The Mind Sport Olympiads recently took place in London. This is actually the only event in which you can participate to an Abalone championship: the modest Abalone World Championship. I participated this year and earned the gold medal, which motivated me finishing this post I’ve been preparing for a while.
Abalone. Probably my most tenacious passion. I’ve tried and left a lot of things in my life. I have kind of a volatile temper when it comes to activities: piano, archery, etc. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I stop doing it for some reason and I never feel like I should start again. Well, something different happens with Abalone. I’ve stopped playing it several times, and every time, I start again. So let me just talk about this passion here.
One amazing thing about Abalone is how simple it is. It’s like go, you understand the rules really quickly, but it takes a lot of time to gain vision, reflexes and understanding of key features of the game. Wikipedia is a good source for explaining the rules:
The board consists of 61 circular spaces arranged in a hexagon, five on a side. Each player has 14 marbles that rest in the spaces and are initially arranged as shown at left. Play alternates between the players one move at a time, with the black marbles moving first. For each move, a player moves a line of one, two or three one space. The move can be either in-line (serial in respect to the line of marbles) or broadside (parallel to the line of marbles).
A player can push their opponent′s marbles which are in an adjacent space to their own with an in-line move only. They can only push if the pushing line has more marbles than the pushed line (three can push two or one; two can push one). Marbles must be pushed into an open space (i.e. not blocked by a marble of either colour) or off the board. The winner is the first player to push six of the opponent’s marbles off of the edge of the board.
So here are some possible moves with 2 or 3 marbles1.
When I started to play, I watched a lot of good and bad players. Some of them always gave me the same advices that I give you today:
- Keep your marbles close together
- Try to be at the centre of the board, particularly, try to have a marble on the centre
Wikipedia, by citing a paper, also gives some advices:
- Keep the marbles close to the centre of the board and force the opponent to move to the edges.
- Keep the marbles close together for increased defense and attack, especially in a hexagon shape to be able to push or defend in any direction.
- Pushing the opponent off the board is not usually a good idea if it leads to weaknesses in the player’s geometry.
While I totally agree with the first statement, I wouldn’t go that far for the two others.
Keep your marbles close togetherThis makes your block stronger. If you split, you give bigger opportunities to your opponent to break your structure (and that’s the key, if you get broken, you have more chances to be pushed off). Since one can push up to 3 marbles, 4 marbles can never push 3. Therefore, a line of 3 marbles cannot be pushed: a good way to have a nice and safe structure is having 3 lines of marbles. A very common situation in standard opening game is the specific pattern on the right. Wikipedia describes an hexagon shape but it seems to specific to me since there a plenty of figures requiring three lines of marbles that are thus stable.
Take the center
Your goal is to eject 6 of your opponent’s marbles. To do so, one obvious solution is to be in the middle of the board. The most important position is the center space, which really is a pivot for your structure. If you are on the middle of the board, your opponent is on the side and has more chances to lose at some point. In other words, I think Wikipedia summarized this point very well – except for the hexagon thing, which I think is not necessary.
These are just some beginner guidelines that you will find everywhere. Many beginners want to attack whatever the cost is, and that’s their biggest mistake. When you play abalone, it’s like when you play chess. You have to plan your moves, you have to imagine a strategy, find out your opponent’s one and trick them. If you go all-in for 1 marble, you’re pretty sure to lose. That’s why I partially agree with the Wikipedia quote, you shouldn’t go all in for one marble. The part I don’t totally agree with is “if it leads to weaknesses in the player’s geometry” – I’ll talk about that further on. The 2 previous advices will inherently make you last longer because your structure will be hard to break and because you may have a good position. But being a good defender will not make you win. It should be OK against beginners who make some mistakes, allowing you to score, but how to do against a player who has the same defence level as you?
Maybe you have already noticed it but there is a tradeoff between score and position in this game. Sometimes you will accept to lose the central position to push off a marble. I think that your evaluation of this tradeoff is what mainly makes you win or lose the game. If you are too optimistic (YOLO, we’ll see what happens), you may pay really hard your choices. If you are too pessimistic (you never take any risk) then you will probably get bored and confused when your opponent tries something fancy. So the good thing to do is taking risks by imagining the opponent’s next move(s) and making sure you will not lose more than you will win, either in position or in score. The more you are accurate in defining the risks you are taking the better.
High-level games extrapolate this tradeoff idea. Marbles are literally exploded all over the board. The center is still important but when you see how scattered the balls are, you just don’t care. One question then: why? Why do we see such chaos in a high-level game? Well, it’s for fun. I cite Wikipedia here, again:
The dynamics of the basic game may have one serious flaw: it seems that a good, conservative player can set up his or her marbles in a defensive wedge, and ward off all attacks indefinitely. An attacker may try to outflank this wedge, or lure it into traps, but such advances are often more dangerous to the attacker than the defender. Thus, from the starting position, it takes little skill and no imagination to avoid losing, and nothing in the rules prevents games from being interminable.
Because it is boring for games to be drawn out indefinitely, serious Abalone players tacitly agree to play aggressively. A player who forms a defensive wedge and makes no attempt to attack is therefore likely to be a novice who might lose anyway. Nevertheless, the possibility of any competent player bringing the game to a standstill, and successfully avoiding losing to even a championship-calibre player, remains troubling.
Yes, that’s quite annoying. I have met several good defensive players and they are very hard to win. If you just try some small attack, they will move back and stay as one block. If you do nothing, they do nothing. And if you decide to attack hard by taking big risks, then you have something like 70% chances to lose. Thats why the starting position really matters. In tournaments, for example, the most common starting position is the belgian daisy (on the left). As you can see, the marbles are split and players will try to gather on the center of the board. This, however, is not easy because both opponents have strong enough sets of marbles. This starting position is really fair for the two colours (even though black has a small advantage), that’s why it is used in official events.
Abalone in the world
Unfortunately, I don’t know many Abalone stuff in real. Many people know it when I talk about it, but very few of them actually play. I’ve never heard, for example, of an Abalone club, such as a Chess club. The only yet very important event is during the Mind Sport Olympiads. There is an Abalone session there, humbly called the Abalone World Championship. I will participate to this event this year, by the way, for the first time. I am also thinking about making an Abalone club in Montpellier (for example, as a partnership with the club of Go or Chess…). We’ll see what happens.
There used to be an official internet platform called NetAbalone. This platform is now closed, unfortunately. Some really willing people including David Malek (who made MLA, I’ll talk about this later) made an unofficial website on which you can play with other player: MiGS.
You’ll find (few) players from everywhere. There is a ranking of player based on their victories/defeats. Apparently, it will be soon available for iPad and other devices since it will not require Flash anymore. Unfortunately again, due to the price of the server – and maybe other things –, this website is now closed as well. Again, I am thinking of making something online, but really, I am not sure considering that I am in my 3rd year of PhD.
As for many other abstract strategy games, people made Abalone softwares you can play against. As far as I know, only one of them is famous/strong/free/easily findable on the web, this is Aba-Pro, by Tino Werner. Aba-Pro’s predecessor was Nacre, for which I can’t find any link. MLA (My Lovely Abalone) by David Malek – the one who made MiGs – is also hard to find. That’s too bad because it has an interesting AI, different from the one of Aba-Pro. Finally, ULA (Uncle Lolo’s Abalone) is being developed. I tested it and this is a very nice software so far. What I like is the real difference of reasoning among those AIs. ULA is not available for download yet since it still is in a beta version. But feel free to contact the developer through the webpage I have just mentioned to get a version and provide feedbacks.
The last word
I hope you’ll like this introduction to Abalone. I wish I could post more content on it. For example, screenshots of a very nice game so that you would be able to notice how interesting the game can be. Because, often times, I hear people saying that Abalone gets boring, you get stuck in a defensive position. But this is only partially true. When you start to have imagination, abalone is incredibly interesting. The easiest way to get an interesting game with many possibilities and risks is to try a different opening. The standard opening is by default boring unless you try some crazy stuff. So, please, forget that opening and try something crazy. You’ll like this game much more.
However, I have no game records. All I did was watching MiGs history of games. But who knows, maybe I will play against the big guys who made me love this game, and then, I’ll be able to give you some great examples. By the way, there is kind of an abalone community online, right here, also available – and more comprehensive – in French. People there are great and very interesting (I actually met the guy behing the nickname Fightclub at the MSO and he’s pretty cool!), so if you’re interested in this game, have a look over there!