Chess Month and musings on chessiness in games

I very much agree with the point that Quinns makes towards the end of the Targi review: it’s not fun to know that you are going to lose a game, especially if you have to have to wait a while for it to happen. (It’s also not much fun to be the winner in that situation.) This is perhaps why I like Onitama much more than I like Chess: win or lose, the game will be over quickly (I’ve heard of ponderers who need to be given a chess clock, but I haven’t found it a problem), so even if I’m going to be beaten hollow at least it doesn’t take half an hour.

Another reason I like Onitama is its variability: the setup may be the same each time, but we’ve got that random allocation of cards. Aha, so this time there’s only once advance-diagonally-to-the-left, eh? Well, that’s interesting…

On the other hand, win the race and then roll dice to see whether you won the game? Eh, perhaps not. I wonder whether you could give fish points for finishing first.


In a two-player game like chess, can’t you just resign if you know you’re going to lose?


You can in Chess, but I don’t think that culture has spread to other boardgames, even two-player ones.

One game that does it very well, which I played for the first time a couple of days ago, is Air, Land and Sea, which consists of a series of short rounds (“battles”). If you win a battle, you get six points. If your opponent “withdraws” while they still have cards in hand, you get fewer points – the earlier they make that decision, the fewer points you get, down to about two if they decide their hand is hopeless before playing. Winner is the first to twelve points.

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Sure it has, just not with the kind of 2-player games that are designed to always give the losing player some hope of winning.

There are lots of games I can think of where I’d be very surprised if an experienced player insisted on seeing the game through to the very end if the outcome is obvious.


A lot of it interlaces with game length. The longer the game is the more opportunity there is to turn a game around from losing to winning if both players play well, but likewise if there’s a skill disparity that just leaves one player’s face being shoved in the dirt with no hope of getting up again for the rest of the game.

I don’t think there’s a resolution between those two states for a perfect answer. Either the game is short and sweet, with a relatively simple ‘game curve’ to someone winning and then the game ends. Or its longer and you have to accept the loser may not have a great time, but if well matched the game can be a lot more satisfying to duke out. You’re never going to have Twilight Struggle levels of surprise comeback from a 15-20min game.

Usually the gap between the two extreme structures is more of a spectrum, but it becomes nearly a dichotomy in 2 player games since it’s much more of a zero sum. You’re either winning or losing, there’s no ‘doing well but not quite first place’ as you get in a 3-4 player game.

The only 2 player specific game I still own is Hanamikoji. All the others I’ve tried include some very good games but always become problematic with me among them more than other people and the experience differential sucks the fun out for me. I’m happy to win and can be quite competitive bit I prefer a fair fight. Hanamikoji has short rounds and you can see people improve game by game so it stays as it’s the one that’s remained fun for me.

Part of the reason I avoid Twilight Struggle. I’m more than happy to be aware it’s a great game but it just doesn’t suit my gaming habits so it joins all other 2 player games I just ignore.

The other hallmark of chessiness for me, and the reason why I gave it up when I was playing as a child, was the need to learn libraries of openings in order to get beyond a certain effective skill level. I don’t think any modern game does that to the same extent; I hear people say that you need to know the deck in Twilight Struggle, but there are claims to the contrary too, and even if you do that’s a thing you can sum up on a player aid.

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I think knowing the cards gives you a big edge on Twilight Struggle. I suffer from not being fully aware of what my opponent may have, specially on the early war stages, and it shows. And either you learn them through looking each one online (I think @Captbnut put a link up once) or you learn the hard way, through losing a lot like I am doing at the moment…

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You’re probably right, but I suspect the reason is more that there isn’t a well-developed competitive scene, rather than that the designs prevent people from training by learning openings.

There’s a competitive scene building up for Through the Ages, and I think some sort of Elo-style applied to the fastest time controls using the app is in the works. So something like learning openings is probably getting more important if you want to get past a certain skill level in that game. See eg for a taste of how serious players go about their training. Other games offer similar opportunities for dedicated players.

I play chess a lot (at short time controls on without learning a lot of opening theory. I still enjoy it, while accepting that I’ll never really be all that good.

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I admit that when I read about that kind of standardised strategy developing it tends to put me off the game being mentioned. This is certainly my problem rather than a problem with the game, but that youthful preference has been reinforced as my typical game session now involves playing with people both more and less experienced than I am, and I want everyone to have a good time. (Not necessarily a real chance at winning, but they need to feel as if they’re achieving something.)


Yes, I know that feeling. I love Through the Ages, but I don’t really want to do down anything like that sort of analysis/training rabbit-hole. I think it would end up being unfun for me.

And, for games like chess, this is only really feasible when the players have similar skill levels. Fortunately, web sites that keep track of ratings can match players up, and that’s why I’m able to still enjoy chess despite being more or less unable to play it at home. I’m not tempted to learn new chess-like games, because one is enough.


Anytime you are sitting down with more than one other person to play a free-for-all game, you already have the greatest equaliser in play - other players. Optimising your early moves better than anyone else can be just like painting a big target on your forehead, assuming it isn’t a pure optimisation or multiplayer solitaire game.

Two-player games are different, in that everything must be zero-sum - your gain is their loss. There’s no way to make a weaker player feel more comfortable aside from playing worse, and even that doesn’t work for everyone.

Opening strategies get talked about a lot, but for most modern games there’s enough randomness thrown into the mix to make any kind of playbook no better than a rough guide at best, and downright misleading at worst. If you don’t adapt to your hand and the first die roll in TS, you probably aren’t playing optimally, and if you take a certain leader or wonder in TtA just because some guide rated it better, regardless of the card drafting row, you probably aren’t playing optimally.

Chess is different because there is no random element, and because enough analysis has been undertaken into the game that the strengths and weaknesses of every combination of every possible set of opening moves have been thoroughly mapped out. Still, even then a perfect opening won’t help if you don’t understand how to take advantage of whatever minute edge your opening gave you.


This is why I tend to avoid 2-player games. I make a bad head-to-head opponent; I’m much better left to my own to allow the noise of more than 2 sharing the same gamestate space.

Also, I feel as though, by Chess’/Go’s precedent, 2-player games are assumed to be “a match of wits” and that’s not why I play games… I play to enjoy the company of others.


Given the nature of COVID in the last few months and that I very often play head to head with my elder daughter, I have played way too much 2 players games, or games that allowed 2 players only. I agree with both of you, depending on the game, it can be too much of a headlock of wits, on games like Arboretum, for example, the contest becomes sometimes nearly bloody.

That is an interesting quote. I cannot say that I play only to enjoy the company of others, I think for me the joy is in the act of playing, and having other’s company makes it more enjoyable. But I think I play for the joy of playing in itself, because it is a pleasant experience. But having others to play with increases the level of joy without becoming the target of the game. That’s why I also play solo (although a lot less since they have lowered the controls levels here in NZ, it must be said).

Anyway, I think there is a place for 2 players games, and I like games that include this option more, mainly for the flexibility of it. If a great game can only be played with a minimum of 4, I know it is going to be less likely that I will buy it if other games that are also good can be played with fewer players, or even solo. In other words, it is more likely to become a Great White Whale (a la Twilight Imperium, for example) if the number of players is a minimum higher than 3. Because I know is not going to hit the table as often.


I do play solo games (occasionally), but it’s more a function of being passionate about the hobby and having no other outlet (even before COVID) to express it.

I do primarily play to enjoy the company of others. Secondarily, then, I play for the challenge of solving new puzzles and figuring out new strategies. My solo plays are often a combination of looking for interesting challenges but also keeping my understanding and familiarity up for the next time I’ll play with actual opponents.


I dont mind resigning in the case of 2 player games. I resigned to Benkyo in our 2 player game of Antiquity when it became obvious that he’ll win in the next round.

This sort of thing can also happen in a multiplayer game, and I think it should be okay. I remember playing a drafting variant of Res Arcana. Someone was winning pretty well with a significant pts-per-round rate compare to the rest of us. We all resigned and spared ourselves more rounds of playing what is inevitably obvious to us. I dont think we were partypoopers, it just means we get to play more games that night.

That’s why I like victory conditions with “if a player is leading by X, they win”. Cuts off runaway winner right there and give them the win.

As for Chess monthly, I think Tak and Blokus are the only modern abstracts that I thoroughly enjoy so far. Onitama and Hive didnt really gave me the satisfaction that I want. I need to play Shobu and Yinsh.

Is Tash Kalar an abstract? My mind’s telling noooo.


Not by any definition I use. Random card draw and hidden hands. Great game though.

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Interesting. I think I would describe just about any trad card game “abstract” although I do accept it’s not the first thing I think of when I hear the term.

For a modern-day equivalent I’d most definitely think of Push as abstract even though it has randomness and control-your-luck-to-an-extent in spades.

On the subject of resigning I think there’s a difference between resigning with dignity and ragequitting with bad grace that is both easy to distinguish yet hard to explain what the difference is.

Chess (and Go, to a greater extent) have much longer traditions of resigning when the jig is up. Card games, on the other hand, might have money riding on the margin of victory (not just the binary result) so playing out to the end to minimise your losses is far more embedded in the ethos of playing, if not necessarily the rules.

Board-gaming, arguably a mashup of the two still struggles I think with finding where it’s comfortable on that scale.

Edit: in fact, extending that thought a bit more, even in games that are on face value very similar, there’s huge variety on whether voluntary concessions are the “done thing”. I’m thinking of Pool vs Snooker on that front right now.


Turns out that “combinatorial” is not an essential definition of abstract, but I always think of combinatorial games if someone says abstract.

Either way, Tash-Kalar, with dueling wizards invoking named spirits to animate magical stone, isn’t what I’d call abstract.