Basic Strategy Tips

New to Syrtis? Here are a few basic strategy tips to get you started.

1. Sink foreign territory. 

Make an effort to sink the tiles that have your opponent's color and your opponent's shape. This especially goes for the early part of the game. Those tiles aren't doing you much good, and getting rid of them will make it more difficult for your opponent's towers to move around. 

There's another benefit, too. The more foreign territory you sink, the more of what remains has your color or shape. In other words, the more of what's left could help you make a game-winning island. 

So nine times out of ten, sinking foreign territory is a good idea. (On the exceptions, see this post.)

2. Slide toward the center. 

If you don't have useful tiles near the center of the board, it will be difficult to make a complete island. So slide useful tiles (especially ones with your color and shape) toward the center, and keep one of your towers nearby to protect them. 

If Light sinks the tile at a5, the useful tile at b4 will be difficult for Dark to remove from its nice central position. (The move also increases the number of square islands and decreases the number of light islands.) 

If Light sinks the tile at a5, the useful tile at b4 will be difficult for Dark to remove from its nice central position. (The move also increases the number of square islands and decreases the number of light islands.) 

3. Sink some tiles to secure others. 

Take advantage of the requirement that the whole board to remain connected. In the middle phase of the game, many of the remaining tiles will form a core that is hard to sink without breaking up the board. Try to make useful tiles part of that core. 

4. Be ready to sink. 

True, you may need to slide tiles around as you approach the endgame. But remember to keep one of your towers ready to sink a tile, especially when your opponent has sunk the last two or more tiles. If you're caught off guard, you'll lose by quicksand. 

Positional Balance in Abstract Strategy Games

Games Precipice did a nice series on balance last month, and I'd like to continue part of that conversation here. I am thinking specifically of how abstract strategy games achieve positional balance (if at all). 

Positional balance is relative equality between the players' winning chances throughout the game. The 'relative' is important: the players need not have exactly the same odds of winning, but a game is unbalanced if it is likely that one player will become a run-away leader. Games that are positionally balanced generally have mechanisms that keep the leader on a leash, or provide extra resources to players that are trailing. 

Not many abstract strategy games are good illustrations of positional balance. Instead, they tend to put all of their balance up front. In other words, they have external balance. 

I don't remember how to play Xiangqi, but it seems to have external balance.

I don't remember how to play Xiangqi, but it seems to have external balance.

External balance is the levelness of the playing field created by the game designer. Most abstracts reach external balance by beginning with a symmetric position. This could be by a symmetric placement of pieces, as in chess or checkers, or a completely empty board, as in go or Dvonn. External balance may not make the game perfectly balanced--there may still be a first-player advantage, say--but it ideally it will be enough to make both players feel that they have a fighting chance. 

An abstract strategy game with strong external balance and mediocre positional balance can still be a top-notch game. A chess player who is up a knight is rather likely (but not certain) to win. Since it is difficult to come back from a disadvantaged position, chess does not have a lot of positional balance. But getting a clear advantage takes a while, and there is plenty of gameplay variety in the process, so chess can still be absorbing. (It also helps that one can resign. When one player gets an undisputed run-away advantage, the game just ends.)

Yinsh, a positionally balanced abstract

Yinsh, a positionally balanced abstract

One of the few abstracts to wear its positional balance on its sleeve is Yinsh, a member of the acclaimed Gipf series. Yinsh disadvantages the leader by removing one of a player's rings from the board whenever he or she gets a step closer to the goal of making five markers in a row three times. The closer one gets to winning, the less one has to work with.

Yinsh creates positional balance with an ad hoc rule. I don't mean that as a criticism. It is in fact very clever, and it makes the game vastly better than it would be otherwise. But it does contrast with the kind of balancing mechanism that is emergent. In Dominion, having a bunch of victory point cards is, all else being equal, an advantage. But since victory point cards don't do anything, having them in one's deck makes it more difficult to make further progress. There is no rule of Dominion that says that the leader must be disadvantaged in some way. But that is what tends to happen naturally, and that's an elegant feature of the game. 

If I'm right about all this, Syrtis is one of the few abstract strategy games with several emergent positional balancing mechanisms. Since half the tiles have the color belonging to one player and the shape belonging to the other, sliding them toward the center tends to create advantages for both players simultaneously. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, even sinking a tile of the opponent's color and shape will (again, all else being equal) make it easier for the opponent to consolidate the remaining tiles of his or her color or shape. That helps explain why a game of Syrtis is often a tight contest.

What do you think? Are there good examples of positional balance among well-known abstracts? Share what you come up with in the comments.

Theme Song

Sting in arch.jpg

The high mucky-mucks at Syrtis International Headquarters (or Sièges social International de Syrtis, as they call it) have declared that the official Syrtis theme song will henceforth be Sting's "Mad About You."

Whether it's the overtones of madness, the Mediterranean flavor, or the image of kingdoms lost beneath sand and sea, it seems to fit. 

Why not play a bit of mood music during your next game? Watch the music video here, or click the button below to add the song to your collection.

Opening Strategy: Enemy Territory

an opening position (wave version with homemade towers)

an opening position (wave version with homemade towers)

How should one start a game of Syrtis? One idea is to eliminate enemy territory--in other words, to sink tiles that have the opponent's shape and color. 

If I am playing as Light (controlling the light, round towers), my towers will never occupy a dark, square tile. And I know those tiles will be valuable to my opponent, since dark towers on those tiles will occupy both a dark island and a square island. That means they will tend to have more movement options. So why not start the game by sinking some vulnerable pieces of enemy territory?

It's a good idea. Up to a point.

A danger to be wary of is that by sinking too many enemy tiles you will make it easier for your opponent to form a complete island. When I sink a dark, square tile, with one action I leave fewer dark tiles and fewer square tiles on the board. All else being equal, that makes forming a dark island or a square island less difficult. 

Usually all else is not equal, and the benefits are well worth it. But sometimes it comes with an unacceptable risk. That's especially so when the tile you sink is isolated from other enemy tiles, and when your opponent is already approaching a complete island. 

enemy territory.png

For example, take the opening position at left. In this game, Light has the first move. If Light blindly follows the policy of sinking enemy territory at the beginning of the game, it quickly leads to trouble. Light sinks the low-hanging fruit at c1, and Dark sinks at c4. Then Light sinks again at e4 and immediately learns to regret it. (Do you see why? You'll find the solution on the easy puzzles page.)

Light should have seen the enormous square island in the upper right of the board as a red flag. In some positions it possible (even early in the game!) to lose by sinking enemy territory. 

That suggests another strategic idea, one that is useful not only in the opening but throughout the game: holding territory hostage. More on that in posts to come.

Mythos

knight into mist.jpg

I know all too well why I am here. I am here because the emir has exiled me to this place, this cluster of marshes and islets. The mainland is tantalizingly close, but to return would be a death sentence. My only hope is to prove myself here, among these mists.

Unfortunately, it is a mystery what this land is, if land is even the word. I may cross a valley in the evening and discover a lake in its place the next morning. At the last new moon I spied a menacing tower in the distance. Investigating, I came upon it a full league closer than it ought have been. The tower looked like a ruin, but my men would come no closer to it.

And now my own camp has become stranger still. I commanded my men to build fortifications, and they began the work eagerly. At midmorning yesterday, before the outer wall was even half complete, the fog lifted to reveal a turret at the wall's end that none of us had seen before. It seemed ancient, its merlons weather-worn, its arches covered with woody vines. Yet its stones joined those of the wall as if Habib had laid them himself. 

I have delayed as long as I could, but I can delay no longer. If I hope to uncover the secrets of this uncannily drifting island, I must enter the turret.  

Genesis

a late-game position in a game of Hex

a late-game position in a game of Hex

Late in 2011 I was thinking about connection games. Hex is the most famous, but it's the granddaddy of a whole genre of games centered on the idea of connecting elements into paths or groups. Many of them have the earmark of great abstract strategy games: complex strategy that arises from beautifully simple rules. Inspired by games of this ilk, I designed Asterisk, a variant of The Game of Y, which is itself a variant of Hex.

In almost every game in this family, making a certain kind of connection is the goal. Making small connections is usually important, but only because they build up to the big, game-winning connection. 

But a few months earlier I had been pondering another type of connection game. What if making connections were useful for something other than a game-winning connection? What if, say, there were pieces that moved on connected portions of a shapeshifting board, so that making a connection could increase the mobility of one's pieces? As I was thinking about this, I came across a word puzzle that used circles and squares as blanks, and I found myself drawn to the way the shapes clustered on the page in wily little groups.

a few of the sixteen Quarto pieces

a few of the sixteen Quarto pieces

Then, in one of those musings that only come in the bathroom, it occurred to me that pieces could simultaneously be grouped by shape and by color. Shape and color can act as different dimensions, independent ways in which game pieces differ from each other. This idea is exploited in Quarto, a clever four-in-a-row game that adds the further dimensions of height and solidity. 

In Syrtis the multidimensional tiles make many of the possible actions double-edged. Sliding a tile to connect two light groups, for example, might easily connect two square groups as well, giving the opponent an advantage at the same time. The two dimensions also make for two ways to create a complete island, which makes finding the best strategy a balancing act. More on both of these facets of Syrtis in future posts. 

Welcome

tower over mist.jpg

Welcome to the Syrtis blog. This is where you'll find Syrtis's origin story, conjectures about strategy, musings on the development process, and other quasi-related tidbits. 

If you're new to the game, welcome! My hope for Syrtis is that it will be a novel and absorbing strategic challenge. It's designed to be shorter than chess and more exciting than the typical tabletop abstract. Let me know whether you think it succeeds.

One of the things I like best about the game is the unexpected diversity of its tactics. Stay tuned for posts on various strategic and tactical maneuvers, and have a look at the puzzle pages (easy and not-particularly-easy). 

Enjoy!

David