Cost: $52 From: Kadon Enterprises, (301) 441-8596 Players: 2 Playing Time: 30+ minutes Type of game: Abstract strategy Reviewed by: Mark Engleberg, Issue 3.2, Spring 1995
Every once in a while, I run across a strategy game that seems to possess a certain elegance that appeals to my sense of abstract aesthetics. Once in a blue moon, such a game actually turns out to be fun. Much to my delight, The Game of Y turned out to be such a game.
In The Game of Y, all the complexity is contained entirely in the unique playing board, a vaguely triangular mesh resembling a squashed geodesic dome. Movement is as simple as can beó players take turns placing stones on nodes of the oddly shaped lattice. The goal is also quite simpleó each player must try to connect the three edges of the board with an unbroken network of his or her stones (which often end up resembling a Y, hence the name).
This goal state yields one of the most fun and elegant aspects of the game: there is no stalemate in Y; no matter how badly each player plays, someone will definitely win. Furthermore, it's not merely a race to see who can accomplish this objective first; the act of connecting all three edges is equivalent to blocking the other person from meeting that goal. Therefore, in Y, offense and defense are truly synonymous concepts. Many strategy games fall short because they force the player to spend too much time on either defense or offense and aren't properly balanced in this way; in Y this isn't even an issue.
The Game of Y is definitely one of the most fair, balanced strategy games I've played in a long time. Usually after a few sessions of any strategy game, I quickly realize that either the player who goes first or the player who goes second always has a distinct advantage, and that certain starting plays are significantly more powerful than others.
It is clear that the creators of Y spent a great deal of time making the different regions of the board (corners and edges versus central) similar in strategic strength. In fact, a historical note in the manual explains that two different mathematicians separately came up with the basic goal concept of Y in the mid 60s, one of whom continued to tweak the board over the next couple of decades until he arrived at the strange but well-balanced board that Kadon decided to publish.
Despite this, it is still possible for the player who goes first to have a slight advantage, if he really knows what he is doing, and has the total freedom to go wherever he wants. This is why the rules recommend that the first move be determined by the good old "pie-cutting" strategy: One person picks where the first stone will go, and the other decides who goes first. This yields an opening play with a maximal balance.
Y also lends itself well to handicapping for people of different skill levels. For the slightest level of handicapping, the weaker player is given the freedom to go first on any space. To increase the handicap, the weaker player can play multiple stones on the first turn.
The game is a bit pricey, and is available only direct from Kadon, but the handcrafted hardwood board is well constructed, and even the stones have a nice feel to them. I personally would rather pay less and play on a cheap pattern-printed-on-cardboard board, but at least it's nice to know that you get fine quality for the extra money, and this quality does ultimately add to the overall aesthetics of the game. Furthermore, the game also comes with rules for several other strategy games to play on Y's board. While these other games are merely minor diversions without the depth of Y (like a version of Chinese Checkers), it's nice to know that the makers of the game have sought to further extend the value of your purchase.
But the bottom line is that the game of Y is fun to play. The first couple of games I played with my fiancee (before either of us developed a sense for Y strategy) were an absolute riot as we each stumbled toward a win, trying to build blatant, direct lines of stones to connect the edges. But each of us quickly gained an intuitive feel for some of the strategies, and we found ourselves building more subtle, spread-out web-like patterns that could be filled in later. Every once in a while, one of us would discover a cool move or concept in a moment of desperation, and we'd both learn from that and incorporate that notion into our strategic reportoire. An average game consistently takes less than a half an hour, so it was easy to keep saying, "Let's play one more time..."
Oh sure, since the game is so well balanced, certainly if both players have total mastery over the game and always make optimal moves, the outcome of the game is probably determined by the first few moves. But hey, unearthing the strategies for this very accessible game and achieving that level of mastery is a lot of fun, and isn't that what a good game is all about?