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Published successively by Parker Bros., Hasbro, then Winning Moves
Type: Two player line-forming board game
Designed by: Gary Gabriel, possibly building on traditional sources
Luck factor: None
Description: A variant of the Japanese game Go-Moku. Two players take turns placing stones on a 19x19 grid. Yes, like Go. Instead of acquiring territory, players try to line up stones. The winner is the first to get five in a row or capture five pairs of opposing stones.
Two people take turns placing stones on a grid board trying to get a sequence of five of their color in a row orthogonally or diagonally while preventing their opponent from doing the same.
A pair of two (but not more) adjacent stones belonging to one player can be captured and removed from the board by the other player by bracketing it in a line with his own stones, but only if he completes the bracket (that is, playing two stones between opponent stones is safe). A player wins by either getting five stones of his color in a row or capturing five pairs.
Although it takes five pieces in a row to win, key to this is developing a board state in which one's opponent cannot prevent a five-in-a-row on the next turn. The simplest way to do this is to get what our group calls an "unbounded four," a row of four stones without a bordering enemy stone on either end.
Since only one end can be blocked on the next turn, this is a guaranteed victory unless there is an immediate win available elsewhere. Other ways include threatening to win two ways at once, and trying to confuse the opponent into not seeing a potential winning line before it is too late. That last is often an unsatisfying win, but it is still a victory.
One can also win by capturing five pairs. Advanced Pente players try to place stones in such a way that, to capture pairs, the other player must set himself up for a capture himself. It is possible for players to engineer long chains of these threats. Threatening to win in a way that blocking it creates a capture opportunity is another favorite tack.
To win the game, a player must usually get five in a row, and doing that with five simple placements is unlikely to be successful, so having more pieces on the board, provided they cannot be captured, is generally better in that it provides material. Diagonals are one of a good Pente player's most important tools in setting up long sequences: their lines are slightly harder to see, but more importantly they allow a player to easily set up several potential lines at once.
Because continuous lines are fairly easy to spot, because it is sometimes hard to extend a line of three from a line of two without a capture threat or a block, and because it helps to give one more line options, one strategy that sometimes works I find is to place pieces far from each other at first, with one or two spaces between them, and then close them up, knitting them together into a web of possible lines.
A drawback of this approach is that pairs tend to crop up often across lines as you work on orthogonal and diagonal sequences simultaneously; they can be attacked fairly easily, and in the process of blocking the capture, another pair can easily be formed.
The first player in Pente is known to have a significant advantage, a fact that is not, by itself, damning; the first-player advantage in Go is so well-known that it has been defined to be worth 5.5 points.
However, it is harder to handicap for in Pente. Many games have a first-player advantage, but the better ones seek to minimize or account for it. Some solutions suggested by enthusiasts to lessen the first player advantage is to limit certain second moves made by that player, to allow for captures of three stones instead of just two, and to allow the second player to switch sides a few moves in if he desires.
At the core of Pente are the techniques of forming multiple lines at once and setting up situations where the player must block a win into a capture. The more stones one has on the board the easier it is to knit them together into a winning line; losing a lot of pieces not only pushes one towards losing due to the capture count, it decreases your opportunities in forming multiple lines, which is how most games are won.
As for forming multiple lines, diagonal lines make this process much easier as they are both harder to see at a glance and tend to form naturally out of proximate orthogonal lines. However this is also a danger, as these situations tend to create pairs that can be attacked. A solid cluster of stones presents opportunities for both lines and captures. These tend to be mercilessly attacked by experienced opponents, so better Pente players will try to piece them together more slyly, joining them together from a distance, or making them piecemeal.
The capture rule is the most elegant piece of Pente's design; developers working on similar types of stone-placing games might begin by investigating both it and the versions suggested above by Pente enthusiasts.