Simplicity in the Stones: An Interview About ShōbuJuly 10, 2019
Interview with co-designer, Manolis Vranas, on his game Shōbu (with a speical guest appearance of Curt Covert of Smirk & Dagger Games). A new abstract game with a classic look and refreshing feel to it.
Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Mano. We are jumping right in to talk about a game that you co-designed, Shōbu. Could you tell us a little bit about the game and how it’s played?
Mano: Shōbu is a 2-player abstract strategy game, with a gameplay time of approx. 20-30 minutes. The game components are simple wood, rope, and river rock, giving Shōbu a striking table presence.
In Shōbu, gameplay takes place on four separate game boards, with both players controlling 4 stones on each board. The object of the game is to eliminate all of your opponent’s stones from any one game board. Each turn a player makes a 2-part move; you begin by moving any of your stones up to 2 spaces in any available direction – this move must take place on one of the two boards closest to you (visually identified by the rope divider). The subsequent move must match the direction and number of spaces of the first, but it must take place on one of the off-colored boards (ie. if you started on a light board, your second move could be on either dark board). This second move has the ability to push an opponent’s stone across or off that game board. The only real limitations are that you cannot push double stones, and you cannot push your own stones.
Shōbu is the type of game that’s quick to learn but will continue to surprise. Throughout the course of a game, we’ll see players start to make connections to deeper strategic moves, and using other stones or the edges of the game boards to their advantage.
What is the story behind the creation of Shōbu?
Mano: Jamie and I both trained as Industrial/Product Designers, and met while working at the same company. Our shared love of board games made us fast friends and it wasn’t long before our daily lunch-hour walks would involve deep conversations about game mechanics and what factors went into producing an engaging game.
I recall, one day, Jamie coming into work with a high concept for a mirroring move mechanic for an abstract game – after some back-and-forth brainstorming, this formed the basis of our 2-part move in Shōbu. We then set about to explore many different game board variations – single board vs multiple boards, number of spaces on each board and how this impacted player movements, the different colored boards, etc.
We resolved the game down into its final parameters fairly quickly – possibly a little too quickly for us to truly believe we had worked out all of the bugs. So, we spent a long time trying to break the game and find any scenarios that didn’t work or created anomalies. However, in the end, we haven’t encountered any.
We then brought Shōbu to ProtoTO 2018 in Toronto and met Curt from Smirk & Dagger games and, as they say, the rest is history.
The mirroring moves is an unique feature, and I am not sure we’ve seen that in an abstract game before. Did any abstract games inspire you? I know games like Siam, Arimaa or Kamisado use that sumo pushing idea?
Mano: One thing I think we pride ourselves on is striving to achieve a result significantly different than what has come before. We never want to think we’re simply taking an existing game and just changing a few elements. Whether the seed starts from a mechanic idea – as with this mirror move – or a particular theme, we like to let it grow organically and see what the end result yields.
In the case of Shōbu, we weren’t influenced by any specific abstract games but, afterward, we did explore existing games to make sure we hadn’t created something too similar. I guess our greatest abstract inspirations may have come from the classics: Chess, Checkers, Go; not specifically for their gameplay, but we looked at their staying power and what characteristics made them welcoming to some and a barrier for others.
What influence the idea of keeping it simple with wooden boards, a rope, and some stones, instead of going plastic shaped pieces route?
Mano: Since we wanted to elicit a classic look and feel with this game, the components took on a greater significance. We needed players to connect with Shōbu without the aid of a visual theme, which can sometimes be used to translate cues to make the game more intuitive. With something so simple, there’s no place to hide! haha
By using these simple items, we wanted to evoke the intrinsic characteristics of the wood, the rope, and the stones to create the environment for the game.
Additionally, they give Shōbu much greater table presence. With early prototypes, especially when experimenting with board size and number of squares, we were just using printed paper grids and game tokens. This was fine to test the gameplay and work through variables, but it didn’t resonate visually. We had long talked about the ultimate version of this game, where the cost of manufacturing wasn’t so much of a concern, and it always came back to basic materials. So, about a week before the ProtoTO show, I mocked up the wooden board prototypes and added colored river rock and rope from a local craft store. Immediately, the visual prominence of the game increased and it finally matched the simple yet engaging feel of the gameplay. And, thankfully, Smirk & Dagger were able to preserve these elements during the manufacturing process.
Where did the name Shōbu come from, does it have any special meaning?
Mano: For this one, the thanks lies specifically with our Publisher, Curt Covert at Smirk & Dagger. Our original working title for the game was “Sumo Stones” in an effort to help communicate the concept of pushing your opponent off the board (or, out of the ring). Curt explored a few different options and presented us with the idea of Shōbu, which is a Japanese word for ‘game’ or ‘match’ and is made up of the characters for ‘Victory’ and ‘Defeat.’ Like the game, the name is simple and thoughtful.
Even though Shōbu has four boards you play on, it’s not overwhelming. There isn’t a lot of spaces on each of them (16 space each board), so you can keep track of what’s going on. What made you and Jamie decide to go with four smaller boards over say two bigger ones?
Mano: That was definitely something that came out of the board exploration. Varying the size of the boards would change how the game was played. For example, one prototype version had four boards that were 5×5 squares. This actually created a central square that could act as something of a safe zone where a player couldn’t be pushed off the board in a single move. Or, with two larger boards, the greater number of squares also generated larger permutations of possible moves, so there was much more to keep track of.
As you made reference to, the smaller boards allow you to keep quick track of your own possible moves, as well as those of your opponent. But, this isn’t to a Chess level, where you can have a grand strategy to overcome your opponent, because if you focus too much on one board you won’t notice what’s happening on another board.
Many times abstracts have a first-player advantage, just because it’s the nature of a going first in a perfect information game. Was this something you come across or made you worry in any way?
Mano: First-player advantage was on our radar while we were playtesting, especially as it is so common with abstracts and most games in general.
We wanted to determine if we had to account for it, or if there needed to be some special rule applied. However, after playing and viewing several hundred games of Shōbu, I can confidently say there is no significant impact to going first or second.
Abstract games at heart have very simple rules, but you want them to have incredible depth, as they are often used in tournament settings, studied, etc. Was it challenging to make sure your game had that kind of depth while staying simple?
Mano: Keeping it simple was at the root of our efforts, so we had that scope in mind from the very beginning. We knew we had an engaging mechanic in the 2-part mirror move so, by making sure everything else was simple and intuitive, we helped to put the focus on what we felt provided the depth.
And, to be honest, we knew we both really liked what we created, but weren’t prepared for how well it would be received. The more people we showed it to, the more excitement it generated, and the more the word has spread. To say we’re humbled by the reaction is an understatement. We’re very grateful to all the people who have played Shōbu, enjoyed it, and helped spread the word!
I hear that abstract games are hard to get signed. Did this worry you at all when designing an abstract game, if it would get signed?
Mano: That’s something we’ve heard a lot, as well. It seems that many of the more recent abstracts that have done well have gone heavier into a theme, which can help when communicating gameplay as well as having graphics to market the game around.
For us, when we started designing Shōbu, we weren’t thinking about getting it signed, or how it would be published. Our focus was trying to create an engaging game in the vein of those classic, evergreen games: Chess, Go, etc. All of those other thoughts came much later. And, I think that’s another reason why we’re so amazed at how positive the reaction has been, so far.
Speaking of which, what has been your favorite part of working with Smirk & Dagger?
Mano: Curt, and his team at Smirk & Dagger have been great to work with. Being a game designer, himself, Curt understands what it’s like to be on this side of the contract and, as such, sees the benefits of involving the designers in the game development process. And, if you’ve ever met him, you can tell he’s really passionate about the industry.
One story I like to tell is how we first met Curt. ProtoTO, for those that aren’t familiar, is a prototyping convention where designers bring their work-in-progress games for playtesters to play and provide feedback. It’s a great little bartering economy where you give and get for the greater benefit of the games involved. Curt and I met briefly while playing another designer’s game and, later on, I flagged him down when we had Shōbu set up. Our little game had been creating a buzz at ProtoTO, but we were still surprised when he had said he’d been told by several people to check it out!
Curt admitted to being fond of abstract games and liked the look of our wood and stone prototype. I quickly explained the rules and we started playing… and he beat me! haha We played again, all the while chatting about the various aspects he enjoyed, from the strategy and gameplay to the components and table presence. At the end, he shook my hand, said he loved the game but wasn’t sure if it was a fit for his product line. We were a little gutted but knew we at least had a sale if/when the game was published.
The next day, Curt found us in another playtest session and asked if we could set up Shōbu again as he wanted to show it to his team. Long story short, the more he played the game, the more he discussed it with his team, the more he taught it to complete strangers, he basically convinced himself to sign Shōbu! 🙂
Curt Covert of Smirk & Dagger Games: It’s true. Even with the expanded offerings that the Smirk & Laughter sub-brand has allowed us to do, a pure abstract pushed way out of the realm of what fans have come to expect from us. But I fell in love. And the more I played and showed it off to people, the deeper the love grew. Bringing my team over wasn’t to evaluate the strength of the game, that was evident. It was to support me emotionally and tell me it was okay to re-envision our brand (again) and what games we could offer. Maybe that sounds silly, but remember, for 14 years we were rather infamously known ONLY for backstabby games. But the heart wants what the heart wants – and I’m glad for it.
That is an awesome story. So I would be amiss not to ask: Before Shōbu, were you into abstract games at all or is Shōbu the first abstract game you (and/or Jamie) are really into?
Mano: Both Jamie and I enjoy a variety of different games types, including abstracts. Most of my experience with abstract games is from my childhood, playing games like Chess, Backgammon, and Dominoes. In the last number of years, since we designed Shōbu, I’ve found interest in a some more recent abstract games, including Hive, Onitama, and Santorini.
For Jamie, he and a friend have a long standing chess rivalry, but he thinks of himself as more of a casual fan of the genre. That being said, he has always enjoyed them, with some of his favorites growing up being: Nine Men’s Morris, Mancala, Chinese Checkers, and Connect 4!
Do you guys, at least at the moment, have any plans to design another abstract game?
Mano: We have several games on the go, in various stages of development but, at this time, I don’t believe any of them are specifically abstract games.
However, if we’ve learned anything, another spark of inspiration can hit at any moment! 😉 haha
What three adjectives would you use to describe Shōbu’s gameplay?
Mano: Simple, Elegant, Strategic
Curt Covert of Smirk & Dagger Games: Let me add one, if I may, Timeless. Chess and Go are ages old and still perpetually fresh. I think the true measure of any new abstract game is how well it conveys the feeling that the game is centuries old and will be with us forever. That is nearly impossible to do. Yet Manolis and Jamie have managed to pull it off twice. The first is how it strikes you as you walk by. The aesthetics of using natural components, wood boards and tumbled river rock, transport you to a different place and time. Most important though is the gameplay, instantly familiar, yet wholly unique, which presents a challenge that universally engages players and grows with them. That – is timelessness.
Shōbu is among the purest of abstracts. Nothing gets in the way. This was why I felt the name change was important. It needed a name that held power, that would never age. While theme may indeed sell many of today’s abstract games, adding a theme to this game only detracts from its timeless appeal. It needed a name to honor it.
As we wrap this up, is there anything else we didn’t cover about the game you think readers would find interesting or anything else you would like to add?
Mano: I think we’ve covered pretty much everything! I’d like to link everyone to the Smirk & Laughter website for news & updates on Shōbu, as well as information on the release date and how to buy a copy: https://www.smirkandlaughter.com/
I already mentioned that we have several games in development, and are pretty excited about a new game we’re ready to show; it’s called: The Great Tea Race of 1866 and it’s based on the voyages of fast sailing ships, known as Clippers, which would travel from China to Britain with cargoes of tea. As the demand for tea increased, so too would the incentives on being the first ship to dock in London with the new tea crop of the season. These informal races came to a head in 1866 when five of the fastest, most decorated ships vied to claim the title (and premiums) of World’s Fastest Clipper!
The main gameplay mechanic is actually inspired by another classic Abstract Strategy game, Mancala, but we feel we’ve taken it into a new and innovative direction.
We’ll be revealing more details over the coming months and running playtests through to ProtoTO 2019, in September.
Finally, I want to thank you, Ryan, for this interview and providing some great questions. I was just chatting about it with Jamie, earlier today, saying that it was a fun trip down memory lane to reflect back on the early days of Shōbu.
Thanks for sharing with us the story behind the game on this trip down memory lane!
Shōbu will be available Summer of 2019, you can find more info at https://www.smirkandlaughter.com/.