Monday November 24, 2014

Multiple ways to win game


When a game arrives in a box that in about 3.5 inches square and less than that in height, I find it pretty interesting to start with.

The small size all but ensures two things; one, the game will be easy to store and easy to take with you to a friend’s to play, and two, the rules have to be pretty straight forward because the components are obviously limited.

And so I opened Syrtis with a fair level of anticipation.

I was aware the game was an abstract strategy game, and convenience of size and simplicity are major bonuses for the genre.

So first a comment on the components. They are about what you should expect for a small run, designer produced game.

The four game pieces are actually wooden, which is a nice touch.

The board pieces are cardboard, and not particularly thick cardboard, which is less of a nice touch. Fall in love with Syrtis, and play it lots, the board pieces, which form something of a checkerboard pattern play area, but are moved around during game play, and the cardboard may not stand up very well.

It is a case where I would quickly consider laminating the pieces, since there are some quite functional home laminating options at most ‘dollar stores’.

Syrtis, which calls itself ‘a game of quicksand’, has two win conditions, another reason to like this game.

“You win when all the remaining tiles of your color are connected, or all the remaining tiles of your shape are connected,” explains the rules.

“An island is a tile or connected group of tiles that all share the same color or shape. (Groups that touch only at the corners are not connected). There are light islands, dark islands, circle islands and square islands.”

And, “If you sink four tiles and meanwhile your opponent has sunk none, your opponent loses the race against the quicksand.”

On a turn a player has a surprising number of options in Syrtis, including moving one of their two tower pieces, removing a tile from the game area, thus reducing the play area, moving a tile within the play area, or passing.

The four play options, coupled with more than a single win condition to anticipate, really gives Syrtis surprising depth.

Overall I have to give game designer David Vander Laan kudos for his work with the game.

Vander Laan said there are aspects of the game he looks on with pride.

“One innovative feature of Syrtis is its multidimensionality. I don’t mean that it’s 3D rather than 2D. I’m referring to the colors and shapes of the tiles, independent features that have an equal effect on where towers can move,” he said. “Playing Syrtis is a bit like playing two games superimposed on each other—a color game and a shape game. When I slide a tile of my color toward the center, say, I might well be sliding a tile of my opponent’s shape; if I’m not careful, I could easily give my opponent a bigger advantage than I give myself. Some games, like Quarto, have multidimensional pieces, but I don’t know of any other games in which multi-dimensional pieces make up a shifting modular board.”

The designer said Syrtis was a game where some initial ideas were obvious elements of the game, while others took time to formulate.

“The main ideas; roughly, the tiles, towers, and their movements, came pretty quickly in the fall of 2011,” said Vander Laan. “It was another couple of months before I came up with a suitable shape for the board, which was originally a 7x7 square.

“It was another year and a half before I made the anti-symmetric setup standard and added the ‘quicksand’ win condition. I’ve continued to tinker with the rules, and for a while I flirted with using hexagonal tiles, but I’d say getting close to the current version took about 21 months.

“Probably the biggest challenge in that process was settling on the win conditions. The ‘complete island’ condition made sense from the beginning, but I wanted another win condition to make the game quicker. My early attempts required players to count the number of tiles in their islands; this was tedious, and it was much less elegant than forming complete islands, which can be spotted at a glance.

“When I finally came up with the quicksand condition, I had something that didn’t require counting higher than four, and it fit the theme. It also makes it much easier for a player to lose in the early and middle stages of the game, so players have to be alert …

“I really like the effect of having multiple win conditions, which make both offense and defense a tightrope act. The win conditions make come-from-behind wins pretty common, so the game is an exciting contest all the way to the end.”

As a game player I am always intrigued by what inspires designers and Vander Laan’s inspirations are rather interesting.

“The immediate inspiration for Syrtis was Cameron Browne’s book Connection Games: Variations on a Theme,” he said. “It got me wondering about creative ways to use the idea of connections. In nearly all games in the genre, making a connected path is the goal. I started toying with the idea of connections being important because they would be the paths that pieces could move along. Forming connections wouldn’t just be the goal; it would also increase the mobility of the pieces, which in turn would shape the evolution of the board.

“A later inspiration, once I had the central ideas in place, was the name of the game. A quicksand theme seemed to fit the gameplay, and ‘syrtis’ is a Greek word for quicksand. I learned that it’s also the name of two undersea quicksands off Africa’s Mediterranean coast. That got me thinking about the glories of the Moorish architecture one finds in that part of the world—horseshoe arches, domes, pillars, mosaics, muqarnas, and so on. My hope is that future versions of Syrtis will incorporate the beauty of those features, especially in the tower design.”

Overall it’s a neat little game, and one with lots to explore in terms of strategies and game play.

Check it out at



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