YORKTON - When it comes to games with super simple rules, easy to assemble pieces, yet offering players a definite challenge, it is pretty hard to beat Lines of Action.
The game was created in 1969 by Canadian Claude Soucie, and it plays on a regular 8X8 checkerboard, with each player having 12 pieces.
The pieces are split with six set on one side of the board, and six on the other, the opponent’s the same. The goal is to move your pieces until they are all connected, typically somewhere in the middle of the board.
Movement is reliant on how many pieces are in the line on which you are moving, so it can be a challenge to get where you want to go.
Capture is possible, but rarely overly wise as it reduces how many pieces the opponent needs to bring together.
So how does a top player view the game?
Koichi Nicholas is from Reading in the UK, a town about 40 miles west of London, and is the 2022 winner of a major Lines of Action event in that country.
Not surprisingly he is an avid gamer.
“I've played games for as long as I can remember although usually I have been focused on only one or two games at any point in time,” he said via email. “This began with chess which I played competitively from the age of about 10. At around 16 I learned how to play Lines of Action (LoA) and instantly took a liking to it, playing wherever I could, although there were fewer opportunities as it is much less known than chess.
“Then at university I learned how to play poker and subsequently spent many hours playing in both online and live events. Work commitments meant I have had less time to spend in recent years but I have managed to learn some new games recently which has been good fun.
“My favourite game tends to change and is usually whichever one I am focused on at the time. From the months leading up to the World Championship up until the present, I'd say it's probably LoA.”
For Nicholas the recent win was a return to the top after years of absence.
“I had won the LoA world championship a few times previously in my youth, but other commitments meant that I hadn't played for many years,” he related.
“At some point during the pandemic, I thought it might be interesting to play in the event again to see what changes had occurred in general game play and also to see if I could still hold my own against the top players.
“I was fortunate that in the months beforehand, I encountered the reigning world champion online and we played a series of games in which he thoroughly outplayed me. I learned a lot from these matches, increasing my preparations as a result, and much to my surprise I managed to end up winning the title!
“One takeaway from the event was how strong the entire field had become and there were no easy games. I intend to play again next year and look forward to the challenge, although I expect I will have a target on my back next time.”
So what is it about LoA Nicholas likes?
“LoA is such a simple game with only four rules and therefore very easy to learn,” he said. “Games typically last around 20 moves or thereabouts and so are relatively quick.
“However despite this, the game play can be very complex and I think that the top players have only really scratched the surface in terms of trying to master the game.
“Therefore no matter how many times I play, it retains a constant freshness and there is always room for finding ways to improve one's game.”
Nicholas likes the game play most.
“For me, the best element of Lines of Action is how dynamically the games play out,” he offered. “Because the way that an individual piece can move is dependent on the other pieces on the board, the nature of the position is constantly changing with every move. This gives a lot of scope for creative play and I find there is rarely an obvious best move in any given position.
“In addition, the key strategies are quite easy to understand and so once a player has learned these they will be able to have good games against any opponent, no matter how experienced they may be.”
Interestingly, while topping the championship he said he isn’t sure what made him so successful.
“Honestly, I wish I knew the answer to this question as I would then apply it to other games that I play,” said Nicholas. “I recall picking up the game very quickly and I think part of that was down to being able to recognize what the most important factors in the game were.
“I used to keep my decision-making as simple as I could and base my moves around just four factors - I found that this used to be enough to be successful in the game but more recently, it's been necessary to look at things a bit more deeply.”
It helps of course if you have played other games.
“As a game, LoA shares much in common with other abstract games and I think those who have played games like chess, checkers, Othello etc. will have no problems picking it up,” said Nicholas.
“Obviously I have a personal fondness for the game, but when I have shown others how to play I have been surprised at how much people generally seem to enjoy playing it, even those without any background in abstract games.
“From a competitive perspective, LoA has one major advantage over other abstract games in that I believe it's possible for anyone to reach a high level relatively quickly as long as they are willing a spend a bit of time.
“The major drawback is that there are far less resources available and it is much harder to find opponents online to play against.”
That said because the game is less played the ‘book’ of best moves is less defined too.
“One aspect of more established abstract games that I know regular players can become frustrated with is the amount of opening theory that needs to be memorized in order to be able to compete effectively at their chosen game,” offered Nicholas.
“In chess for example, the variant known as Chess 960 which randomizes the starting position continues to grow in popularity and the Chess 960 World Championship held last week attracted more coverage than any 960 tournament to-date.
“There is next to no opening theory in LoA -- as far as I'm aware -- and so no memorization needed. You can get your opponents thinking, even from move one.”