Mary Russell

Throughout my life, from my childhood until the present day, I've had brief, intense periods in which I became obsessed with chess. It's an irresistible compulsion, the gaming equivalent of pon farr. After a few days or weeks, the fever passes. This waning of my sudden affection is helped along by the fact that I've always been pretty rubbish at chess. I've no head for playing competitively nor competently. 

I'm a much better fit for backgammon, a game I came to late in life, but deliberately and by choice. That is to say, at an early age, someone decided I should know how to play chess, just as someone decided I should know how to tie my shoes, catch a fish, and memorize multiplication tables. It was knowledge that was given to me passively, not something I sought out. Whereas as an actively curious adult, I decided to look into backgammon because I thought it might fit into my wheelhouse. When I was a kid, I had no wheelhouse for anything to fit into.

Oddly enough, backgammon was one of my father's favorite games. I didn't learn this until over a decade after his death. So it very well could have been something that would have been passed down to me, but for some reason he didn't try. Or maybe he did: thinking on it now, I have a dim sort of memory of trying to play backgammon with him when I was a child, and having trouble understanding the game, which frustrated him (he had a short temper; so do I). But I don't know if that's true, or if my brain is just splicing together different fragments of memories and wishful thinking. Because certainly part of me wishes I had been closer to my father, who was thirty-eight and distant when the lung cancer took him. And playing backgammon would perhaps have brought us closer.

Games in general can do that. Gaming is primarily a social activity. It creates new friendships and deepens existing ones. It provides a context where people can communicate with one another, engage with one another, and enjoy one another's company.  It lets you know a person without having to know a single thing about them. Games connect us to one another; it's no wonder that they've been part of the human story for as long as we've been writing it down.

And yet abstract games are something else entirely. For starters, they're almost entirely two-player affairs, and thus more intimate. There's a reason that I wish I could've played backgammon with my father, and not Clue or Risk with my family. But abstract games are also somehow sharper, cleaner, simpler. There's a sturdiness, an austerity, a purity to them, the same way classical music has a purity to it that you can't get in a three-minute sandwich of verse-chorus-verse. An abstract game doesn't get in the way of the two people seated at either side of it; it focuses everything on the me and you, and is an ideal conduit for that communication. The game isn't the game, me and you are the game, and you've nothing else to grab onto save your opponent.

I think that's one reason why a lot of folks turn their nose up at abstracts. I don't necessarily blame them. I turn my own nose up at party games on the regular, and there too the game isn't the game, me and you and also you and yeah that guy and that one friend of yours I can't stand are the game. Maybe the problem for me is that party games feel too much like parties, while an abstract game feels like a conversation, which makes it more appealing to me personally.

Certainly, just as we don't intend on publishing any party games, we as a wargames company had no intention of publishing any abstracts despite my affection for the form. We felt that they'd be unlikely to resonate with our core customer base; abstracts are off-brand for us, just as doing a euro-style game would be off-brand for us. Custom wood bits would be required - doing a true abstract with counters feels like a deep and terrible transgression - and that kind of thing gets expensive rather quickly, which in turn works against our low-overhead business model and puts us in danger of having to price the game beyond what a customer would consider reasonable. So: whole bunch of reasons why we weren't going to publish an abstract game.

And so of course we have one coming out next month, Ty Bomba's Boom & Zoom. The reason for it is simple enough: I'm over the moon for the thing. You do one of two things on your turn, either firing at an enemy tower (boom) or moving one of your towers (zoom). The capabilities of both are a function of the size of the tower, varying from one to three pieces in height, and the object is to convey as many pieces off your opponent's side of the board as you can. The game ends when only one side's pieces are left, and then you count up what each side has managed to bear off.

Like my beloved backgammon, it's both a racing game and one of positional defense, and good play requires finding the right balance between the two. An overly cautious player who concentrates solely on whittling down his opponent's forces will lose the game when one or two of them slip by, because he's neglected to bear off any of his own towers. A player who just sprints to the finish line, never stopping to slow down his opponent, risks an end-game where his remaining tower is weak and outnumbered, unable to stop the enemy from rushing across the finish line. The game therefore tasks players with two contradictory impulses; furthering one will make it harder to further the other, and vice-versa. 

The game was published once before, by Victory Point Games some six years ago, but VPG, perhaps worried that a perfect information abstract wouldn't appeal to their audience of wargamers, instituted a number of fairly major changes to transform it into a sort of a wargame set in the future, complete with terrain rules, faction fluff, and increasingly complicated scenarios. I'm not sure how well the game did commercially in that format, but from a creative perspective - and I say this with a great deal of respect for VPG's former business model and output - I think that approach severely undermines the purity and simplicity of Mr. Bomba's game, and detracts from its elemental appeal. It makes for a game that's far too abstract to appeal to most wargamers, and a game that's far too messy and complicated to find its place as a great abstract.

In publishing our edition of the game, we are presenting Mr. Bomba's original vision, unaltered and unadorned, with handsome wood pieces that won't get in the way of me and you.

1 comment

  • Very moving and excellently written piece, Tom. I love abstract strategy games and love the one on one time they afford me with my sons. As you stated they just feel more “connecting” than other games. My sons are now getting to the age where they can challenge me without me going easy on them, so we will see how long my love last :)
    I also discovered backgammon late, despite the abundance of old boards from the 70s and 80s sitting the around the homes of relatives as a kid. Great game. Thanks for the post


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