SdJ Re-Reviews #3: Focus (a.k.a. Domination)

  • Designer:                  Sid Sackson
  • Publisher:                 Multiple
  • Players:                    2 – 4
  • Ages:                        8 and Up
  • Time:                        45 Minutes
  • Times Played:        > 10

Focus

Sid Sackson: An Early Pioneer

Sid Sackson is one of the most prolific and influential board game designers of all time, and before we jump into the story of Focus, it is worth making a few remarks on his work.  Though Focus is Sackson’s only SdJ win, as Joe Huber once explained, that’s more due to the fact that “he’d been designing games for over thirty years before the award existed than it is a reflection of the quality of his games.”  Sackson received eight nominations for seven other games: Acquire (1979); Blockade (1979); Metropolis (1984); Die 1. Million (1987); Gold Connection (1992); and Kohle, Kies and Knete (a.k.a. I’m the Boss) (1994). Can’t Stop, which is still popular today, was nominated in both 1981 (making it a competitor of Focus) and 1982.  Sackson designed hundreds of other games, and he worked on the 3M Bookshelf Series alongside Alex Randolph (who would win the 1982 SdJ for Sagaland).

Sackson was an avid game collector.  At his death in 2002, he had amassed more than 18,000 games, and he joked that his collection threatened to push him and his wife from their home.

He was also a prolific author and game historian.  He wrote a monthly column for Strategy & Tactics magazine.  One of his books – A Gamut of Games – contains rules for more than 22 of his creations and instructions for making them at home, as well as reviews of countless other games in print at the time.  A Gamut of Games is still available, and you can get the Kindle edition for less than $3.  (Curiously, in the book’s 1992 preface, Sackson states that he believes the golden age of “serious games” ended in 1982.  A lot has changed since he wrote that, and I wonder what he would think of many of today’s products.)

There’s plenty more to read about Sackson, and if you would like more information, Bob Claster has assembled an excellent site here.  Joe Huber wrote a great article for his German Game Authors Revisited series.  Many of Sackson’s papers (including his diary) reside at The Strong National Museum of Play, and last summer an Opinionated Gamers guest columnist provided a summary the 1963 entries in Sackson’s diary, a few of which pertain to Focus.

Focus: A New Game on an Old Battlefield

Sackson designed Focus in the early 1960s, and instructions for playing the two-player version were printed in the October 1963 issue of Scientific American.  The game quickly gained an international following, with both Sackson and Scientific American receiving numerous letters commenting on gameplay.  Sackson self-published and sold copies of his game, although it isn’t clear whether he was just selling copies of the rules or the components too.  Either way, his papers document the names and addresses of individuals buying it in October/November 1963.  The game was first published in 1965 by Whitman, and that edition included rules for four-players.

Focus was one of the games in A Gamut of Games when the book published in 1969.  Referencing the fact that the game can be played on a chess/checkers board, Sackson describes Focus as a new game on an old battlefield.  He says Focus “is not Chess, or Checkers, or a cross between them.  It is a new game with a new flavor, a feeling, and a method all its own.”  He continues: “All the rules can be learned in five minutes.  Mastery of the strategy can take a lifetime; but who would want it otherwise?”  In interviews before the his death in 2002, Sackson described Focus as one of his favorites.  Apparently that is a view he had long held: in the 1965 Whitman rules, Sackson wrote, “Why, the reader may ask, do we need a new skill game when we already have Chess, Checkers, and others? A good question. . . . Focus is, in the completely biased view of the author, a lot more fun to play than any board game of skill that has preceded it.”

Parker Brothers Germany published a German edition in 1980, and the game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres that year, ultimately losing to Rummikub.  It was again nominated in 1981, and this time it won.  The jury praised the game for the high complexity created from such few rules.  In the 1982 preface to A Gamut of Games, Sackson mentions the award casually and in passing: “I had the thrill of accepting an award from a government minister when [Focus] was chosen as ‘game of the year’ for 1981.”

Milton Bradley renamed the game Domination and printed a U.S. edition in 1982.  Interestingly, this edition (a) makes no mention of the SdJ win, and (b) never credits Sackson, either on the box or in the rules.  This edition also included rules for three players.

Focus is now long out of print, one of only five SdJ winners to not have seen a printing in the last decade.  The most recent edition was published in 1995 by Kosmos, although it seems that Kosmos printed that edition for a few years thereafter.  Eagle-Gryphon is currently reprinting many of Sackson’s games, but in a multi-year project.  They told me a Focus reprint is planned but won’t happen until late 2016 or beyond.

In the mean time, copies can be found without much effort or expense on eBay or the BGG marketplace. You can also play online at www.superdupergames.org or make the game at home from a checkers board and two sets of checkers.

The Gameplay

Focus takes place on a chess/checkerboard with the three squares in each corner removed.  How the pieces are placed on the board – and some of the rules – will be governed by whether the game is being played by two, three, or four players.  The description below is for the two-player variant.

In the two-player version, 18 pieces of each player are put in the 6×6 grid in the middle of the board, one per square.  In the first, third, and fifth rows there are two red pieces, then two green pieces, then two more red pieces.  In the second, fourth, and sixth rows there are two green pieces, then two red pieces, then two more green pieces.  See the diagram below.  (Colors may change depending on the version of the game.)

Focus_01.svg

The start player is randomly determined.  A move consists either of (a) moving a pile of pieces exactly as many spaces as there are pieces in a pile or (b) placing a piece from a player’s reserve.  A move must be in a straight line and can go up, down, left, or right, but never diagonal.  A player may only move a pile they control, meaning their color is on top.  Players may split a pile, moving as many spaces as they took.  If a player has pieces from their reserve, they may place it on any pile on the game board in lieu of moving pieces.

Once there are more than five pieces in a stack (either because of moves or a player placing a piece from their reserve), pieces are removed from the bottom of the stack until there are five again.  Pieces of the player who created the new pile are kept by him in his reserve.  Pieces of the other player are “captured” and removed from the game.

The game ends when one player controls all of the stacks in the game.

A tie is theoretically possible, and in the two-player version, it can be guaranteed by mirroring the other player.  Sackson has offered a couple of rule changes in A Gamut of Games which solve this problem, but I got a chuckle from his original advice: “My answer to someone who plays in this manner, is not to play with him.”

Does it stand the test of time?

Sackson described Focus as being as easy-to-learn as Checkers but as strategic as Chess.  I fully agree.  A typical rules explanation in Focus takes less than two minutes, yet there are numerous viable strategies, and you likely could spend a lifetime trying to master the game.

Unlike in Chess and Checkers, contact with the opposing forces is immediate, almost always on the first turn.  The game is tense throughout, and it can be extremely difficult to tell who is winning until very late in the game (although the player with more pieces in his reserve has an advantage).  The game does have a flavor of conquest, and I see why Milton Bradley called the game Domination, though I still prefer the name Focus.

In the groups I’ve played with, game play was fast, on par with Checkers.  That said, like with any abstract strategy game, gameplay will ultimately depend on the players: this is the sort of game where you could ponder each move for several minutes.

I love the game, and I in fact prefer it to both Chess and Checkers.  I’ve played many of Sackson’s games, and Focus is my favorite.  I love the tension in the game, and I like seeing how simple rules can unfold into complex strategies.

That said, the game isn’t for everybody, and I suspect my adoration is likely to be in the minority.  Focus is a pure abstract strategy game, and that has limited appeal to modern boardgamers.  Additionally, the game can feel more chaotic than Chess and Checkers: I’ve rarely been able to discern my opponent’s strategies, and I’ve never gotten through a game without feeling utterly confused at the state of the board.  (That said, I’m terrible at the game, so maybe that is just me.)  The game hasn’t been widely played in recent years: there are 668 logged plays on BGG, whereas the average for SdJ winners is almost 45,000.

Would it win the SdJ today?  I doubt it, although I think it would have a chance and possibly receive a nomination.  The modern SdJ jury, unlike much of the hobby, is not afraid of abstract strategy games.  Qwirkle won in 2011, and other abstracts have received recent nominations.  DVONN, which shares a central mechanic with Focus, received a SdJ recommendation back in 2002.  That said, despite its simple rules, Focus seem a bit heavy compared to most recent SdJ winners, and it has a BGG weight rating of 2.3.  (The overall average for the SdJ winners is about 1.98, and the average for the past decade is only about 1.85.)  Additionally, this is a game that is (in my opinion) best with two people, and the jury tends to give short shrift to such games.

Overall, I enjoy it, and I look forward to playing it in the future, even though I’m still terrible at it.  If anybody is looking for an easy win, I occasionally play over at www.superdupergames.org.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (1 play): Sackson’s design style usually tended towards the abstract, and while sometimes (Acquire, Samarkand) this doesn’t bother me, my general preference for less abstract games leaves some of his designs outside of my sweet spot.  Such is the case with Domination, the only version of the game I’ve played.  It’s a fine game, but it didn’t really interest me enough to warrant a second play.  Of course, Sackson is responsible for me discovering one of my very favorite abstracts – Lines of Action – thanks to A Gamut of Games.

Larry (about 5 plays, long ago):  I guess I’m one of those “modern boardgamers” Chris is referring to who doesn’t care much for pure abstracts.  But I kind of felt the same way back when I played the Whitman version of Focus as a pre-teen.  The game is more dynamic than many abstracts, which grabbed my attention briefly, but its wide open, chaotic nature proved to be a detriment to me.  In the end, there’s not enough here to overcome my bias against abstracts, but it’s a quality game and it’s nice that the great Sackson was able to win at least one SdJ.

I think I agree with Chris’ assessment of how the game would fare if it was released today.  There have been so many well received abstracts in the intervening years, the GIPF series in particular, that I’m not sure that Focus would stand out today.  It might conceivably get a recommendation, but I doubt it would be able to do any better than that.

Dale Y: I have only played Domination.  I had not heard of this one growing up, and I only stumbled into it when the GIPF series attracted me to these abstract strategy type games.  While I don’t play the pure abstracts much anymore, this one still sits in the cabinet with the GIPF series awaiting the time that I want to play this style of game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  •  I love it! Chris W
  •  I like it. Dale Y, Eric
  •  Neutral.  Larry
  •  Not for me… Joe H

Focus on BGG

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7 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #3: Focus (a.k.a. Domination)

  1. Focus is one of my favorite abstracts – together with Hive. There is a strong computer version which I used to play against (hardly ever winning agsinats the tougher AI). Its a great game, if you like abstracts.
    One aspect that sets it apart is that it can be played in teams, which is quite interesting and unique in this area and might be thge reason why the jury has awarded it (a pure 2-player-game never won).
    This is to my knowledge the only game where the publisher (parker) did not print the award on the box. I guess its because it was published by an American company who didnt care for a German price. The Kosmso version of course featured the award, but that was 15 years later.

    See also: https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/32746/30-years-spiel-des-jahres-brief-and-personal-histo

  2. reixou says:

    I have not played Focus but this a fantastic article anyway. I like the way you put the history of this game and his author in perspective.
    Thank you some much for that and if you can go like this for all the winners and publish a compilation in paper form, then you have a buyer here.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    I agree–great article! The game still appears here and there in flea markets here, where I bought my copy of the game. Even as I’ve unloaded many of my SdJ collection, I’ve held on to this one.

  4. I am a huge fan of abstracts and Sid Sackson. And somehow, Domination always left me cold.

  5. 3355o336 says:

    An interesting and well written and researched article!

    I’m definitely on the “abstract strategy” side of boardgamers. I’ve loved checkers and chess since I was a kid, as well as other abstract games like Connect 4. Focus fits right into that mould – I love how such simple rules can give rise to such complex strategies and tactics. Reserves are key!

    A couple of minor points regarding the rules:

    1) A player may play from their reserves to *any* place on the board, not just onto a pile. I’ve never seen a position where it would be optimal to *not* play onto an existing pile, but it’s permissible.

    2) The game ends when one player has no moves. So that’s equivalent to “when one player controls all of the stacks in the game” *and* when their opponent has no reserves.

    nih@sdg

  6. chriswray84 says:

    Thanks for the kind words, everybody. Peer Sylvester’s Geek List is excellent, and it has been helpful in writing some of these articles. And nih, a big thanks for the two rules clarifications. I actually did not know #1 (and agree that it would be rarely used).

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