Sunday, 5 February 2017

Epic Space Battles

I knew very little about Go two years ago. I was introduced to the game when I went to Japan on holiday in 2015. One evening I got back to the hotel, was flicking through the channels on TV when I found a game being played on TV complete with expert commentary. I decided to watch and see if I could work out the rules. After all, I’ve played High Frontier. How difficult could it possibly be?

It turns out, not difficult at all. Go only has about five rules, and they’re all easy to remember. As you might expect for a game that’s been play-tested for about 4,000 years, it’s pretty robust.

Anyway, when I got back from Japan, I started to learn more about the game and then got a Go game on my phone to play against every now and again as well as buying a real set of my own.

Tonight, for the first time in months, I felt the urge to sit down with my cheap board and set of stones (actually plastic) and play again.

For whatever reason, I like to play by candle light (just like they did four millenia ago, or something) which is why the photos looked a bit strained. And while I’m still quite a bad player (I never play regularly enough to improve) I thought I’d write about my game tonight. Because I won, and I feel smug about it. And because I thought of the blog title and I wanted to use it.

Effectively, there are two players trying to surround territory (and each other) at the same time using only the very basic rule-set. The winner, then, is the one who plays most efficiently. If you can defend, say, ten squares with four stones while on the other side of the board your opponent took six stones to defend another ten squares, then your doing well since you would have used those other two stones to start invading new territory.

Additionally, if you’re able surround your opponent’s stones then that counts as a bonus point as they’re removed from the board and you get the territory they occupied plus one point for each stone. In fact, you don’t even have to remove them from the board (since that would take up more turns and be inefficient) if it is clear that there’s no way for a group to be saved, they sit on the board until the end when they’re taken off and used as spoils of war.

Playing Go is a real mental workout, and very tense. Because you’re putting so much effort into it for such a long time (this game took an hour) you become quite invested in it. This means losing a game, as I often do against my phone, makes me much more annoyed than if I lose at any Eurogame.

Plus, because the rules are so simple, you find yourself thinking after a defeat “Why can’t I play the right way each time?” There are no cards or dice to change things. Just your choices between seemingly similar moves: a one-space jump? A two-space jump? A night’s move? These early choises are the gaming equivalent of the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon that causes hurricanes in other continents.

Early on in the game. Feeling quite good about my position
but there's still a lot of territory to play for.

A bit later on, and a battle for the right hand side ends in my favour.
The group of white stones highlighted is surrounded and can't get out.

Mid game. I have a ring of black stones around the centre of the board
but white has started to invade through gaps in my defence.

The white invasion was a failure!The highlighted white group
has no means of escape and surely now victory is mine!

The end of the game! White has some territory along the bottom, but since
I spent no time attacking it, that's not a problem. I control most of the
rest of the board.

And the phone confirms it! That's a bit of a thrashing,
even if I do say so myself.

Happily, I won. Although the difficulty setting on my phone was pretty low: level 2, it’s usually enough to give me a challenge. Although, with a win like this, I should maybe graduate to level 3. According to the phone, this makes me about 15kyu on Go rankings. A casual gamer.

It’s a beautiful game in many ways. I can see that it might not be a huge hit at GNN, because it’s not very sociable: two people playing in, more or less, complete silence. There is a four-player variant (Pair Go) but that, too, is played in silence.

Two-player games usually struggle to gain favour at GNN nights but with recent rumblings towards specialised evenings (“Games Night Twos”, perhaps?) maybe I can convince someone to give this a go.

A ha ha.

See what I did there?


  1. I would suck at this game. I'm not great at planning many stages ahead and working out the permutations. It's the same with Chess. I'd be happy for you to teach me the game though....If we ever get a moment. Although judging how you made short work of me in cartography, it might not be that entertaining for you...

  2. I remember hearing about the final of a prestigious Japanese Go tournament, between two acknowledged masters. One player took an entire day deliberating his move, and had to spend the next day in bed recovering from the mental effort.

    I've played a teaching game in my studio with Joel, who is a big fan. He would be a very willing opponent for you Andrew, I'm sure.

    1. Hmm, if he can play a teaching game, then he's probably pretty good. I'd like to, though. It's about time I played a human.

  3. Thanks for the report, Andrew! Paul Jefferies and I had a crack at go on the boat, many years ago now. We weren't sure when it ended, as I recall. And I think I also recall subsequent investigations proved that the game ends when both players agree it to be over, is that the case?

    1. That's right. It ends when both players think they can't improve on their position, and they both pass when it's their turn.