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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 21 Next

1. Go

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract strategic territory claiming

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate placing stone on a grid, claiming territory and attacking groups of opposing stones.

Play Summary

At its core Go is a territory acquisition game. The players take turns placing stones, either white or black -- with each player placing one, on the intersections, or points, of a 19 x 19 grid.

A basic means of interaction between the players is capturing pieces, which is done by surrounding a contiguous group of enemy stones completely with your own so they have no liberties, or adjacent free points. Then the enemy stones are removed from the board and score the capturing player points. These essentially score twice: once for each captured piece, and again for the now-empty, surrounded territory left by them.

This generally means that players are penalized less for not contesting un-winnable regions, since trying to save them spends doomed stones and turns, but the question of what is and isn't winnable isn't always obvious. Any unoccupied space is legal for placement, with two exceptions; you cannot place a piece where it would be immediately captured (unless it captures in the process, saving itself), and you can't make a move that recreates a prior board state (which prevents capture loops).

Adjacent stones of the same color live (remain on the board) or die (are captured) together, as a unit. Larger clumps are more difficult to capture, but not proportionately so. Think on this: a single stone in the middle of the board requires four opponent stones to capture it, but a pair requires six, only 50 percent more. Strung-out groups are generally more viable than concentrated clumps.

However, single stones cannot capture territory, and larger groups can be harder to capture for other reasons. Notably, a group that is close to being captured can often saved if it can be joined with another, freer, group, combining their liberties

Territory is claimed by surrounding it with your color stones, but it isn't enough just to surround it; if the other player has stones within a field of territory that are viable, then the territory is contested and doesn't yet score. Territory is contested when it's possible for the opponent to form two eyes within it, contained liberties surrounded by stones. In practice this involves agreement between the players; if the players don't agree, then they must play out the situation until it's obvious whether the invading group will survive or must perish.

A consequence of the capturing rules is that a group of stones containing two eyes is impossible to capture unless the defender foolishly fills in one of the spaces himself. To make eyes requires space for the stones that define the eye and turns in which to place them, which may be interfered with by the defending player.

More advanced topics are the questions of whether a given region is large enough that an eye-containing cluster of stones can be made inside, how to go about forming that cluster, attacking the opponent's attempts to make such safe groups in your own territory, and high-level strategic play concerning staking out regions of the board and defending them from intrusion.

What can we draw from this game?

Go is one of the great classics. There remains almost an air of the exotic around it today; the first task of a non-Japanese learning to play is to get over that. It is substantially different from more Western-style board games, and is extremely deep, but it is not that hard to learn the basics.

Go is infamously difficult for computer programs to play well. While chess software has won against grandmasters, the best Go programs are routinely beaten by intermediate human players. One reason is that the combinatorial explosion of possible moves is even greater than that of chess, making it difficult to exhaust positions through brute force. Another part might be due to the importance of high-level strategy in the early game setting up the character of the board for the battle to come.

Further reading: The Interactive Way to Go is an excellent way to learn to play.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 21 Next

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