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  • Abstract Games

On Aesthetics

We're broke, so we haven't had much to do but focus on appearances.

There's a game designer named Nick Bentley who is just as obsessed with abstract strategy games as we are. He wrote an excellent piece on what those games need to succeed, and we took it to heart early on. Especially this:


"Form Factor! – The most overlooked item on this list. I hereby coin Bentley’s Law: the more minimal an abstract game is, the more care must be put into making its physical aesthetic absolutely drool- and coffeetable-worthy."


It's a simple statement. The problem is, we're picky and old-fashioned. We wanted to make a game with the same appeal as old classics: Chess, Checkers, Backgammon. But when we found Go, we had our inspiration.



THE AESTHETICS OF GO


The board game Go is almost three thousand years old. By most accounts, it hasn't changed much since it was created. If you're interested in how the game is played, Karl Baker's The Way To Go is a good place to start; we're uniquely terrible at explaining the finer points ourselves.

A traditional floor-standing Go board.

The aesthetics of Go, on the other hand, have changed a lot. Many of the oldest boards that have been excavated are made of stone or clay; boards may have been made of wood, but fewer have survived. Many earlier boards were either very crude or very ornate, with no standard except for the number of spaces. In modern times, designs are largely similar. Standards may vary between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean equipment, but the basics are the same.


Unlike many high-end Chess or Backgammon boards, most of the highest quality Go boards are kept simple. Emphasis is put on origin and purity of materials and restrained craftsmanship.


Games in progress are beautiful in the abstract. There is no art or theme, only the patterns laid down by the players. Looking at a game is to see thought at play, an expression of two intelligences working against one another. For those that know what they are looking at, it can be hypnotic.



THE AESTHETICS OF ONE


One was first played with M&Ms and candy corn on a dorm room desk. It wasn't a look we wanted to stick with.


It took three years for us to revisit the game after creating it, and to move the design from crude lines in Word to Adobe InDesign. It was the same year that the Google AI AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, and Go was in the news all over the world.

An earlier version of One.

Our first board was much more spaced out than it needed to be, and we didn't know how much room we wanted to leave for pieces. As a placeholder, we used the dimension of Chinese standard Go stones, 22mm wide. From there, we made the boards larger: our 40-space board grew to 140 almost overnight. After filling an entire 140-space board with pieces in a regular pattern, we decided we liked the look. We stuck with it even after 140 spaces became 240, then 360.


We put more thought than we needed to into some very small details. Each ring is large enough to fit pieces with at least a 2mm gap, so the game can be played with even the largest Go stones. The edge of the board is cut far enough from the last line that stones should not hang over the edge.



SUSTAINABILITY


We think sustainability should always be more important than aesthetics.


One issue we take with Go equipment is that it's difficult to produce the highest end equipment sustainably. Torreya nucifera, or Kaya, is a slow-growing tree—and floor-standing Go boards are large, requiring trees hundreds of years old or more. And white Go stones are made from clamshell, which, while still plentiful, is still a limited resource.


One is not yet in production, but our goal is to produce a set which can last for at least a hundred years, and ship it in packaging that can be fully recycled. In early versions where cost will be a larger factor, this may not be possible—but that is our starting point, and we will only make compromises if we have to.


Eventually, we hope to produce boards and bowls made of bamboo, which is strong, fast-growing, and abundant. It may not be as evenly colored as Kaya, but it's . We also hope to make glass stones from recycled glass.


We want to make a beautiful game, but we find sustainability beautiful too.



THAT'S ALL FOR NOW


Due to work constraints, we won't be at NYU Playtest Thursday this week. We're still working on another place to bring One to the public, so stay tuned. We'll be out in the wild again soon.



P.S.


We are not experts on Go, either in its rules or its history. Some of our information may be wrong.

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