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The Meeple Guild: Tumbleweed: Capture, reinforce & win!

Tumbleweed is a two-player game. It is played on a hexagon board and a sufficient supply of stacked checkers.
The internet has allowed for online tournaments with Alek Erickson recently winning a major championship.

YORKTON - Tumbleweed is a recent addition to the world of abstract strategy games being released from designer Michal Zapala in 2020.

Tumbleweed is a two-player game. It is played on a hexagon board and a sufficient supply of stacked checkers.

“A stack can "see" a hex, when they are connected by a straight line, with no stacks in between. The players take turns placing stacks of their tokens on hexes that are seen by at least one friendly stack. The height of every newly-placed stack equals the number of your stacks that see the new stack. Replacing an existing stack 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),” details

“The game ends when no more moves can be made by either player, or after two successive passes. The player who occupies over half the board wins.”

The game is interesting in the sense it works better online due to the need for so many pieces, rather than on the game room table, but that doesn’t lessen interest in this one.

And, the internet has allowed for online tournaments with Alek Erickson recently winning a major championship.

To begin I am always happy to see new games promoted with such tourneys as a way of building community.

It’s also interesting to have the opportunity to ‘interview’ a champion, thanks to email, which allowed Erickson to answer a few questions of Tumbleweed.

As it turned out Erickson likes games in the vein of Tumbleweed.

“I play a few different games in addition to Tumbleweed, primarily modern abstract strategy games,” he said.” One of these is actually one of my own games, which I co-designed with a guy named Michael Amundsen. The game is called Lielow, and I'm pleased to say that it was recently released to Alpha on BGA (Board Game Arena), so I usually have a few BGA tables going for that.

“On BGA I have also been playing Mark Steere's game Oust, Kanare Katos' game Meridians, Amundsen/Bolaños-Mures's game Lifeline.”

Erickson’s game background though is a bit more traditional.

“I grew up playing Chess, learned Go during my university years, and discovered Hex while I was in graduate school, but bear in mind I'm not good at any of these games, despite playing a lot,” he said.

“A few years ago I began participating in an online strategy game design forum on a website called Board Game Geek, and from there I became more involved in the niche world of modern abstract board games.

“There is a small ecosystem of websites dedicated to this topic, a few of which contain thought provoking and sometimes hilarious threads -- dating back to the early 2000's until today -- of game designers collaborating to create new games, and sometimes arguing in a very Web 2.0 fashion over their aesthetic differences. 

“I got sucked into this universe of game design and began inventing more of my own games. Through this game design community, I met the eventual designer of Tumbleweed, Michal Zapala, and we became online friends that would test each other's games and provide feedback.”

So while Erickson has diverse game interests what draws him specifically to Tumbleweed?

“Michal (Zapala), showed me his idea for Tumbleweed in early 2020 during one of our playtesting sessions via video call,” recalled Erickson. “When he first told me the rules, the extremely simple mechanics hooked me.

“It seemed incredible that nobody had thought of that idea before, so I was intrigued to start playing. 

“During my first few games, I really enjoyed how the game invited me to learn it through play from the very beginning. There were so many moves that looked just good, just downright tasty, I couldn't choose which one to do, and that led to a small but good kind of analysis paralysis. It had that X factor, where heuristics and ideas just jump out at you from the get-go.

“Now I've played hundreds of Tumbleweed games, and it just gets more and more interesting as I learn more. 

From a game design perspective, I'm trying to say that Tumbleweed has a great deal of clarity, which is one appealing factor when it comes to abstract games. 

“Tumbleweed is also decisive, as it is naturally guaranteed to end up with one winner.

“Also, it is balanced via use of the pie rule: in the game, a ‘host’ must set up a red and a white one-stack on the board, and the ‘guest’ player selects whether to go first with red, or play second with white. This means that the Host must be comfortable playing from either position, ensuring a balanced start.

“We have found with thousands of playtests that the game is in fact balanced as a result of this rule, with roughly 50/50 outcomes.”

Erickson said he also appreciates Tumbleweed plays well on various board sizes. The game is also scalable (board size can be increased without fundamentally altering the game).

“For instance, the tournament I just won was on the standard size 8, but people also sometimes play on size 6 and size 10,” he said.

“The game is strategically deep as far as I can tell, since it is clear that many levels of play have emerged across both human and computer agents learned over time (i.e. we are beginning to see the skill ladder develop over the last few years).

“The fact that a game so deep has a community so young is exciting because it means that people who participate now in the discourse about strategy will have a fundamental guiding impact on the Tumbleweed theories and playstyles of the future.”

The game can surprise too, offered Erickson.

“Tumbleweed is quite dramatic, as many top games are often impossible for spectators to tell who will eventually win until a late endgame stage,” he said. “In fact, many of the games that I won during the championship, I originally thought I was losing, but slowly regained an advantage -- maybe through careful planning on my side, or via subtle mistakes by the opponent”. 

The game is one Erickson said ultimately is fun to play.

“Tumbleweed has many qualities that make it attractive to me, but let me tell you one reason why it is so fun,” he said. “Playing Tumbleweed feels like building a network of laser beams that can interact and attack your enemy at the same time. These line of sight, laser-type tactics are incredibly sharp and deep, so there is a lot of pattern recognition along these lines that allows one to improve with practice, though each Tumbleweed battle tells an entirely new story.

“So it never gets old, but you can still use what you learn in the next game.”

And, of course winning a big event feels good too.

“Well, I didn't actually expect to win any games,” said Erickson. “Almost every game I went into some tough situation where I felt like I was losing and then had to dig myself out. So each win came with a great deal of fiero. In particular, my games versus Komacchin, Hootie, Testingqwerty, and Atari were not expected to go my way. I mean, I didn't expect to win, and other people also didn't expect me to win. Particularly against Testingqwerty and Atari, who have played so much of this game, and deeply analyzed openings, it really felt that prior to the Championship, they zoomed beyond my level.

“I was hoping to at least give them a hard time. But sometimes things can get a little unpredictable and crazy in Tumbleweed, and I found some interesting resources during the opening by accident -- not to mention that I took advantage of their preference for playing with the white pieces. “

Erickson actually participated in the championship largely to support the game’s growth.

“I played in last year's tournament and it was fun, so I wanted to try again,” he said.

“Also, this year had a better format - we used double elimination and an open tournament, compared to last year where we only invited previous tournament winners and did a full round-robin. This year was more exciting as a result. I thought I might have a chance to perform well and win a few games in the tournament, so that is one reason why I decided to join.

“I am part of the Tumbleweed Organizing Committee, so one of my goals is to promote the events that we collectively organize as a community, and this is perhaps the most important yearly event - so of course it makes sense that I participate, and at the very least my presence would increase the numbers of the tournament itself and make it more vibrant and fun for the other players.

“I also streamed my game and other's games with commentary, and uploaded the videos to Twitch and YouTube so that players could re-watch the contests at any time, with the hope that people learn something and have fun in the process.

“But the most important reason that I became involved with the tournament is that I just really have fun playing Tumbleweed, especially real time on size 8, with high stakes -- a world championship -- and relatively long time controls, against worthy opponents.”


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