I have always found great enjoyment playing abstract games. I am not a particularly good player, and I am more interested in observing the patterns, aesthetics, and game design than I am in revealing a penetrating analytic assessment. I appreciate the relative simplicity, elegance, and legacy of a great abstract game.
In the mid-1970’s when I had my first full-time job (and a bit of disposable income), and I discovered that my girlfriend (now wife of 32 years) would play games with me, I rekindled my childhood interest in games. When I discovered the British magazine Games and Puzzles, I was thrilled to find an assortment of British, French, and German games, many of which were abstract designs. Simultaneously I located Sid Sackson’s Gamut of Games in a used bookstore. The hunt was on! Over the next decade I tracked down what seemed to be the most interesting and unusual abstracts. I wasn’t obsessed, merely interested as any thorough researcher should be.
Through various correspondences and visits to obscure game shops I managed to obtain many of the classic abstract games of that era, including Mentalis, Pagode, Cul de Sac, Skirrid, Delta, Quandary (David Parlett’s game), Tripples, Vector, and scores of others. In retrospect, these games contain seeds of many of the interesting modern Euros, as I’m sure some of our favorite designers cut their teeth on some of these classics. I’m as deeply embedded in Euros as most readers of The Opinionated Gamer, and I play abstracts less frequently than I used to, but I am always delighted when I discover a great new abstract game.
In the last ten years I haven’t kept up with all of the new abstract games, mainly because I think the cutting edge in game design has now been usurped by the Euros. With the exception of the extraordinary GIPF series, I haven’t been blown away by the newer abstracts. There are many good games, and I can’t claim to be comprehensive. For example, I’ve only barely explored the copious Nestor catalog. Still, I’m reasonably familiar with the genre that I feel I can sniff out a truly original design when I see one.
Several months ago, I discovered EPIGO. At first glance, it didn’t seem particularly original, but when I was directed to the Masquerade Games website, I became intrigued. I noticed a game system with several dozen variants, strategy articles, and a refreshing approach. I am always attracted to game systems, so I thought I would give EPIGO a try.
The most common problem with “game system” oriented abstracts is that they provide the template and infrastructure for potential games, but they lack a signature design. So the first test with EPIGO is whether the basic game stands up to repeated play. Let’s start with a brief review of the rules.
EPIGO plays on an 8×8 board with a three square L-shaped cut-off at each of the four corners. During the deployment phase, you lay out 8 epigons, numbered 1-7 (and an x) across the middle row of the board, on an adjacent row to your opponent. You can place the numbers as you wish and then the X is removed from the board. Hence you can vary your chosen starting positions for the numbered epigons. Each player has a stack of seven chunky “order” tiles, each containing a number corresponding to the epigons, and a direction arrow. You choose three orders and place them in a stack. Your first order moves the epigon according to the direction arrow. You simultaneously reveal your orders one by one, comparing them with those of your opponent. The higher number gains precedence. So if I place a 6 pointing forward and my opponent places a 3 pointing to the right, my 6 will move before my opponents 3. Similar numbered orders simultaneously revealed cancel each other.
The movement rules are simple. You can move your epigon one space in the chosen direction. An unimpeded epigon can move two spaces. If your opponents epigon is in your way you get to push it one space as long as your opponent doesn’t have a majority of epigons in that row. The winner is the first player to push three opposing epigons off the board. That’s basically it. For more details, visit the Masquerade website for the comprehensive rules.
The simple rules provide the basic elements for a wonderful game of positional play, alignment, capture, doublethink, brinkmanship, and bluff. You can assess the various possibilities of your opponents orders and then completely outsmart yourself. Each set of three orders results in an entirely new, sometimes predictable, but often unanticipated board position. Hence there are many surprising outcomes. You take as much pleasure in your opponents tactical surprises as you do in your own. EPIGO rewards creative, improvisational thinking, as the board position is constantly changing. Yet, the limited playing field, the three order requirement, and seven in-play epigons, allows the game possibilities to fall within reasonable boundaries. The situations aren’t daunting, yet there are many intriguing and unique outcomes. As a result, EPIGO has depth, yet it’s accessible, and even whimsical. You can play the basic game many times and it will reveal new ideas, approaches, and outcomes.
The EPIGO game system is one of the best I’ve seen. The designers (Chris Gosselin and Chris Kreuter) provide a Variant book, supplemented with additional Internet variants. They suggest that you play a best out of three match. You choose the variants by randomly selecting an order tile, linking it to your opponents, and then matching it to one of 21 possibilities. The variants include different deployments, as well as utilization of the “x” epigon and a special “Slam” tile.
What’s neat about these variants is that they usually entail one or two subtle rules tweaks. They are easy to learn, yet they have an interesting impact on the game. They are clever, inventive, humorous, and fun. I have not had the time to try all of the variants. The half dozen or so that I’ve experimented with bring additional novelty, without changing the basic thought processes of the game. The variants use simple rules twists to generate a compelling variety of starting positions, movement possibilities, and end game goals.
I am delighted with EPIGO and I can see keeping it in my basic game rotation for a long time. It offers variety, depth, originality, and insight. It is wonderfully interactive, rewards experience, and reveals interesting surprises. It plays quickly and it can be enjoyed by a wide variety of ages. I would not hesitate introducing it to gateway abstract gamers. EPIGO is one of the most original abstract games of the last decade.