The Incompleat Gamester
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A cross between Chess and dice
by David Parlett

I wrote this in 2010 for a book called Tabletop Games, which I can no longer find on my shelves nor find any bibliographic information for. For this online version I have converted it from US to UK English.

It’s funny how some people like games to be “about” something while others have no such desire. The former go for games that might be described as thematic or representational, like Monopoly or Settlers of Catan; the latter prefer abstracts like Chess, Checkers and Othello. I’m one of the latter. For me, a game doesn’t have to be about anything other than itself. I think of thematic games as being theatrical: the players seem to be wanting not only to play a game but also to play a role in a dramatic representation of some aspect of real life. Personally I’m quite happy with being who I am, and that's somebody who enjoys rising to the challenge of problem-solving in spatial and mathematical relationships. It’s obviously a personality thing: I don’t much care for drama as such, and rarely go to the theatre (unlike cinema, of which I am an avid fan).

I’m one of the older generation of games enthusiasts. A games inventor since childhood, I first started writing and reviewing for the late Games & Puzzles magazine in 1972, and invented my first published boardgame, Hare & Tortoise, the following year. Immediately before coming up with that solitary success, I spent several months vainly playing about with the idea of basing a game on dice - not rolling them so they fall at random, but flipping or tumbling them by their edges from square to square so that you work out where they would finish up and with which side uppermost. My first experiment was to place letters on their sides and move them around in such a way as to form words. This didn’t work very well, so I tried the next and perhaps more obvious device of keeping to the traditional arrangement of spots and decreeing that you could roll a cube over as many squares as indicated by the number on top at the start of your move. There was, if I remember rightly, a 10x10 squared board and you each started with ten dice on your back row. The obvious objective was to get one or all of your dice over to the far edge. But, despite much playing around with possible ideas, I couldn’t get anywhere satisfactory with it, and moved on to something completely different.

Two years later we received for review at the Games & Puzzles office a dice-rolling game called Conquest, published by Denys Fisher Games and invented by Geoffrey Hayes (as we now know, though in those unenlightened days inventors were not credited anywhere on the published product). I pounced on this game immediately, played it with delight, and asked to review it. My review appeared in Games & Puzzles #48, dated May 1976, and I am still playing with the review copy. To my chagrin, but equal admiration, Hayes had come up with a solution that had consistently eluded me. I quote the following description more or less verbatim from my review.

Each player takes eight large plastic dice of a distinctive colour and places them on their nine-long back rank of a 9 x 8 chequered board. The middle or ‘key’ square of the row is occupied by a piece awkwardly referred to as a ‘key-dice’, which may be regarded as the equivalent of a Chess king. The key-piece, marked with a single spot on every face, moves one square at a time, and the object is to move it across the board so as to occupy the opposing key square. An alternative win is achieved by capturing your opponent’s key-piece.

The point of the play lies in the way the dice-pieces are used. Each one is rolled (or ‘flipped’ or ‘tumbled’) from square to square so that each succeeding face is turned uppermost as it crosses the ridge on to an adjacent square - all moves being orthogonal, of course. The distance it moves is determined by the number of spots shown on the top face at the start of a turn. It must move in a straight line, but may make one (only) right-angled turn at any point in the course of it. It may not pass over another piece, but may capture an enemy piece by replacement if its legitimate move brings it on to a square so occupied. And that’s all!

The basic strategy of the game is, of course, to get your pieces working together like an army or bodyguard to protect the passage of your key-piece across the board, while attacking and removing enemy pieces where possible in order to prevent your opponent from achieving the same objective. Alternatively you may concentrate less on advancing your key-piece and more on moving your army out to capture your opponent’s. In either case, skill depends entirely upon the ability to position pieces correctly and move them in such a way as to ensure that they finish with a suitable number uppermost. What that is, of course, depends on the position: in an open game sixes are strongest; in a close game threes and fours are best; ones are nearly always positive weaknesses.

One’s first reaction to the game may well be of bewilderment - at first sight it seems impossible to quickly think your way around a three-dimensional piece in order to work out where it can land up and in what orientation. In fact, however, it is a knack that can be learned in the course of your first few games. Once achieved, the game becomes one of pure skill, though before you reach that stage the progress of the game does tend to be a bit - er - dicey.

Presentation and durability are superb. I particularly admire the way the squares are defined by ridges while the pieces have grooved edges to key them in as they roll over, though I wish the surfaces were not so slippery. The rules are not bad, but for a game so simple to describe, they ought to be better. I assume, for example, that once you have got your key-piece on to your opponent’s key square you win immediately, but it would have been helpful of the rules to confirm that your opponent cannot then snatch away your victory by capturing it at once. It is a point which, without clarification, could lead to argument.

The world today is so full of two-player abstract boardgames, most of which are Draughts (Checkers, for Americans) with knobs on, that it is refreshing to come across one whose concept is so original that it can be explained in a few words. For this reason, and for its intrinsic depth, Conquest deserves a solid future. I rated it six out of six.

So ended my review. Conquest did indeed go on to enjoy a future of sorts, albeit a rather piecemeal and scrappy one. To my disgust, it was soon after rebranded for the UK market as “The George vs. Mildred Dice Game”, in reference to a then popular TV domestic sitcom. It has appeared in various countries and under various titles, including also Alea, Tactix, and, in Germany, Duell. (Further details from BoardGameGeek.)

My brother and I have taken it up again recently, and my ten-year-old grandson enjoys it. Which just goes to confirm, in my view, that a preference for abstract games is a personality thing, and that personalities tend to run in families.

I’ll just end by adding a few regulatory refinements that don’t appear in the original rules (I haven’t seen any later ones) but which we have found useful and desirable:

To decide who plays which colour and who begins: One player holds out a dice of each colour concealed in each hand. The other announces a colour, for example “Red”, and points to a hand. The chooser then plays the colour actually revealed, and moves first if (and only if) they correctly predicted that colour;

Having selected which dice to tumble, you should first announce its topmost number so that your opponent can monitor and correct any mistake in movement.

You may retract a move but only so long as you have kept in physical contact with the dice you moved. As in Chess, you should announce “Check!” upon placing your opponent’s king en prise. (There’s no fun in winning a game by your opponent’s lack of observation.) If you don’t, you can’t take it on your next move. You can announce the check later, but can’t take it till the move after that, if still possible.

Most importantly of all (in our opinion): to win, it is not enough to merely move your king on to your opponent’s king square - it must not then be immediately capturable, otherwise you lose.

Copyright 2017–