Full disclosure: A review copy of Shōbu was provided by Smirk & Laughter Games.
Alright, more Gen Con games! We’re starting to approach the holidays, but I don’t really have any holiday-themed games so we’re just going to keep powering through the Gen Con releases until there aren’t any left. Hopefully. Given that we’re about 3 months out of Gen Con and I’m really only about halfway done (maybe less?), it’s anyone’s guess where this train is going. Either way, let’s go check out Shobu, the latest release from Smirk & Laughter Games.
Shobu is a new abstract strategy game that plays exclusively two players, similar to my favorite, Santorini. In Shobu, players compete on four identical boards to rid one board of their opponent’s influence. The twist? Each turn, you make two moves on two different boards, but only one of them can push stones out! Will you be able to make a board that’s entirely your stones? Or will your opponent manage to completely cast you out?
Not much to set up. Give each player a set of boards and have the boards sit across from a board of the same color:
Set the rope between them:
Now, place the pieces on the board. Choose a player to play as white and have the other play as black. Set the 16 stones of each color on the boards so that they’re closest to the player playing as that color. Each board should have 4 white stones and 4 black stones on it:
Once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much good to start!
Shōbu is a game of balanced action. Your goal is simple; clear one board of your opponent’s stones. The first player to do so wins! But like most abstract games, actually doing that is much more challenging than it sounds.
On your turn, you must make two moves: Passive and Aggressive.
The passive move must take place on your side of the rope. Choose a stone and move it 1 – 2 spaces in any direction, with some caveats:
- Your stone may not move off the board.
- Your stone may not move into or push any other stones.
The aggressive move happens immediately after. Choose a stone on either board of the opposite color of your passive move and move it the same number of spaces in the same direction, with some caveats:
- Your stone may not move off the board.
- Your stone may be in a different position than the stone you moved for your passive move.
- Your stone may move into one stone, pushing it in the same direction as the direction you moved.
- You may not push more than one stone when moving.
- You may not push your own stones. I’m not 100% sure why you would, to be honest.
- If you push your opponent’s stone off the board, remove it from play.
- If you cannot make an aggressive move, you cannot make the passive move you made. Undo your passive move and try something else.
End of Game
If either player manages to clear the board of their opponent’s pieces, they immediately win!
Player Count Differences
None! This is a two-player only game.
- Remember that your boards control your initial movement. This is a critical thing. If you lose too many pieces from one of your boards, you’re going to really struggle defending either board of the opposite color (since only your aggressive move can push stones). Try to make sure you’re not getting cleared out on one board without noticing.
- Try to bring the fight to your opponent. I do this because then it’s difficult for them if I can get rid of 2 – 3 of their stones. Once I’ve done that, I can make a lot of headway on taking out their stones without them being able to respond as quickly or easily. Naturally, if they notice this they’ll respond by doing the same to you, but, can’t be helped.
- For me, it often helps to figure out what aggressive move I want to make first and then work backwards to what passive move will make that aggressive move possible. This way I’m solving a problem in reverse rather than trying to find the best move from an expanding sequence of possible outcomes. I pick the move I want and then distill down if it’s possible to take that move without jeopardizing my chances of ultimate success.
- Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. One of my favorite offensive techniques is to finish my aggressive move in between two of my opponent’s stones. That way, they can’t immediately push back against me (since they can’t move multiple stones or their own stones). It’s not too hard to do this and then have a pretty defensible territory.
- Plan a bit ahead. You need to check to see what your opponent can do on your turn. Can they knock your final stone off? Then don’t do that action. But if they can’t (because they can’t make the correct passive move) then go wild. This is the benefit of taking the fight to them; eventually, you’ll have pushed them such that their available moves are pretty easy to figure out. Once you can figure them out, you’ve got them pinned.
- You’re going to lose a few of your stones; you’ll need to be okay with that. There’s no victory without sacrifice, I don’t think, unless your opponent is really not focused on the game. You’re going to send a few of your stones into the good night, so try not to play in a way that assumes it’s possible to win without losing any of them. I think that’s just going to get you set up into a corner, and that’s bad.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Pretty easy to set up. You kinda just bust out four boards, a rope, and some stones and you’re ready to go.
- The core concept is not too hard to learn. Fundamentally, you’re taking two moves to try to push your opponent’s stones off of any one board. Clear a board and you win!
- The component quality is also nice. The stones have a nice weight and the boards are very nice. The grooves in the boards make the whole thing very aesthetically pleasing. I have no opinions about the rope.
- I like abstracts, generally speaking. It’s a nice one! Thoughtful and a bit patterny. The movement restrictions as the game progresses become extremely interesting and challenging.
- I think the minimalist approach works for this game. There’s not a lot happening in terms of art or color, but it makes the game look striking when it’s played and it still catches the eye, which I appreciate. It may be tough to photograph, but we’ll see how that turns out. Worst case, I can use some other color pieces.
- You’re just going to see a fair bit of analysis paralysis. I think this might just be par for the course for a lot of abstracts, but given that you need to really be responsible for at most 8 pieces that can move in a variety of directions, and from that you may move one of possibly up to 8 pieces in a variety of directions, a number of players are going to be find it hard to pick a move at any reasonable speed.
- Your first game is going to usually be you making lots of mistakes. The most common word said in people’s first games of Shobu is “sorry”. This isn’t a dig at players; it’s just that the actions are close enough in type but different enough in impact that players are going to spend a nontrivial amount of time confusing things. Can you move stones with a passive action? No. Can an aggressive action happen on the same color board as your passive action? No. Can you make a passive move on an opponent’s board? No. And that’s all fine! It’s just something I notice frustrates players. As I said, the core concept of the game is easy enough to understand, but the execution aspect of playing the game is going to challenge a lot of people.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Shobu is quite fun! Naturally, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a huge sucker for abstracts, but this has a nice sense of minimalism to it that reminds me of Othello (with less bold green felt). The component quality is also very nice, as they really did get some nice stones and some very pleasant boards. The end result is an abstract that’s got a really nice table presence, which is always a good move for a game. While it’s very easy to set up and I suspect with experienced players it plays quite quickly, this is a game that’s going to be a bit of a struggle for newer players. The flow isn’t quite intuitive. That’s not bad; it’s just the product of a lot of observation (and learning myself). New players struggle a bit with connecting the available passive actions and the available aggressive actions into one fluid turn, and the game doesn’t offer much in the way of visual aids or guides to make the process easier (beyond the different board colors, which does help). Either way, if you’ve got a patient teacher I think the game really takes off once players totally get what to do, which is always a nice outcome. You’re left with an interesting abstract that does a great job with the components it has (without taking up a ton of space). To that end, yeah, I think Shobu is a lot of fun, and if you like abstracts, you may enjoy it too!