Thursday, January 30, 2014


I have never cared much for Chess, but I've always been intrigued by various chess variants. One of the most interesting was Shuuro, designed by Alesso Cavatore (who I knew through the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, which I enjoyed until RSI sunk that hobby for me). Shurro is Chess played on a large, 12x12 board with armies you design yourself using a point-buy system. I found it intriguing because the large number of pieces and large amount of space involved tended to move the game more in the direction of a strategic, creative game than a purely tactical one – at least, when played by players of comparatively low pure chess skill.

The drawback of Shuuro (and its companion 4-player expansion Turanga) was that it ultimately didn't quite move the ball far enough away from the Chess aesthetic to rope in players like me. It's still a pretty ruthlessly analytical look-ahead game where seemingly minor overlooked branches in the search tree can have catastrophic results. Also, with more pieces and more space it can take a while to play. Even so, Shuuro is one of the few no-luck pure abstracts that I like, although I would still generally play any of the GIPF series games by preference.

Enter LOKA, the next logical step along this path of making Chess for people who don't like Chess. Again, we're playing with regular chess pieces on a regular square grid, but LOKA embraces Turanga's 4-player, 2-team game as the standard mode of play, with teams starting on opposite sides and needing to capture the kings of both opponents to win. Again, you're buying your pieces using points, and you can adjust the feel and intensity of your games by choosing how many points players get.* You put out a few random terrain pieces to mix things up a little bit. And, did I mention, you use dice to resolve capture attempts.

When you try to capture an opponent's piece, both players roll a die. You start with a d4 and get "boosts" to larger die sizes (d4 -> d8 -> d12 -> d20) based on the situation: being the attacker, being a better piece, or (most crucially) having other attacking pieces threatening the target piece, or other defending pieces covering it. Also crucially, these additional threats or defenders can be either yours or your partner's. High die roller wins, capturing the opponent's piece. In case of ties defender wins, unless it was double 1's, in which case both pieces are removed.

From these simple and elegant ideas, a fascinating game that completely upends Chess emerges. No longer is the primary heavy lifting of deciding on a move done through lengthy analysis of move and counter-move. Instead, a big factor becomes judgements about risk and at how far to push your luck. Because capturing is not a sure thing anymore, decisive threats take a little bit longer to develop as you and your partner need to coordinate to build it up. As a consequence, you find yourself asking: do I like the odds of that capture attempt? Is now the time to do it? Do I need to martial more forces? Similarly for the defender, you ask: am I better off reinforcing this piece, getting out of the way, or standing fast and developing my own threat elsewhere? What is my tolerance for risk?

The probabilities involved here are interesting. Even the most extreme cases (d20 attacking d4, d6 attacking d20) have a roughly 12% chance of backfiring/breaking your way. In practice, setting up monster d20 attacks is extremely difficult, so you're looking at the middle of the range, d8s and d12s vs. d6s or d8s for developed attacks. You need to decide whether the risks are worth the rewards, and those risks cannot be shrugged off. You need to set up good risks (either favorable attacks in terms of piece exchange or position, or attacks where you risk a lot less of either than your opponent does) and avoid bad ones. Taking a pawn just because you can is all of a sudden unappealing; that 10-20% or more downside risk of any capture attempt means if you're going to roll the dice, you have to have significant upside. You need to focus on things of immediate value, not things 6 moves downstream which have no chance to play out.

If that were it, it still might not be enough (the game includes rules and a board for playing 2-player, but I haven't tried it and don't have much desire to). Capture probabilities would be just something else to factor into your position analysis. What makes LOKA sing for me is combining this with the fact that LOKA is a team game. Because now your partner can very directly provide support to your attacks and defenses, you get a very interesting game of tempo and coordination (much moreso than Turanga, which was closer to straight Chess). You can move to support your partners' threats, or assist in defense to allow her to continue to press an advantage. You'll generally want to try to bring you and your partner's combined weight against one opponent while holding off the other. So it becomes a question of tempo. In theory, you and your partner can get two moves for every one of a single opponent. Obviously, your opponents will be trying to do the same thing to you, so the extent to which you can work together to achieve advantage is crucial. As in Ingenious (Einfach Genial), in-game communication is illegal so you have to do your best to understand and anticipate, to try to signal without sacrificing advantage – all while trying to keep your options open so you can shift one way or the other to take advantage of opportunity.

I found all these interplays totally fascinating, so I really enjoyed LOKA. It helps that Mantic has done a great job with the presentation of the game, colorful and with nice models for the various pieces that are both flavorful and readily identifiable as their corresponding chess pieces, once you understand the design.

One key to LOKA, as in so many games, is that it has to be played in a reasonable amount of time – or at least, an amount of time everyone at the table is comfortable with. Probabilities in LOKA are fairly coarse – most attacks will have chances of success between 60% and 80% in increments of 10% or 15% – so it is obviously a game with significant luck. LOKA is certainly part tactical game and you need to do Chess-like lookahead, but the probabilities make deep analysis unrewarding. It's a game about managing fairly clear risks and threats. However, the game does look a lot like Chess – it's Chess pieces and a chess board, despite the nice fantasy design – and so it's easy to default to traditional Chess deep tree analysis. But, with a sparse board in the 160 point game and threats from your neighbors developing diagonally, you do need to be careful of long-ranging bishops which can surprise you if your Chess experience has you focusing on the center of the board. So, while you do need to break some Chess habits, there is still analysis to be done. It's a tricky balance to strike when figuring out how to best use your time. It's also of course a 4-player game, so downtime can factor in. In general, my feeling is that while a considered pace is fine, it does need to keep moving. I'm not generally a fan of timers in games, but this might be the exception to ensure a play time everyone is comfortable with (and there are some nice ones now like the DGT Pyramid Game Timer – the colors even match). For me, a little time management pressure heightens the excitement and keeps the game moving. Not everyone will agree.

If you have even just a passing dislike for Chess, check out LOKA. The degree to which it's built a game almost completely unlike Chess on top of Chess' basic mechanics is worth seeing in and of itself. As a game of tactics, risk, and teamwork it's unusual, unexpected, and quite engrossing. It's one of my favorites from 2013.


* Well, sort of. The base box easily supports 160 points or so, with a few choices about army composition (primarily, to buy a queen or not). If you want to field larger forces, you'll probably need to buy the expansion boxes. The 160 point game is great on its own, it has a spare elegance and plays quickly, but if do enjoy the game you'll almost certainly want to try larger games (you can play 250 points with the base set, but it involves just using all the pieces). I do wish a few more pieces had been included in the base set.

Postscript: As a fan of Shuuro and Alesso Cavatore, I backed LOKA on Kickstarter so I got some extra goodies. These worked out nicely in that they add some variety to the game but are more quirky than than really useful additions. The new terrain tiles take the game in a direction I'm not sure it really wants to go (a theme is terrain where pieces can take a chance to power up instead of moving). The new models are cool but the point costs are high and how do you decide who gets to use them? The action card decks are fun (and somewhat different for each faction) but add even more chaos and uncertainty to the game, which I'm not sure is what it really wants. Anyway, these are fun add-ons for backers but not in any way essential or even desirable additions to the game's overall creative vision.