7-in-1 Magnetic Family Game: Chinese Checkers

By Kieron Gillen on June 8th, 2009 at 8:07 pm.

Ooh, getting a bit artier.
Chinese whatnows?

I think I’ve played it perhaps once, but it’s so long ago and so foggy it could be that I’ve just seen a game played – or even that I’ve been vaguely aware it was in compendium box-sets. The lady hasn’t a clue. She hasn’t even played draughts (or checkers), though when we start, its jumping mechanics seem familiar. Probably through familial Othello. That is, the board game. Not the tragic downfall of a cross-race love by a right jealous dick fucking it all up.

We read the rules. We play. We have fun. This is somewhat surprising.

Okay – you may be like us, so not know how this baby works. The board looks like each.

Less artier.

It’s for 2 or 3 players. Each person takes one triangle of pieces, and has the aim to move them all to the opposite corner. You can move one space at a go, which makes it appear to be a somewhat hard slog to get anywhere. However, like Draughts, if there’s a space clear on the far side, you’re able to jump over other pieces. Also, like draughts, if there’s another move they can make from the jump where they find themselves, they can make another one. And another one. This can be either your side or the opposition – and since the paths cross one another, it’s basically like two teams of champion jump-froggers attempting to get across a crossroads. With no traffic. Though jump-frog teams in traffic does sound like a splendid idea – perhaps as an APB mob. Unlike draughts, if you jump over a piece, it remains fine.

In other words, while an unexpected sort of scenario, the rules themselves are dead simple. I have a move. Then you have a move. Bop-bop-bop. Eventually, one person or the other is going to win, unless you forget which triangle you’re aiming at.

We play the entire game without a clue who’s actually winning. The Lady has more pieces near the end but I’ve got more pieces in there. Was moving them up to fill the triangle a good idea or a bad one? We haven’t a clue, and we chuckle about it good-naturedly. We’ve got the main strategy is to create these long chains of jumps to get you to where you want to, while stopping your enemy using your chain to move where they wants to go – while simultaneously trying to use their pieces to help your cause. But how do you do that thing? And is it right? Who knows?

Neither of know what we’re doing, really, but we’re oddly fine with it. In fact, of all the less familiar games we play Chinese Checkers is the one we enjoy most. When we’re so ignorant, how? Surely we’d be pissed off?

I think it all comes down to the all important clear goals. We may not understand the fine parts of strategy and especially tactics, but we understand how to win the game. I have pegs here. I want to get pegs over there. And no matter how shit I am, I can do that. We were ignorant, but not lost. Conceptually, the game had a safety-net which caught us. We didn’t get it, but we got it. Or to put it another way, we weren’t lost.

That’s what I like most about Chinese Checkers, and it’s something which transfers back to many videogames. Purely mechanistic Tutorials are over-rated. Knowing how you move your “piece” is a small thing. What’s more important is knowing where you want to move to. In non-abstract games, look at the effort that developers like Valve do in terms of guiding the player’s eyes to where you want to go. And the second a linear first-person shooter game fails to provide the correct amount of direction, the game just falls apart – both the illusion of the world, but more importantly, any sense of how you’re playing the game. You running around a closed room looking for the one exit place which is a tad too in shadows is primarily unsatisfactory because – fundamentally – you’re no-longer playing the game. As shit as we were at Chinese Checkers, we were always playing Chinese Checkers.

More artier!

Not that we were totally enamoured by all of Chinese Checkers. It’s got another classic problem of strategy games – at least how we played it, the endgame was just going through the motions. The game was at its strategically most exciting when all the pieces are jostling in that central area. When the majority of the pieces had passed, we were left with the final few stragglers heading home. The sweeping moves across the board in a single turn were long forgotten, with a preponderance of single steps. Worse, these were single steps when the opposition were no longer near. We weren’t playing against one another any more – we were just playing separate games on the same board, with our bad moves being where the victory could have turned. For the last few minutes, it was clear the victor had already been decided – however, due to our lack of ability to read the game directly, we were unable to ascertain it with a glance. We didn’t play again, but I suspect the unsatisfying endgame is always going to be there. Hell – it’s the sort of endgame which isn’t an endgame at all. It’s actually *post* game, in that the game has been won or lost already and this is just the equivalent of credits tediously rolling. This maps to a lot of PC strategy games – multi-player ones obviously, but single-player ones like the Total War games too. I always feel what’s often described as rage-quitting when people leave a head-to-head strategy game is less based on rage, but on boredom – the realization that the game is fundamentally over. Yet a capitulation can be especially unsatisfying in a videogame where the Sturm und Drang is a big kick – you need to see them perish. Hell, the graphics guys didn’t spend all the time making explosions for nothing and I’ve had it robbed from me!

I mention most of this to set up an essay later in the series. There’s a game here with a damn good solution to this. I just don’t think it’s a method that’s easily transferable.

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28 Comments »

  1. Lack_26 says:

    I like the game, also, if my memory is good, the end-game doesn’t suck when you get to know the game, since your elaborate plan has just fallen into place, but has taken too long to set up. Anyway, sometimes it can end up as a race to the finish, which every move mattering.

  2. Schaulustiger says:

    The endgame is more like TF2′s round end. Putting your last pieces into place feels like crit-shooting helpless enemies after the full cap. Most enjoyable for the winner, humiliating for the loser.

    Used to love Chinese Checkers, though, when I was a kid. Always had this sort of “epic strategy” feeling due to the relatively large number of pieces compared to other “child-suited” board games.

  3. Clovis says:

    I’m calling the Backgammon doubling die as the solution. Do I win a free RPS parka?

    Without the doubling die the endgame in Backgammon is extremely boring.

    I’ve played Chinese Checkers a few times and never really liked it much.

  4. Blast Hardcheese says:

    I think there might be an obscure rule about once it’s down to just moving pieces rather than interacting, you just count how many pieces are ‘home’ at that point.

    I take it Draughts = Checkers?

  5. Citizen Parker says:

    The endgame has always been my sole, and loudest, complaint about Civ4. It becomes so blatantly obvious that I’m going to win that seeing it through is often not worth the effort.

    The delightful Fall from Heaven II goes some ways towards correcting this, but in single-player you’ve still pretty much won if you’re still in the game by turn 300 or so.

  6. the_magma says:

    your board is nerfed. 6 way multiplayer is the killer app

  7. rocketman71 says:

    Does it support LAN play?

  8. Dave says:

    My grandma actually had a board that called the game “Chinker-Chek” in that horribly stereotypical vaguely Asian typeface.

    It was the greatest thing ever… because the pieces were marbles, and the board was a circular metal thing I could flip upside down and noisily roll the marbles around the edge.

    A Google search shows one on eBay that claims it’s from 1938. I believe it.

  9. jalf says:

    @Citizen Parker: You could just play on a higher difficulty… Then it instead becomes blatantly obvious that you’re going to lose. More fun though, imo.

  10. Filipe says:

    The two player endgame is a bit more bearable if the players are on opposing ends of the star. That way you still have to “play” with your opponent until pretty late in the game.

  11. BooleanBob says:

    I totally posit that Kieron is talking about Othello, not Iago.

    I’m trying to hammer out a joke about Desdemona, the endgame of a relationship and ‘going through the motions’ of suffocating your wife with a pillow but it’s just not happening, guys.

  12. JonFitt says:

    I used to really like Chinese Checkers. The end game isn’t too long though if you set yourself up so you have a World of Goo-like chain which you roll up hopping over yourself.

  13. Okami says:

    I have fond memories of hunting down that last Orc Peon in the original Warcraft. Actually that’s a big bloody lie. I absolutely hated hunting down that last Orc Peon in Warcraft and I always had to do it.

    This review also gets bonus points because you used the phrase “Sturm und Drang”. I just adore it and always use it when talking about my teenage years. Especially if I talk about stupid stuff I did back then. Stupid stuff I did when I was a teenager was never down to stupidity but down to me going through a Sturm and Drang phase.

  14. pb says:

    Yup, the_magma is right, the game is way more fun with 6 players, and when there are only 2 players playing, they should be on opposite sides, so that one player is heading towards the other player’s starting side.

    it is true that the end game is actually the post game if nobody makes any mistakes. but this game can also be played with a handicap just like golf, ex. a weaker player can have an extra number of moves at the end game to finish moving their pieces into place.

    what i like about this game is that there is no one strategy, winning actually depends alot on your opponent’s moves.

  15. Bhazor says:

    Wait, a six pointed star? How was that not noticed by ANLW (Angry Newspaper Letter Writers)?

    But on topic, another fun read with morals for everyone in design. Certainly the build up and wind down has always been a problem in strategy games with a single huge fight 2 thirds through being the highlight making the end a disappointment.
    But really it’s hard to think of any game that doesn’t suffer from premature climaxing.

  16. Nick says:

    Whats wrong with a star of david? Damn jewish people, controlling the world’s checkers?

  17. NoahApples says:

    As pointed out above, playing opposing sides and/or with more players tends to make the game more engaging through to the end. Also, really good players that I’ve seen will orient everything towards big jumping chains amongst their own pieces to lodge things quickly into place at the end.

  18. DSX says:

    “Knowing how you move your “piece” is a small thing. What’s more important is knowing where you want to move to.”

    So very true.

  19. Mo says:

    We may not understand the fine parts of strategy and especially tactics, but we understand how to win the game.

    Spot on. Very useful to know for writing help screens. Typically, screen #1 involves showing you the controls. Bad idea. Whenever I do help screens, I *always* have the “how to win” line on the first page. Even if the player ends up skipping through the rest of the help, they know how to win, and that’s all that matters.

  20. Ben Abraham says:

    There’s a game here with a damn good solution to this.

    Oh God – please let the game NOT be Ludo.

  21. Radiant says:

    The backgammon doubling die is awesome.
    You think you are in a winning position so you bet that you are going to win by doubling the stakes of the game.
    If the other guy declines the bet then you win, game shortened, but if they accept then the ‘end’ game becomes even more interesting as the cost of losing has doubled.
    If the game flips and you find yourself looking at defeat they can double again and you either accept the new higher stakes [hoping the game flips again] or cut your losses.
    BRILLIANT.

  22. Radiant says:

    [backgammon being played as best of five games/points so doubling = 2x win points, doubling again = 4x win points and again = 8x win points]

  23. pignoli says:

    I used to love this game. My usual opponent was my Grandmother who beat me pretty consistently. Put me in my place back when I was of the opinion that I was younger and therefore better at games…

  24. mouj says:

    I’ve been pretty much into that game for a while.. It’s interesting to play with two colors per player too, if you can get 3 players. I’ve always liked the fact that you don’t lose pieces.. a “no casualty” game.

  25. Pelham says:

    As the_magma said, six-player multiplayer is the killer app.

    That way the endgame can be a really fast paced and close thing – there’s nothing like ordering the opposite player to get out of your promised land so you can move in faster.

  26. toonu says:

    This was a fun read again. I love to read RPS articles, but this one is just awesome because a simple board game that up until now, I had no idea how to play, basically makes me look at my current PC games and relise that the principles of old traditional board games are there.
    Thankyou for making my brain a little happy.

  27. Jon says:

    6 player is definately the way to go, leading to massive tangles in the middle of the board, with people sneaking around the outside so they don’t get caught up in it.

    It can get a little long winded if you take on the “strategy” I once did when drunk, of placing one of my pieces in each end triangle, leading to a game no one could win.

  28. DrazharLn says:

    Othello. That is, the board game. Not the tragic downfall of a cross-race love by a right jealous dick fucking it all up.

    Dammit RPS! You’ve ruined Othello for me now!

    {the above uses sarcasm, I’m talking to you Angry Internet Man}

    More on topic: I agree totally with your comment on tutorials, that they should show players what they should do rather than how they can do it.

    An example of this is GalCiv II. The tutorials are helpful enough, but don’t really tell you what you should be doing when you play, so it’s a bit daunting. Fortunately the first few campaign missions were quite helpful as they allowed me to grasp the basics in a simplified environment.

    (The campaign just gets silly later, IMO, with the nigh-invincible dread lords and your bloody annoying allies stealing all the colony worlds…)

    GalCiv and Sins of a Solar Empire both suffer from the same end game problem too. In fact, most strategy games have this problem, if you become powerful enough it becomes pointless to continue, no one could oppose you in any way.

    In Sins, however, it is common in multiplayer for losing players/teams to surrender to their enemies if it becomes obvious that they cannot win.

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