a.k.a David W. Roberts

@D_W_Roberts / Email

Strategy and territory control (22/05/2014)

Threes is a game which has been in the news a lot recently. I don't really know the rules of the game or whether it's actually interesting to play, but most of what I've heard has been regarding how it has been cloned (ripped-off) many times over.

GIF trailer for Threes by Asher Vollmer, Greg Wohlwend and Jimmy Hinson

The 'cloning' debacle led me to this post, which I must say, is absolutely fascinating. It documents, in minute detail, every single iteration and prototype of the original game - from start to finish (as an attempt to say 'These guys may have cloned it, but we put the hard work in').

Again, I haven't actually played threes, but what struck me is that this is a game that appears to have incredibly simple rules, mass appeal and popularity (hence the cloning) and, interestingly, had a very long incubation/prototyping phase.

Based on its aesthetic, as well as its appeal and reviews, I'm led to believe threes is probably what is considered a 'classic' game: easy to play but hard to master. Elegant, simple rules that combine to form deeper strategic play and thought.

This combination of things inspired me somewhat (minus the mass-appeal/cloning part). So I wanted to have a go at creating a very simple game. This is actually an extremely difficult task (anybody experienced with any kind of design will tell you that simpler is harder. See also: 'design by subtraction')

The obvious place to start

Not being a fan of number or letter puzzles (or colour matching), the place to start for me was just 'generic' strategy. Strategy for the sake of strategy.

The obvious role model in strategy games, as far as simplicity and depth is concerned, is the classic game Go. Go is about owning territory and surrounding your opponent's pieces in order to capture them. The rules are simple enough that a great many emergent strategies and concepts have spawned from the game - in fact there are even proverbs about Go.

Amusingly, the concept of "a few moments to learn, a lifetime to master" - a.k.a easy to learn, hard to master - is a Go proverb itself.

"While the Baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go." -Edward Lasker

I had no intention of modelling my game directly on Go, since I'm still a total beginner at the game any way (Pro-tip: it's easy to learn the basic rules of Go. It's nigh-impossible to find people worth playing against in order to get any good at it. What is good and bad in Go - like shape and form - is extremely subtle and difficult to learn).

Instead, I took one of the central concepts - territory control - and ran with that instead. I formulated a quick idea and started prototyping:

This was a very basic starting point, but it got the ball rolling. Using just these rules though, there are obvious holes:

The first problem was easy to fix - for example, by limiting the amount of squares travelled per turn. The second issue, however, stymied me for much longer. If the only action in the game is moving, and a victory is achieved by moving... well, the game is pretty dull.

Escaping Dullsville

At this point I almost gave in on simplicity and started jotting down convoluted rules - e.g. owned grid squares required 'trade routes' in order to continue to be occupied. And trade routes required lines between board edges. When a square ceased to be supplied with trade, it would start to decay. etc. etc

By pure chance, I started implementing the 'owned tiles decay over time' idea in isolation, primarily as a visual feature.

I inadvertently introduced some new rules in the process that actually started to feel pretty good when played:

With these rules in place the game actually starts to feel... kind of like a game...!? In fact I kind of enjoy playing two player against myself just for the sake of it. Something about these rules 'feels' right. Not finished. But definitely the germ of a potential full game.

The images below show some example board states from the prototype. The black highlighted orange and blue squares are the two players. The red square is the movement selector (i.e. not a playing piece).

A diagonal face-off between the blue and orange players. Note the colour gradient of occupied squares, indicating which squares are going to decay into emptiness soonest.


Here the orange player slices the board in half - both vertically and horizontally. The blue player's movement options are now limited. Notice how the black outline below the blue player displays their available moves.


Some time later, having moved horizontally to the left, the occupied squares of the orange player now surround the blue player, denying them the ability to move. The orange player has won.

Playable prototype

The prototype used to create the above screens can actually be found here. It turns out that Javascript + HTML5 is fantastic for prototyping stuff like this.

Disclaimer: This is a prototype. Not a finished game

Conclusion: An inkling of deeper strategy?

I'm quite excited by this concept. To me, at least, it feels as though it has legs. It certainly is not done. I need to iterate over it more. But the potential is there for a simple game that has some depth.

At this point you may be wondering: What depth? Answer: Diagonals and occupied decay time.

At first glance, diagonals may now seem pointless: You cannot surround your opponent with diagonals, which means you cannot use them to win. So why bother with them? This was almost my attitude in fact - I was close to removing them from the game.

But actually I'm now of the opinion that they constitute an interesting element of advanced strategic play. The reason why is that polluting the board with diagonals can mess with your opponent's ability to move. Or specifically, their ability to win. If you time the placement right (and keep in mind they last 3 turns), tiles occupied by spraying diagonal tiles can neuter potential fatal attacks against you. Try it out in the prototype.

Again, this is not a finished product: I'm not saying these mechanics are done or even necessarily fun to play. But it certainly seems like there is some fertile ground to explore here. I hope to report back on my findings in due time...

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