Friday, May 30, 2014

Mantis on my hand

Mantis on my hand
So green and bright,
And confident:
She will not bite
But combs her hair,
Cocks her head and stares
With iridescent eyes -
Then spreads her wings
And flies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

H is for Hnefatafl

Some time between 1987 and 1991, I was given a copy of an intriguing game for Christmas that had been marketed under the name "King's Table" [1]

This game was billed as an ancient Viking interpretation of chess, and to my teenage self that was enough: I swiftly enveigled a few family members to play with me. [2] Sadly, once the Christmas season was over, this game only rarely saw the light of day, which is a true shame. I didn't know very much about the game at the time, just the page of notes that preceded the rules.

This was before the explosion of information on just about any subject on the internet, and there was nothing about the game that I could find in encyclopedias or other books in the library. Of course, this was partly because the game I got didn't include any of the names of the real games on which it was based - it was an amalgam of the various guesses as to how the table games played throughout the germanic, norse and celtic world about a thousand years ago probably worked.  The result was that I regarded the game as an interesting chess variant, but didn't really pursue it any further. [3]

A few years ago, I was reading about something [4] for some reason that now eludes me when I inadvertently stepped into a maze of tangent clicks.[5] The next thing I knew, I was reading an article on the question of whether or not dice were used in a game found in Viking graves, and comparison to a Welsh game called tawlbwrdd. As I read, I suddenly remembered the game from that Christmas long ago and realised that there had always been more to this game than just a chess variant.

To start, I realised that I had misinterpreted the rules [6] and play was actually more sophisticated than I had thought. To continue, the possible inclusion of dice in the game suggested that it was far more than merely a local variant of chess, and I had been missing an interesting dimension of the history of games in Europe despite its having been right under my nose.

Since then, I've read a bit more about the game, and my interest in exploring it has only increased. Sadly, malleable relatives are now far away in space and time, and it's more difficult to bully my current social circle into playing games.

Much as I'd love to play Hnefatafl a bit more, it doesn't seem likely I'll get a chance any time soon. [7] That won't stop me from reading more about it of course, but I can't help but chafe at the poor intersection of time and technology that led me to forget about it for so long.


1. I don't remember the exact variant of the game clearly, but it would have been a commercialized version of one of these.

2. For values of "a few" exactly equalling one.

3. Interestingly, though, when I think back my interest in the history, archaeology and anthropology of games basically dates back to this period - I don't clearly remember which came first, though, so I don't know whether my interest led to the purchase of the game, or receiving the game led to my interest in historical games.

4. I don't recall what.

5. As one does.

6.  Or perhaps the reconstruction on which the commercial game was based had been simplified - to its detriment.

7. Though apparently you can play online!

Friday, May 9, 2014

G is for Go

One of a series of articles on games I wish I'd played more of.

I've been fascinated with go ever since I first learned of it.

More properly known as igo in Japanese, this is a kind of ultimate distillation of the concept of games:

Fundamentally, the mechanics are simple, with only a truly minimal handful of rules governing what each player can do.

But this very simplicity leads to a universe of possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the game, or familiar with it under its various other names [1] Japanese igo is really very, very simple.

You start with a board comprised of a 19x19 grid of lines. [2]

Each player takes turns placing a stone on the intersections.  Stones cannot move once placed.

If a player's stone or group of stones is surrounded by the opponent's stones, with no adjacent intersections open, then they are removed from the board. [3]

When there are no more moves possible that won't result in a capture, you count the empty intersections completely controlled by each player - each is worth 1 point.  The player with the most points wins.

The basics are, as I said, simple, but the sheer scope of options at each turn is such that the board quickly becomes very complex and strategy is very, very sophisticated.

In some ways, this is good: it means that the game can be played by people with a wide variety of skill levels.

In other ways, this is a serious problem, however.

I first started playing igo way back long before I ever moved to Japan. I had heard of the game and had read a bit about it [4] and one year I got a set as part of a game pack one Christmas.  I read the rules, and played a handful of games with anyone who would sit down with me.

It was fascinating, exotic, and incredibly challenging.  For such a simple game, the potential seemed incredible - I was hooked.

But like chess, it can be very hard to find people willing to actually sit and play igo, so for many years I didn't play at all - when I moved to Japan I assumed it would be easy to find partners and finally polish the rather rough game I had developed in the absence of serious players.

How wrong I was.

Like many parts of Asia, igo is played fairly widely in Japan, but the problem is that it's considered a very intellectual and difficult game.  The result? Most people don't start playing until later in life, and when they do they start playing very seriously. [5] This means that for a beginner like me, random friends and acquaintances are unlikely to admit to knowing how to play, and attending an igo club means that the players are so far ahead that it can't possibly be fun for anyone.

When you play igo against a competent, experienced player who is (let's be honest) much, much better than you, they are supposed to give you a handicap in the form of an advantage of stones already on the board.

This handicap is calculated based on a system of grades and levels similar to what you see in martial arts - players are rated as having a kyu number until they reach a reasonable level of proficiency, and then they start working up the dan grades - dan grades are essentially equivalent to having a black belt in igo.

So here's my problem:

I have met any number of people who know about igo, are not particularly proficient, but basically profess not to play.  I have also met a handful of people who tell me they play igo...but are at various dan levels.

The one igo club I've ever gone to where I was made to feel welcome (rather than a stone around the necks of the players who invited me, and therefore were obligated to hold my hand the whole time) the lowest ranked player was 3rd dan. The player who was most enthusiastic about helping me learn the game was 5th dan.

On the face of it, this is great! Who can complain about having enthusiastic, highly skilled players willing to teach you how it's done?

Well, clearly you've never tried this.  The fact of the matter is that it's depressing, humiliating, and not at all fun for anyone involved.

No matter what I did, I couldn't make a single move that made me feel like I was making progress.  Even with humiliatingly enormous handicaps I simply couldn't perform respectably, let alone win.

I don't mind losing while I'm losing a game, but let's face it - not being able to play people your own level makes it very difficult to really learn how to do things right, and is frustrating to boot.

So now I really wish I could meet a few people who, like me, are beginners but seriously interested in learning how to play.  There don't seem to be any Japanese players like this, though, so I guess I may be doomed to play against computers forever.


1. Igo is popular in China and Korea as well, with local variants where there are a few subtle details different from both the Japanese and international versions.

2. Actually, there are variants of various smaller sizes, but most are used only for teaching the basics to new players.

3. In practice, skilled players rarely capture stones because good adversaries won't allow the competition to go that far - they each recognise that a space has been captured and move on to a different part of the board.

4. This was pre-internet, so information was scanty and sketchy.

5. The Japanese take all hobbies seriously. In fact, it seems as though the Japanese are reluctant to admit they have a hobby at all unless they think they can perform creditably - which often means at a nearly professional level.