My favorite game is Slither. One complaint I’ve read about it is that for some players, it feels too “crazy”. The situation can change a lot in a single turn, more than some people like. I don’t know what they’re smoking, but it occured to me that I might be able to design a game with Slitherish dynamics but with a more stately, ruminative pace, using a move protocol that’s been ricocheting around in my head for months with no place to land.
The result is a game which (I’ll put down my false modesty and be frank for a moment) I really like.
Shifty is played on an initially-empty square grid, where one player owns a pair of opposing sides of the board and the other player owns the other pair. I recommend a 10×10 grid for beginners, like so:
One player owns the white stones and the other owns the black.
1. Black places a single stone on any empty intersection, and then White decides whether to switch sides with Black.
2. White places a single stone on any empty intersection.
3. From then on, starting with Black, the players take turns. On your turn you must either place a stone orthogonally adjacent to at least one friendly stone or you must move any friendly stone which is adjacent to at least one friendly stone, by a chess queen’s move, to any empty intersection not orthogonally adjacent to any friendly stones.
4. You may not place or move a stone so as to create this pattern (or any rotation of it):
5. You must take an action if possible on your turn, but if you have no legal options you must pass.
6. The game ends when one player makes an orthogonally and/or diagonally connected chain of stones connecting her two opposite sides of the board. She wins.
- Why might this lead to interesting play? This is a square board connection game, which means position is deadly critical. Because you’re limited in how you place your stones, you often have to shoot your stones into strategically critical spots. This “sharpshooting” activity is the reason for my affection.
- For most connection games, the only viable strategy in the opening is to spread your stones out. In Shifty, there’s a cost to doing this: if you want to spread out on your turn, you have to forego placing a stone. Even so, you *still* have to spread out frequently both because it gives you a positional strength and it increases your branch factor. It’s hard to know when the cost of movement is worth it, and that creates a lot of tension.
- The board fills up more slowly than for most connection games because you don’t have to place a stone on every turn. The slowness aids clarity and maybe provides more initial accessibility than Slither (if that’s your thing). It reduces the branch factor (from thousands to hundreds in the midgame).
- Another useful comparison is with Crossway. The knock on Crossway is that blocking is hard due due to the “doublecross restriction” (rule 4 above), so you need a gigantic board. This isn’t the case for shifty because most of the time it take two turns to make a diagonal connection, rather than one. So there’s an extra cost to making a diagonal connection which makes it less powerful as an offensive move.
- Luis doesn’t like the feel of the opening, because when you only have one stone on the board, you only have four options for placements. After some test games with myself I’ve decided that I disagree: I like this aspect because it makes individual matches feel different based on the initial placements (the branch factor grows rapidly as the game progresses out of the opening), but if you agree with Luis, I suggest the following: Allow players to place more than one singleton each before the “place or move” turn rule kicks in.
- On the temperature scale, this game is hotter than Slither but colder than Crossway, for reference. It’s temperature so far seems similar to that of Hex.
- Although I believe deadlocks are impossible in this game, I can’t write down the proof. If any of you can, please do!
- General note about this move protocol: the reason I like it, and the reason I’m going to publish several other games that use it, is because many stone-placement games demand a “spread out” opening strategy, and this protocol can spice up that strategy in many contexts. For example: it might make an Othello-like game more interesting.
- Note that you can also play Hex with this move protocol. It’s good.