05 March 2023
This game will give you the bug for abstract games once again
Words by Christopher John Eggett
There are three ways chess players can go on their gaming journey. They can take the obvious route, become a chess person – go to the conventions, read the books, get into the lore, and eventually attempt to fight a computer. They can take up Go and realise that they’ve spent a lot of time of a very shallow game until this point (or so it is reported to me). Or they will find their way into the world of hobby game abstracts. Some of these are a little like a deconstruction of chess itself. Thrive for example gives players a way to build their own set of rules as they play. Onitama gives your pieces different moves, which you pass to your opponent once you’ve taken them. That Time You Killed Me gives you three cascading time zones to play across.
Or there’s the modern classic, Hive, which while much simpler than chess or indeed those remixes mentioned, offers a depth of strategy and accessibility which means you’ll never be short of an opponent. And after all, isn’t the point of an abstract game to face off against the wits of a willing foe?
WHAT IS IT?
Hive is the game I can challenge someone else with using only the noise of clattering bakerlite-alike pieces on a table. Pour them out in front of the right person and silently you will assemble a colour and begin a game. There’s a charm to this by itself – isn’t the idea of head-to-head gaming one that asks that both sides intrinsically understand the rules and enjoy matching their intention with their player position against yours?
Most versions come in a zipped bag, with hexagonal tiles inside in two colours. Each player has an identical set of insects and bugs – the most important of which is the Queen Bee. Encircling your opponent’s Queen Bee is your goal in the game – completely trap them and you’ve won. The rules state you need to play your Queen within the first four turns – once you’ve placed it, the game really begins as each of the creepy crawlies has their own powers to use in your quest to entrap the opposing player’s Queen. On a turn you’ll be either placing the tile, or making a move with one already on the board – and those moves are really important.
For example, the Beetle can move up on top of other tiles. This makes it great for manoeuvring over to the other side of the field, or holding certain pieces in place. After all, you can’t move a piece that’s got a big ol’ beetle sitting on top of it. Others like the Grasshopper move directly over to the next available space in a straight line – hopping over everything. The Ant is free to move anywhere on the outside, while the Spider can only creep three along. What all of these movements do is create the same feeling of ‘seeing the board’ as you might in chess. Quickly you will start seeing where your opponent wants to move to, or your chances of hemming in the Queen piece. And soon, your reaction to seeing those moves won’t be to race to the Queen, or dodge yours out the way, but look for holding positions where you can tie up your opponent’s pieces long enough for them to forget about it.
You see, one of the rules of the game is that you can’t break the hive, there must always be one contiguous structure. That means if your opponent slyly moves a piece from beside yours near the centre of the board to the outside – your piece being the only one connecting it, you’ll be unable to move it anywhere until they’ve decided to move theirs. Frustrating, unless you wanted them to do that, right? After all, it could have just been a distraction tactic.
WHY SHOULD YOU PLAY IT?
Hive is a game that I play a lot with games partners I’ve known for years. It really suits continuous, repeated plays that stretch beyond the single game and into the realms of an ongoing grudge. Noticing weekly changes in other player’s strategies, it’s a game where you truly end up playing the other person, rather than their understanding of the rules or familiarity with the events that might turn up. There’s no real sense of anything being left to chance here, it’s just you and them.
And it’s simple enough to teach to almost anyone in two or three minutes. You understand ninety percent of the rules from this article anyway (and one of the last important ones is here: you can’t move a piece through a gap it can’t fit through).
It’s simple enough to teach anywhere too – there’s no board for Hive and the nature of the pieces means it feels endlessly durable. You can take it to the pub and have beer splashed on it to literally no detriment (other than you’ve lost some of your beer). You can play it on the beach (something which can’t be said about all games, even vanilla chess sets might fail here). Or even at home.
The pieces in the game, those little bakerlite-like hexes inscribed with a simple icon of a bee or a soldier ant are the heart of the game, they kind of rattles in the bag, they’re great to stack, and they make the whole experience feel very real. It’s a game that demands nothing of you than being the best you can be at it. In many ways abstract games like this, which lean on their physicality – and don’t ask you to pretend to be anything other than two people playing a game – feel like the least abstract of them all.
After all that, there’s also the expansions. Tiny two-tile sets for Pillbugs (move a tile adjacent to it to another adjacent tile), Ladybugs (kind of like a Beetle that can change direction as it moves into a new gap) and Mosquitos (which uses the power of whatever bug it is touching) are all you need to add more. But in truth, all you need to add more to this game is to spend a little bit more time playing it.
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