When Lee Sedol lost to the Alpha Go Google AI software in 2016 I was more impressed with Lee than the AI. Yes AI had finally mastered Go, but man alive, did Lee beat it in one game of 5. That software has played millions of games against itself and created a heat map referenceable for any board position to determine the mostly likely play to eventually win the game. Perfect memory. Lee took on an opponent that had played millions more games than him, and won one game. I was ridiculed by my work colleagues for watching the games on my lunch break.
I love Go. For the uninitiated Go is an ancient Chinese game, though now more popular in Japan and Korea, about placing black or white stones on a board. Two players, black and white, are trying to capture territory or the other players pieces by surrounding them with their stones. The rules are very simple, each turn you place a stone. You cannot make a suicide move, you cannot return the board to a pervious state (ko) and if you surround the stones of another player orthongonally they are captured. The game ends when both players pass thinking they cannot improve their board positon.
The big catch for new players is that last statement, the game end. Go is principally about capturing territory, easy enough to understand but harder to visualise. What is captured territory verses what is open space that can be invaded by the other player. This is hard to grasp until you have been beaten a few times. A hard question to answer in words, but if you don’t want a boring explanation of what ‘two eyes are’ I will say if there are about maybe 30 maybe 40 spots available I may consider invading as I could defend my stones and keep them uncaptured even if those 30-40 spots are behind your lines. Essentially territory is secured if your opponent doesn't think they can take it off you as you would just capture all their invading stones.
What makes Go a great game? A game better than chess, or any other abstract? It’s the early mid game framing. In Go you have a 19x19 grid. That equates to 361 possible opening moves. In reality a few dozen are sensible, but that possibility creates a game that cannot easily be calculated. Rather Go is a game of principals; thickness and thinness in defence, building from strength, tempo and lots of other jargon terms I could use.
The best way to understand Go in the early game is like a dot to dot drawing from a childrens colouring book. You are laying down dots to structure what you will eventually draw. The trick is in laying down dots not to far apart to be cut to shreds by your opponent, but not to small that your opponent grabs the rest of the board in territory.
As you build this frame you and your opponent will challenge each other to tactical battles where you will try and wall each other off or take each others stones. Do you go in for a battle? Or ignore it and keep structuring the bigger picture? It's these questions that make the game, and they are damn hard to make.
My favourite book on boardgames is a Go strategy book; Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go by Toshiro Kageyama. Some choice quotes;
"The wish to become stronger - half a stone stronger, one strone stronger .... it is one manifestation of the human spirit and ambition which continue until death"
"In the world of Go also, a long tradition of intellectual combat has distilled the professional into something the amateur can never become... he has learned to view every other person as an opponent to be beaten and crushed"
Its fair to say Kageyama takes his Go seriously. I love this book, not just because of the great advice it includes, because he goes all in for ridiculing you the reader for being to lazy to impliment his lessons. In my case this is completely fair.
Its shame Go isn’t more popular. I can find online game if I wish, but for me board games are about spending time with people, so I tend to gravitate towards games my local friendship groups enjoy. Go I’ve taught to several, but only one or two have taken to it. If I liked chess I would have no shortage of opponents, but chess is lame.