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The Meeple Guild: Champion talks the game Tumbleweed

Anton Christenson, a 26 years old, living in Stockholm, Sweden tops tourney
Tumbleweed is a game garnering attention from abstract strategy players. (File Photo)

YORKTON - It was just about a year ago this space was dedicated to a two-piece review of the game Tumbleweed by Michal Zapala. 

The developer has since hosted an online championship for his creation, and via email we are able to hear the champion’s thoughts on the game, but first a quick review. 

Tumbleweed is a two-player game. It is played on a hexhex board and a sufficient supply of stacked checkers. Hexhex-8 is the most common board size, although hexhex-11 is recommended for high-level play.  

A stack is said to be "seen" from a hex, when they are connected by a straight line, with no stacks in between. 

The players take turns "settling" hexes by placing a stack of their tokens on a hex of their choice. The stack height is equal to the number of your stacks in sight of the settled hex. Only hexes that see at least one of your stacks may be settled. Removing a stack occupying a hex and re-settling it with a new stack is possible, as long as the new stack is taller than the previous one. This works with opponent stacks (to capture), or your own stacks (to reinforce). 

It is an interesting game to be sure, one because of the piece count, really is ideal for online play where Anton Christenson, a 26 years old, living in Stockholm, Sweden, studying mathematics and computer science emerged as a champion. 

Christenson admits to always having been an abstract strategy fan. 

“Yes, I particularly like learning about games with simple rules such as Hex, Amazons and Lines of Action - although I actually haven’t spent much time playing and improving at these games, just a few games with friends here and there,” he explained. 

When it comes to Christenson’s favourite game you go for one of the true classic board games, one many will suggest is the best game ever. 

“My favorite game is Go, so that is what I dedicate most time to playing and studying,” he said.  

“I also play a bit of Chess on the side and of course (since last year) Tumbleweed.” 

So if you are a big fan of the classics of Go and Chess, what was it about Tumbleweed that first attracted Christenson to Tumbleweed? 

“My curiosity was peaked by the similarities to Go, and I find the rules quite elegant,” he said. “There are many games where I’ve enjoyed playing a couple of times before losing interest. But Tumbleweed has somehow kept my attention for almost a year now.  

“An important factor to this -- apart from the intrinsic quality of the game -- is the excitement of discovering this new game together as a community. We don’t have any strong players with years of experience to give us advice, but must gradually figure things out for ourselves. I find this process very rewarding, and it's much easier to make novel contributions compared to older games where most things have already been explored.” 

Christenson returned to the ruleset when talking about the core strength of Tumbleweed. 

“The basic rules are so natural that the game feels more like a discovery than a design,” he said. “Although the lines-of-sight mechanic is a bit tricky to explain briefly and unambiguously in text, once you see it in action it’s very easy to understand and remember. 

“In terms of gameplay Tumbleweed has many of the same strengths as Go, but in a simpler package. Go is a near-perfect game in my opinion, but the initial learning curve is super steep.  

“Tumbleweed is a bit less opaque, so it may be a better playing experience for someone who just wants to enjoy a game casually without investing years of study.” 

The championship did have a level of familiarity to it for Christenson. 

“Since we are still a small community, I was familiar with all the participants in the championship, and had played all of them before -- although some only once or twice,” he said. 

“I think most of the players have some experience from other games that they’re drawing upon when playing Tumbleweed. Since we’re all coming from different backgrounds, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. This is true for any game of course, but I think this effect is extra noticeable for a new game - over time I expect we will learn from each other's strengths and even out a bit.” 

Christenson then looked at his own game with a critical eye. 

“I think the weakest part of my game is the early opening,” he offered. “The opening in Tumbleweed can be very sharp - a single misstep and you suddenly fall behind.  

“But there is also a lot of room for variety and creativity in the opening, at least at our current level. So this is the stage of the game where I was most often surprised by my opponents - sometimes they play strong moves that I would never have considered.” 

The champion admitted he was hoping for the title from the outset. 

“I went into the championship hoping to win it, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy! I’m proud to have gotten the title, and I think defending it next year will be even harder, with everyone continuing to improve,” said Christenson. 

So does the champion see interest in Tumbleweed growing? 

“One thing we’ve struggled with is finding the optimal way to play Tumbleweed with a physical set,” said Christenson. “People have experimented with different home-made solutions -- for instance using dice or stacks of poker chips -- but it’s hard to match the convenience of online play. 

“This has not been a big problem so far; as a small but international community there are anyways not many opportunities to play in person.  

“But when introducing friends, it would be nice to have a good physical set. For the time being I’ve used a tablet on these occasions, which also works well. 

“Apart from that I guess it's just a question of marketing, to reach all the players that could potentially enjoy this game. This is not really my area so I don't have a lot to say about it, but I think Tumbleweed is on a good path so far. The recent implementation on Board Game Arena will hopefully lead to many new players discovering the game. 

Obviously only a few AS games have decades old and international organizations, chess and Go among them. Could Tumbleweed achieve something similar?  

“I believe Tumbleweed is just as deserving of a serious following as some other famous games,” offered Christenson. “I doubt we will ever see professional Tumbleweed players, but I hope that the player base will continue to grow and that we can continue to host regular tournaments for decades to come.”