New Game: Shello – An Attempt to Solve the Problems of Reversi/Othello

I promised in an earlier post that I would post other games built around a new mechanic I invented, which I shall call the Shifty mechanic, and here I am.

Today’s game is an attempt to capture the spirit of Reversi (AKA Othello) in a form better than Reversi itself.

Some people like Reversi but I think it’s meh. It’s hard to have interesting strategy ideas about it, I think because it has waaaaaaay too much negative feedback. By negative feedback, I mean that the closer you get to winning, the harder it gets to win.  The goal is to have more of your pieces on the board than your opponent does when the board’s full, but during much of the game the player with more pieces is at a disadvantage, because her opponent can flip them in big bunches.  As a result it’s hard to understand what the state of the board means, which makes it hard to strategize. Too hard.

Some negative feedback is a good thing, but too much or too little is bad. It’s tricky to get it just right, and Reversi goes too far.  The best games seem usually to have just a little. Go comes to mind (don’t get too greedy trying to capture or you’ll find yourself out of position).

Another issue: the branch factor (the number of options per turn) is small, and the available choices feel too limited to me.

So now I’m trying to invent a game with the same satisfying flipping mechanic as Reversi, but with a better level of negative feedback and a larger branch factor. I’ve been thinking occasionally about this problem for a couple of years and this is the first promising idea I’ve had about how to solve it.

Shello is a game for 2 players, played with chips that are white on one side and black on the other, on a 9×9 square grid (or larger, as long as there are an odd number of cells in the grid.  But 9×9 is all you’ll need for a long time.)

The game starts with an opening board layout shown in the picture above.

The pieces in the corners are called Neutral Pieces. They never move and they’re never flipped, but they can be used to flip pieces of either color during the game. This is to say: on your turn, you may treat the neutral pieces as though they are yours, *only* for the purpose of flipping opponent pieces.


1. One player plays pieces black side up, and the other plays them white side up. Starting with Black, the players take turns. On your turn you must either place a piece on an empty space orthogonally-adjacent to any friendly piece, or or you must move any friendly piece, by a chess queen’s move (it can’t jump over other pieces), to any empty space not orthogonally-adjacent to any friendly pieces.

2.You must take an action if possible on your turn, but if you have no legal options you must pass.

3. After placing or moving a piece, flip all enemy pieces lying in an uninterrupted straight orthogonal or diagonal row between the piece you placed or moved and any friendly pieces. (just like in Othello)

4. The game ends when the board is full. The player with more pieces on the board wins.


1. Rather than start with the fixed opening setup above, players can take turns placing a piece non-adjacent to friendly pieces until there’s two of each color on the board and then proceed according to the rules above. I haven’t experimented with this method much, but there’s a chance it’ll be better than the fixed setup. Might require a pie rule.

2. Why the neutral pieces in the corners? In Reversi, it’s an advantage to have your pieces in corners because they can never be flipped there. On the other hand, it’s hard to get your pieces to the corners because all the pieces grow out slowly in one big clump from the center the board. In Shello, players have more control over where their pieces go, and consequently the opening of each game might devolve into a race to the corners. With neutral pieces in the corners, the corners are dangerous, so there’s no race to them.

3. I’ll bet most who play this will find it more stimulating than Reversi/Othello. There’s less negative feedback. The reason is that in Shello, the more pieces you have on the board, the more pieces you can move, which gives you better access to strategically important spots. Also, because you can move your pieces, you can move them out of threatened spots, and break up your threatened rows. This transforms the game. Pushes the awesomometer to the right. I believe.

10 thoughts on “New Game: Shello – An Attempt to Solve the Problems of Reversi/Othello

  1. Stumbled across your blog via a link on Twitter. I’ve now been reading it for the past hour and have become addicted (and will def. be adding it to the blogroll on our website). I love abstract strategy games and love the way you analyze them. I do have 2 questions, however:

    1.) I went to follow you on Twitter and was just directed to the site itself. Do you have a presence on there so I can interact with you further?

    2.) I have an abstract strategy game in the proto stage ( I’d love you to try it out or blind playtest it and give your thoughts once it’s a little more polished.

    1. Hey Eric,

      I’m doing doing twitter at the moment, to keep my internet addiction in something approximating check. I’d love to try your game. Are there files I can use to print somewhere?

      1. Hey Nick, I’ve got a file on Artscow right now, but it’s not public. I’ll be putting the game through the ringer at GenCon and then I should have an actual file to send you (with any luck) Thanks for the interest 🙂

  2. This looks like an interesting game. I’ve been a fan of Reversi since at least the late 1970s, and have always found it challenging to play well. While I disagree with your assessment that Reversi has too much negative feedback (playing for position and mobility are at least as important as piece count), I welcome the idea of trying to find game with similar mechanisms but an intentionally different amount of, as you call it, feedback. I hope I can find time to try it. Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but the reply window only shows one line of text, at least on this computer (using latest Chrome browser under Windows 7).

  3. Hey Clark,

    Sorry about the reply window. I’ll look into to. I don’t see that even though I’m using the same setup. Apologies for taking so long to reply. In the time since I have, I’ve made one rules tweak that makes cycles impossible. But the tweak may have a big effect on game play; I need to play it more in this new form, but I’m still enthusiastic about it.

  4. I guess the trick to learning to play Reversi well is to reverse your own view of positions—to “see” mobility and parity rather than seeing just the sheer amount of pieces turned to one side or another.

    I know I haven’t succeeded :/

  5. Sandra: Yup; Othello’s saving grace that it’s possible for some players to see parity and mobility. But to do so requires more effort than I’m willing to give. It’s like walking up a staircase and coming to a step that’s 10 feet tall. I could get up that one step if I really wanted to, but there are other staircases to climb without that obstacle.

  6. Another trick to learning to play Reversi well, is to pretend that tiles which are adjacent to empty squares are distinct from tiles which are surrounded by other tiles.
    It’s better for me to have most of my tiles surrounded by my opponent’s tiles, which are in turn surrounded by empty space.

  7. The game sounds interesting. A Japanese designer has recently come up with a neutral piece variant but much smaller board. Seems more of an exercise board. I agree with your assessment of the negative feedback. The trick seems to be control of edges and corners and keeping a little behind until the optimum moment. But of course I rarely play it, so might be wrong. I’ll give your game a try.

    1. Thanks. I’d love to hear what you think of it if you do. Here there’s a countervailing strategic imperative away from the edges: gain territory, or so it seems to me.

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