Go: 3,000 Year Old Ameritrash

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Go: 1,000 Years of Fetishists Have Ruined an Elegant Wargame

This review (and its title) will use a forbidden word--elegant.

Go is ancient.  Go is beautiful.  Go is elegant.  Go has chunks of Puerto Rico in its stool.

But mainly, Go is a wargame that simulates China’s crazy-ass plan of walling off their gigantic country to save it from the Mongol hordes.  In this game, both players are China, and both players are the Mongol hordes.  It’s an area enclosure game that is heavily dependent on pattern recognition, and much has been made of the fact that the best computer programs can’t beat the best human opponents.  From personal experience I can tell you that the best computer programs will kick your ass.  If you don’t believe it, http://www.britgo.org/ can direct you to some programs that will play Go with you. You’ll need to find a computer opponent since your friends won’t (which is a problem).

Each player places a stone, blah, blah, blah.  Ten minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.

Fiddly rule (for the wargamers): ko.

Atari: You hipsters with your ridiculous one-button-joystick T-shirts owe some petrified Chinese guy some money.

The Ameritrash love of plastic pales in comparison to the way Go players fetishize their game.  In fact, there’s a prescribed material for boards and stones—kaya (Japanese nutmeg-yew) for the board and clamshell and slate for the pieces.  A set like the one in the movie Pi would set you back thousands of dollars; the one in the Enterprise episode where Trip falls in love with the hermaphrodite would cost hundreds. If you aren’t playing with this stuff, you’re not playing Go, the nuts would tell you

And that’s because there’s a tactile element to the game, a zen thing that only gamers can understand.  It’s the pleasure of touching stuff, of moving pieces on a board, that video games can’t match.  If you’re reading this site, you understand that—you understand that moving little soldiers is preferable to moving wooden cubes, that it’s more satisfying to destroy someone’s castle than it is to take his disc.  My go set (a “cheap” one at $75) is leather and glass, and the tactile contrast feels good, the brush of the leather and the smoothness of the glass.  Playing with a cheap set seems wrong, as if you’re letting the game down somehow. However, even a cheap set is pretty enough to put on the coffee table—the wood board, the black and white pieces, the grid—it’s something you might not put away when you’re done (if you don’t have a cat).

I discovered Go at roughly the same time that I was introduced the Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne.  Coming from a background of Risk and Monopoly, checkers and chess, it shocked me that there was so much more out there, both new and ancient. Reading The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata (one of the few (maybe only) truly classic novels with boardgaming at its center), I wished that I knew the rules to as many games as the characters did.  It seems as though the characters can’t stand any downtime; they have to be playing something—shogi, mah jongg, whatever.
Now I can scan the back room of a game store nerd-den and realize that I know how to play most of the games on the tables.  Of course, they’re never playing Go, but I think part of the reason is that there’s this whole “culture” thing that Go has accrued.  At its heart, it’s a wargame with lots of pieces.  It’s nasty and sometimes it feels like the other guy must be cheating.  In short, even though it’s older than the USA, it’s the purest iteration of Ameritrash.

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