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The game Abalone

Abalone is not a new and it is already almost a classic game. The game is still great for young peaple, family and new player. The hexagonal shape that was quiet new in abstract game at the time seems to be more and more used. From memory I can say Hex, Gipf, Boku, Tamsk, Eres and more likely other.

More about Abalone

There are more thing to say about Abalone. This game is nice to see and nice to play with. The physical pleasure you find when pushing balls is unique to that game. The position can change rapidly between player making mistake, but most of the time it is quite stable between two good player. For family playing, it is possible to introduce more complexity and fun in the game by playing a three players variant.

The trouble with Abalone is that once a certain level of play is acceded, the game seems to be too stable and no much can be done if no one want to take risk. This mean it is quite easy to play for the even (a notion that do not exist in Abalone). And it is not good for competition where a clock is introduce as only the fastest player will win. One other funny thing about Abalone is that the game is not well defined because there are at least a few position for with there is no move for the player which need to play. It is not said if he loose, win or if it is an even. Also a rule should be added to say that if a position is encounter more than a certain number of time it is an even (draw by repetition). Otherwise I think the game could be endless.

Here is a picture of the boring start position

Standard board setting

Me and the game Abalone

I started to play Abalone very early after the game was born. There was a championship in Brussels in 1991 and I participated. I was first. Because it was the first championship and that it was open to everybody in Belgium, I received the title of champion of Belgium.

I continued to play, but with no opponent at my level, it was not funny. I wanted to build my own opponent. So I played white and black but it was not funny. So I started to write a program to play with. My program was a bit dummy and slow (it was before I started my studies in computer science). I had no time to continue my game and left it in its original state. As far as I remember it was a Pascal program working on a PC XT from Amstrad. It was text based user interface with mouse support. The game was using a two level search (two ply) and trying to maximise line of 2 or 3 and piece taken. Also the middle of the board was define as a good region. And implicitly the connexity or stick together concept was something the computer was trying to archive. The program was not playing better than me but I could not decide if it was because I was playing too well or the program was too bad.

Four or five year later I was looking for a subject for my end of studies work. Writing a great Abalone game came to my mind. Unfortunately this subject had been already taken by someone else one or two years before me. I was angry about it but couldn't do anything about it. Later, I have encounter the person that made that work and had a long conversation with him. He did everything I wanted to do. I tryed to work on a computer version of diplomacy but it is an other story...

Then there was an second Abalone championship in Belgium five year later. I was invited to the final as the previous winner. I ended second of the competition. I have to say that I had no much exercise before attending the competition. The one who ended first is a member of the Mensa organization. I learned that in Mensa Belgium they play Abalone. Later I did take contact with the Mensa organization, but it is an other story...

I am still second best player in Belgium

Just before the end of year 2000 a third Abalone championship as been organise in Belgium. Once again I was invited to the final, and once again I ended second. And once again the best Belgian player is always the same player. But this time we were playing with the new starting position. I did not practice much that new position before the competition. And me and the best player agree on a few thing. First, when result are so close between the first and second... it is not fair to base everything on the single match between us. Second, that new starting position is very good for the first player. Third, if you do a simple mistake in the first few move, you can be in a very bad shape.

One of my last match during the competition was very interesting. I was playing second and made a few mistake, or maybe there was nothing good to do. But I started to loose a few of my stone, the score was 3-0. I was focussing on regrouping my men and merge in the center of the board, but my opponent choose to continue pushing my stone out of the board. I told him it the two moves he wanted to do were too easy, but he did it and the score was 0-5. In that situation it is very difficult to continue to play, because you need to find an answer to every thread or attack. But I found a way to stick in one block of 9 stones, souround by piece of the ennemy. Then I started to push and break appart my opponent. And slowly but surely I came back up to winning by 5-6. It was not easy and I did it very securely to make sure I dont split or go to close to the edge. So please remember, a match of Abalone is never lost until you loose six stones.

About that new ways of playing

In order to break the stability of the two block facing each other, there is a new starting position available. It is called in french "Margerite". But basicaly your piece are split in two equal symetrical group of seven in an hexagonal shape. The game is obviously diferent from the original. It is still possible to get to the same position where you have two block facing each other. But it is very unlikely you are going to reach this point. And if you ever reach this point, then more likely one side is stronger that the other and will easely win. I give the game a new breath, but I strongly believe this new position is to friendly for the first player. I look like the second player is having no much chance against a good first player.

Marguerite board setting

I have another variant that nobody want to play even if it is an official rule. The board start empty and each player drop a piece at a time until all of them are on the board. Then the real game start from that always different but choosen start position.

Nowdays you can find many Abalone computer game. Some are good, some are bad. Some are free some are shareware. But if you want to play Abalone, variant of Abalone or zillions of other games, you could try the Zillions-of-Games version of the game. Zillions-of-Games is a comercial software, but Abalone rules file is free. I did participate a bit to the enhancement with variants of the zillion version of the game.

There is another way to play Abalone, it is on-line on the www.abalone.com web site. It seems to be a very nice Abalone minded web site with a user community of player that enter an endless competition with ELO like rating. I am registered on that web site, but I have never played Abalone there, it might be due to my timezone.

Zillions-of-Games version of the game

Jens Markmann made a version of Abalone available from it's excellent web site. You will find his implementation with an additionnal marguerite variant made by me.

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