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Average Rating: 2 in 1 review
The best abstract strategy games are those with simple rules but complex enough strategies to last for hundreds of games. Some of the greatest games are those which seem simple at first glance but reveal themselves to be games of great depth. At the same time, a designer seeking to reproduce this great depth can overcompensate by creating a clunky interface - a game that is almost too obtuse to be enjoyed. That was my initial impression when first reading the rules for Plateau (Magnolia Games, 1990 - Jim Albea). Plateau comes with a complicated looking rulebook, a simple small game board, and confusing game play.
And sadly, that confusion is going to chase away enough new players that most won't find the depth of the game. I won't argue or deny that Plateau has hundreds of different, interesting strategies; it's the process of getting there that drives me nuts. The components are merely okay, the game play feels boring, and I don't want to have to play dozens of games to "get it". There is likely an audience that will find Plateau interesting - fans of Go, perhaps - but most folks won't make it through an entire game.
Each player starts with seven different types of pieces, each with a different combination of sides and point value.
- Mute (4 pieces) - Blank on both sides; one point
- Blue (2 pieces) - Blue on both sides; four points
- Red (2 pieces) - Red on both sides; five points
- Blue Mask (1 piece) - Blue on one side, blank on the other; eight points
- Red Mask (1 piece) - Red on one side, blank on the other; ten points
- Ace (1 piece) - Red on one side, blue on the other; fifteen points
- Twister (1 piece) - Orange on one side, blank on the other; twenty-one points
On a player's turn, they have three actions. First, they may place a new piece onto the board anywhere they like (except inside an enemy stack or on top of a stack that has an enemy piece on the top). Or, they can instead move one of the stacks on the board. When moving a stack, the player may flip the top piece before moving. This is important, because a stack moves as the color shown on top.
- Red stacks move in a straight line in any direction - up to one space for each piece in the stack.
- Blue stacks are the same, except they move diagonally.
- Blank stacks can move diagonally or orthogonally.
- Orange stacks move two squares in one direction, then one space at ninety degrees. (Knight in chess)
- All pieces can "jump" when moving and may drop pieces from the bottom of the stack onto the top of stacks on the spaces moved over.
The third thing a player may do is exchange captured pieces with their opponent. They offer pieces to the other player, who offers pieces in return. An exchange MUST happen if the point values are similar. Either way, the game continues until one player has captured six or more pieces or has a stack of six of their own pieces on the board. There are quite a few more variations to the rules, but I can't really explain them without diagrams.
Some comments on the game...
- Components: What is it with abstract games and video cassette
boxes? This is the fifth one I've received, but it does stay together
better than the other games in my growing video-case-game-collection.
The board is a simple bland grid, and the pieces are thick, white and
black discs with red, blue, and orange plastic washers that must be
pressed down into them, where they will likely never come out. I do
think that the pieces are a good size, with raised ridges for easy
stacking. How to keep the pieces hidden from your opponent is another
matter. One can stand the box/case upright, although this is annoying
and unsteady - screens from another game that feature hidden
information are probably the best choice. I did find myself
constantly looking at the bottom of pieces to see what they were,
whether they were on the board or in the pile of pieces I hadn't
played yet. This was fairly annoying, since it's critical that a
player know what each of their own pieces is at all times.
- Rules: The game comes with two rules booklets, a simple "get
started now" guide, and then a complete sixteen page rulebook.
Normally I would be pleased about having so much information on a
game; but even with various sketches and examples, I still had to play
through some rounds, because I was completely befuddled - even after
going through an entire game. The rulebook defines pieces and talks
about the different types of movement - it just didn't come together
for me at all during the course of my first couple games. After that,
I started to slowly understand it; but even though the rules may seem
simple, they are remarkably difficult to comprehend.
- Simplicity: I prefer abstract games that have an inherent, simple
goal - whether it be to get five pieces in a row, or to capture all
the opponent's pieces, etc. When a game starts to include capturing,
prisoner exchanges, stacking, and various types of movement on a small
board, the confusion starts to build; and the game loses any kind of
simple charm that it might otherwise have. The idea of a two-sided
piece, each side moving differently, is a clever one on paper; but the
reality of this game is that it just becomes a confusing mess.
- Strategy: I would be a cretin if I acted as if the game wasn't
strategic; there is certainly plenty involved, with the rulebook
itself giving several pages to explain what a player should do. But
when playing, even after going over the strategic hints (get pieces in
play, guard the power pieces, watch out for tall units, etc.), I still
found myself struggling to get any sort of tactical plan into action.
I did understand the bluffing element, and that's probably the one
thing I enjoyed about the game - wondering if the blank piece just
played on the board actually has a color on the other side. But I'm
completely befuddled on what strategy to follow after these basic
- Fun Factor: Perhaps I'm not patient or smart enough to enjoy this
game. I've seen others laud its praises, explaining that "once you
know the game, it's a blast!" But I've played the game several times
with various opponents - also giving the computer version a shot - and
while I think I grasp the rules, I just don't see the fun in the vague
strategies. My guess is that there are some folks out there who will
enjoy a somewhat obtuse, abstract strategy game, but that most folks
will be disappointed on their initial playing.
So, my recommendation is to pick up Plateau if you are a collector of abstract games and want something tough and possibly rewarding after many multiple plays. For ordinary folks, though, I can't see giving this game much of a chance. It's merely a mediocre presentation, and the bluffing/hiding/odd movement choices that the game presents come together in an intricate way that I'm not sure will be appealing to many people. It certainly wasn't for me.
"Real men play board games"
As I was reading through Ken Tidwell's excellent web site The Game Cabinet, I came across a piece entitled "The Plateau Story". It detailed one man's struggle to design, produce, and market an abstract game called Plateau. It had all the elements of an entertaining story: adversity, discovery, tragedy, and finally, sadly, death. All right, so there wasn't really any death involved. After reading his tale, though, I'm sure the author wished he was dead by the end of it.
Jim Albea thought he had it made. After many years of tweaking a game idea that came to him in a dream, he finally had a finished game. His family and friends loved it, and everyone who played it at the local game store thought it was excellent. Time to submit his design to Parker Brothers, sit back, and watch the checks roll it.
They rejected it without even looking at it (legal reasons, natch).
Well, thought Jim, there are plenty of other fish in the gaming pond--I guess they'll be the lucky ones. And with that, he sent the game design around to a whole bunch of companies, and waited for the bidding wars to begin.
They all rejected it.
Hmpph, thought Jim. The blind fools. Don't they know a good game design when they see it? I'll just manufacture and market the game myself, and keep all the profits. That'll show 'em.
A whole buncha money later and Jim had 500 sets of Plateau just sitting around his house gathering dust. He figured that this was the end. However, the game got good word of mouth on the Internet, and Jim realized that he could use the newsgroups and mailing lists to get everyone interested. A computer version of the game was created and given away for free. Now things were moving. Jim produced a business plan, sunk a whole lot more money into it (here's where the phrase "second mortgage" comes in). He printed up 10,000 units and marketed them. And this time, things were different.
This tune, Jim got to keep nine thousand copies of Plateau.
Jim gave up. Way too much time and money had been wasted on his dream. A Visual Basic implementation of Plateau was made by Jim and is available free for download (site address at the end of the review). It has an animated tutorial that makes it easy to learn Plateau. He still has copies of Plateau available for sale. After reading through his story, I decided to download the computer version of Plateau, and what I found was an interesting two-player abstract game, melding checkers and chess together.
Plateau is played on a 4x4 grid of squares. Each player has the same number and type of pieces. These pieces look like checkers, but have a color-code on either one or two sides of the piece (some pieces have no color coding at all, and look exactly like regular checkers). The object of the game is to either build a stack 6 pieces high, or capture 6 of an opponent's pieces.
Each player starts out with 2 pieces, stacked, on any of the outer border squares. Players then take turns moving or bringing one piece onto the board (this piece can be placed anywhere on the board). A stack of pieces can be moved as many spaces as there are pieces in the stack. The direction it can move in is determined by the top piece of the stack--this is the heart of Plateau, and its most fun aspect.
Each player has 5 different type of pieces. Each player has 4 "mutes". The mutes are pieces that have no color coding at all. They allow a stack to move either diagonally or horizontally/vertically. They can not be used to "capture" a stack, however. Any time you move a stack of your own pieces onto a stack of your opponent's pieces, you capture a number of your opponents' pieces equal to the amount of pieces in your own stack. Whew. That was a mouthful. However, to capture, you "must" have a color-coded piece face up on top of the stack you're moving; otherwise, you can't even land on an opponent's stack.
Each player also has two red pieces and two blue pieces. The red pieces can move horizontally/vertically, and the blues can move diagonally. They both allow capturing. Each player also has a blue and a red "mask". The masks act just like the regular red or blue pieces, but they are color coded on one side only. This allows you to play the piece on the board blank side up. Before moving a stack, you are allowed to flip the top piece over if you wish. This allows for hidden information, and introduces different bluffing and tactical possibilities. Each person also has one ace--this is a piece that is red on one side and blue on the other. Again, it allows for a wide range a movement for that piece, and allows for some serious mind games as each player is forced to take into account that each piece might not be what it seems. Finally, each person has one "twister"; this is a piece that is yellow on one side only and allows the piece to move similar to a knight in chess.
In lieu of moving or placing a piece on the board, you can also force your opponent to exchange prisoners. Each playing piece has a point value, with the ace being worth the most and the mutes the least. When you offer up pieces to your opponent for exchange, he must give you back pieces whose value at least matches the pieces you have offered him. If you offer him a mute, and he only has your ace, then he is forced to give you the ace in exchange. An exchange is usually used when an opponent is about to capture a sixth piece for the win.
Plateau is loads of fun and very addictive The interaction of the various pieces leads to some real mind bending decisions. Since each player's unused pieces are hidden, information becomes a game-commodity along with pieces and board placement. It's bad enough worrying about a person's ace or masks, but adding the twister in was a fiendish idea. One needs to think about all angles of attack, not just the common diagonals or straights. One potential problem is that there may be a "winning strategy", in other words, one strategy that proves to beat all others, thus rendering the game moot. I certainly haven't figured it out, but there's a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this could be the case. Then again, I'm not the best at abstract games, so I could be completely off base.
Plateau's box is a modified VCR tape box. It comes with a nice little 8"x8" board that folds in two, as well as the pieces and rules. It's very portable, and easy to teach to people one-on-one (learning just by reading the rules can be a bit daunting). At only $20, it's a steal for the amount of fun you'll have with it. I would recommend reading the full story on the Game Cabinet and then downloading Virtual Plateau and trying the game. Jim's game is a good one and deserves more recognition. If you enjoy it, write Jim and buy a copy (I did). It you like abstract games you'll get a great return on your investment.
The Plateau web site is at http://www.plateaugame.com/.