It’s all about the rope.
Shobu looks and plays like a game that’s been around for centuries. The genre trappings—black and white pieces, square grids, simple rules—set high expectations and essentially doom the game to obscurity. I’ve heard from more than one publisher that abstract games, especially ones that look like this, are a one way ticket to sales disappointment, and I’m not the kind of guy who goes around talking to publishers very often. Making a game like this can be seen as an act of defiance; rebellion against a hobby culture seemingly in love with excess, searching for maximalist sensory experiences in a medium that mostly sucks at that because every single piece of that maximalism sits there doing nothing until you physically interact with it according to strict rules you need to cognitively understand. Jamie Sajdak and Manolis Vranas made their game out of rocks. Hell yes.
Shobu is played on four 4×4 grids, two stained light and two dark. Each player gets four stones on each board. A rope divides the center of the play area. Every turn you get two moves: one passive and one aggressive. The passive move must be on your side of the rope, and the stone you move (up to 2 spaces in any direction) cannot jump over or push another stone. The aggressive move must be made on an opposite-stained board, and it must be the same direction and distance as the passive move. This one can push other stones, and whoever pushes all of their opponents stones off of one of the four boards wins. Think about it for a second and you’ll begin to understand how tricky this can get.
Each move, from the very start, is multi-layered. You’re not only evaluating what sort of aggressive move you want to make, but what sort of offensive and defensive shapes you’re making on both boards you’re manipulating. The passive move is often made only to enable the aggressive move you want, but next turn the board on which you made that move could be where you’re aggressing next. Each move is thrust and parry, important in the present and the future.
If Shobu were longer it would wear the players down, only succeeding with the most dedicated. Fortunately it’s compact, sprinting out the gate from the first turn. The end can drag a bit, as one player finds themselves in a lost position, only able to delay the inevitable. Each time I play I find myself thinking further and further back in the timeline of the game. I genuinely wonder if the second move of the game is the most significant. (The first move seems somewhat obvious, as having a central position and stacking stones [two stones can’t be pushed together] are important, so a diagonal move towards the middle seems like the right play). I’m reminded of the Splotter guys’ mantra that every game should be losable on the first turn. I suspect that, as you play Shobu more, your attention drifts further and further back towards the start of the game, and you find that the real meat of it is housed in those first few turns before the inevitable flurry of trades that signal the mid-game.
In this way Shobu is very chess-like. Each piece is both offense and defense. There’s a clear early, mid, and late game. Certain structures are stronger than others. Consider a single turn: you make a passive move. Okay, so what? Well, the stone could be moved into a position to strike next turn. That’s a tempo play, setting up a threat while executing a threat elsewhere. Except that every stone has the same boundary on its movement, so if you’re in range to push an opponent’s piece, they’re in range to push you. But maybe that’s not the case, depending on the situation on the two opposite colored boards. Perhaps your opponent doesn’t have the capability to push you at all. You’ve got to check if you have the capability as well. That’s only half of a turn. It’s a game played on four boards, but each board is intimately linked to the others. The reverberations of each move echo across the play space.
By the mid-game those echoes become too overwhelming for me to understand. I get lost, blundering with reckless abandon, something my opponents don’t seem to mind. This isn’t uncommon with an abstract game (I’m notoriously awful at them), so the litmus test is whether I care about improving. Shobu passes. It’s so simple in scope that its depths feel (correctly or not) more accessible. It’s the game That Time You Killed Me was trying to be.
But it all goes back to the rope. It’s a superfluous component, dividing a space that is already visually divided. There’s nothing special about it. It’s truly just a rope. But everything important is also “just” what it is. The “just”ness of its being does not negate anything. It’s textured, almost overwhelmingly so, compared to most board game components of cardboard, plastic, and resin. It forms a trio of primal materials and textures in this game: stone, wood, and fiber. It accents the horizontal shape of the stones in their starting positions, and marks a dividing line between opponents. It’s an accent mark; a bit of poetry; that word in the sentence that works not just for its meaning, but for its shape and feel. Who cares if the game works the same without it? It’s not gilding the lily. It is the lily.