Game: Pentalath (Ndengrod)
Time: 20 Minutes
Times played: 12 (1 time with a copy of Yavalath, 4 times on a purchased copy of Pentalath, and 7 times against the GDL in Dr. Browne’s LUDI Experiment III survey, ex post facto)
Games: Valion, Elrostir, Lammothm, Teiglith, Gorodrui, Quelon, Vairilth, Elrog, Duath, Bregorme, Rhunthil, Eriannon, Hale, Pelagonn, Pelot, Ninniach, Pelagund
Publisher: nestorgames or unpublished
Times played: Each at least once against the GDL in Dr. Browne’s LUDI Experiment III survey, ex post facto
Whenever I lose a grandparent, my father takes to cleaning out his attic. Some of it is nostalgia, and some of it is to lessen the burden on me when I someday have to clean out his house. Occasionally I get a text asking if I want something. Sometimes I do (my great-grandfather’s croquet mallet), sometimes just seeing the picture is enough (my 2nd grade letters to my grandmother aren’t unreminiscent of the way I talk and write now), and often he knows when I don’t want things. Sometimes he’s right, and sometimes he’s wrong, and while he usually doesn’t ask me about the things he knows I wouldn’t want, he recently offered me my 6th and 7th place elementary school track ribbons.
That’s not his picture -that’s my picture. I’m keeping them.
It’s not just that I was slow then, or that I’m slow now, but I have a distinct memory of having a race one day in elementary school outside of the normal gym or school-wide setting – rather this one was during a weekly field trip to a local elementary school for a small ‘gifted’ student class. When I say “distinct”, I remember four basic things: where it was; my confidence that I couldn’t be the slowest in this setting; the seemingly instantaneousness after the race started of the fact that I was definitively still the slowest; and my disbelief as the distance just grew greater and greater as the race went on.
When I first read Cameron’s Designer Diary, my thoughts went to: “I can’t imagine how great some of mechanics in the 13th and 14th place games are!” You know: “How interesting must the games that got rejected be!” Maybe you’re saving things in your attic for some time in the future, and maybe you came in 7th place, but there are many different scales to measure things on, and I don’t know that “most enjoyable to play” is mine.
Before reading Cameron’s thesis, I already knew that I wanted to dive into those titles that didn’t get ribbons they were going to show their moms when they got home. In a comment to his BGG Designer Diary, Cameron described Rhunthil, the No. 3 ranked game by the survey participants, as having movement rules that “are quite complex and barely comprehensible”. Well, I’m hooked. Where do I sign up to play this Rhunthil. He also described there being “a couple of interesting mechanisms” in some of the other titles. Alright, now the hook is coming right through my cheek.
I tried to learn Rhunthil from the GDL code -the human language rules for the titles (outside of Pentalath and Yavalath) don’t really exist; only the GDL code, and a brief summary in the thesis- but parsing it was proving futile for me. So, I resorted to the age old trick of, well, just asking nicely.
Please, Dr. Browne, may I play Rhunthil? Cameron was nice enough to send me a version of the LUDI player similar to what the survey participants would have used, and he wasn’t sure it would tell me the name of the game. Luckily it did have the names, but I couldn’t choose which game to play – I would be experiencing the results just as the survey participants had, in random pairs (well, until I got desperate to try the last two, and – not to give away the punchline – but, I wasn’t so interested in playing some of the titles again, so I kept restarting until I got them….)
My play counts look like this:
The order I listed the titles in is not the order preferred by the survey participants from the thesis; that’s my ranking. I think those numbers probably tell you much of the story, but we’re going to trudge on.
I played Valion the most, but was never able to win. It was ranked No. 16 by the survey participants, but it sits at No. 3 for me.
In Valion, the pieces at A1 and D4 start on the board. Winning condition is 3 in a row, but lose if 4 in a group. In the phonebooth of the Valion board, the losing condition quickly becomes tricky.
The placement rule is that you can add a piece if the number of neighboring opponents pieces (diagonals included) to the destination cell is more than 1.
Valion illustrates some of the joy of the LUDI games to me – in that placement rule, there is no assumption that the destination space does not already have a piece in it. It tries many things a human designer never would – for better or worse. (Valion also includes a second way to place pieces, but the game will never be in a state where that move is possible.)
(OK, full disclosure, I just played three more times to refresh my memory on Valion. I have now won once.)
In Elrostir, you place a piece in an empty cell; you lose if there are three in a row. (You win if the other player loses.)
There was a time when I gamed with one of those folks who want to jump right in, and don’t want a full explanation. He didn’t have much experience playing games, but was very passionate, and always had a good time. One week a friend and I wanted to play Steam Over Holland, but this fellow wanted to jump right in – no rules explanation, please. My friend and I gave each other a look and let him know that we were going to go over some of the rules, though we certainly couldn’t make him listen.
In a sense, that’s how I strategically approach many abstracts. I could spend time parsing some decision tree about where I could place – alternatively, I could just make a move without going through as many recursions.
Elrostir is an odd duck as you’re generally only trying not to lose. This is one where perhaps if I went deeper in planning my move I could play better, but that’s simply not my style. I enjoyed it for what it is, but it felt like more of a puzzle.
Here are the rules for Rhunthil as the survey app presents them:
Here is a screenshot midgame from Rhunthil. It turned out to be barely comprehensible in the bad way. It was interesting to play around with, but not more than twice.
However, it is worth noting that Rhunthil is actually Yavalath’s grandfather. Cameron’s thesis includes a family tree for Yavalath, and, despite my feelings on Rhunthil and some others, I still want to try, or at least read about Rhovanna, Quenya, Loriquen, and Utumlad.
Pentalath (at the time Ndengrod) was the most preferred game from the LUDI survey participants, and the only other published title. (Look at this delightful shaped board LUDI made for us!)
On your turn, place in an empty hex. If, as a result, a group of your opponent’s piece(s) has no liberties (empty adjacent hexes) remaining, remove those pieces. Winning condition is 5 in a row.
Those are LUDI’s rules. The published rules are slightly different:
On your turn, place in an empty hex. If a group of piece(s) has no liberties (empty adjacent hexes) remaining, remove those pieces. Winning condition is 5 in a row.
LUDI doesn’t check to see if the piece you just placed has any liberties, or any group which that piece may belong to. The published rule does make for better gameplay. (In his thesis, Cameron specifically speaks to avoiding rule optimisation during the evolutionary process, as vestigial rules can be important in future generations. Rhunthil beget Galathal which beget Yavalath.)
I’m of mixed minds on Pentalath. I enjoyed it with human players, but something never quite clicked. It worked, but didn’t excite me. When Cameron sent the LUDI survey and I had a chance to play against the AI, it was a different experience. It wasn’t a factor of the difficulty of competition, but, rather, it was something in the play style. Going back to the argument that two player abstract games are puzzles that the players write for each other, the LUDI survey was better at writing those puzzles. I’m happy to own my copy of Pentalath, but I would love an app version.
Cameron has proven to be a great resource for me as to discovering new games and puzzles that match my interests. Tomorrow, we’ll cover some other games and puzzles that I came across during my research for this week.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it. James Nathan
Not for me…
Monday – Cameron Browne’s “Automatic generation and evaluation of recombination games”
Tuesday – Yavalath and Manalath
Thursday – Volo, Feed the Ducks, and assorted puzzles
Friday – Brief Interview with Dr. Cameron Browne