abalone

Why this wholly theme-less game ended up being named after a sea snail is quite beyond me. What is clear, however, is that Abalone is not only a relatively deep game, one without any randomness and which rewards careful strategy and planning ahead, but also a very flexible one. While there is an official set-up, you could start with marbles strewn across the board in many different patterns, and play to different goals in terms of marbles pushed off.

This implementation permits you to do all of those things and more. Playing with a live opponent or against the AI, you can choose from a wide variety of different starting positions or win counts, and even make your own if you so desire. Even better, there’s an enormous puzzle mode; a sequentially unlockable series of situations, gradually increasing in difficulty, to mull over and solve. It’s a great addition that really makes the most of the electronic platform.

It’s a lovely looking thing too, with a three dimensional board on which you can change the viewing angle and which responds in a pleasingly tactile way as you slide you fingers across it to push marbles. The soundtrack offers an annoying fake oriental dirge, but there are satisfying clicks and clunks as pieces rumble over the board. There’s a good tutorial and the whole package is polished, professional and usable.

It’s just unfortunate that Bulkypix went and chose Abalone to base an app on out of all the other fantastic games available.

Abalone

The trouble with Abalone is very simple: it heavily rewards defensive play and penalises attacks. As soon as you line up a set of marbles that’s longer than your opponent and push, you’ve spoiled your formation. They’re almost certainly going to be able to push right back and shift some of yours toward the edge. The sensible thing to do is get all your pieces in the middle of the board and stay there.

It’s also pretty hard work to push a marble off the board. Your opponent can slide it sideways one, out of the way of the onrushing horde of spheres threatening to dislodge it. It’s almost certainly only a stay of execution, but actually trapping something in a situation it can’t escape from can take a frustratingly long time. I presume this is why there’s no asynchronous play mode in the game, since matches would probably take a lifetime to resolve. It’s bad enough against the capable and cunning AI.

I’m not very good at abstracts. Without a thematic hook, mimicking a real-life situation, I find them tough to get into. But this isn’t just me: it’s a well-known problem with the game amongst abstract fans worldwide. Two skilled players are almost always guaranteed to play each other to a defensive stalemate. Varying the starting positions, as the game permits, helps a lot, but it’s still a very defensive game and far too likely to end in a draw.

Abalone

Whatever the issues with the basic game, this app is saved by its puzzle mode. These short, stripped down game situations allow players to enjoy the challenging strategy of the game without the worst rough edges. There are a lot of them too, guaranteed to keep you going for a long time, with additional levels available for humdrum tasks such as “liking” Facebook pages.

But even after enjoying the puzzle mode to some extent, I find it baffling that we’ve got an app version a divisive title like Abalone when there are so many great modern abstracts to choose from. Great games like YINSH and Qwirkle would make superb candidates for jumping the digital divide, but instead we’re landed with overly defensive marble jostling.