I find it interesting to think about abstract strategy games being simultaneously one of the most widely played game genres in the world — thanks primarily to go and chess — and a game genre that rarely makes waves in the modern game industry. I mean, yes, Azul is referred to by many as an abstract game, but I’d argue that the randomness of the tile draw each round boots it from the category as the term “abstract strategy game” typically includes the unstated adjectival phrase “perfect information”.
In any case, I love abstract strategy games, and each year at SPIEL my friend Ken Shoda and I face off in as many such designs as possible. Our main find at SPIEL 22 was Galen Goodwick‘s Philosophy (covered here), but I’m still waiting for my crowdfunded copy of the game, so…that’s not ideal.
We gathered again at SPIEL Essen 23, and this year’s standout design was Passo, a design by Clemente Musa and Steffen Mühlhäuser that (I think) serves as the final title that Mühlhäuser developed as owner of German publisher Steffen Spiele. (Swiss publisher Helvetiq bought Steffen Spiele in April 2023, and at the fair Mühlhäuser said this was his final year setting up the Steffen Spiele booth.)
Steffen Mühlhäuser at SPIEL Essen 23
Mühlhäuser taught me Passo, then beat me twice, then I ran into Ken, who proceeded to win three out of four games — so I’m not good at playing the design, but I marvel at how much designers have gotten out of the game’s slim set of components.
To set up, lay out 25 tiles in a 5×5 grid, then place your five tokens (red or black) on the tiles nearest you. On a turn, move one of your free tokens to any adjacent tile, orthogonal or diagonal, then if the tile you left is now empty, remove it from play. You can move onto a token, and a stack can be at most three tokens high; if a token has another token on it, it’s not free.
If a single tile is isolated from the play area, remove it (and any tokens on it) from play.
If you can’t move, you lose the game.
If you move one of your tokens past the opponent’s final row, that is, beyond the tile grid and onto the table, you win.
Ken, about to beat me
Passo has elements of other games — the board-shrinking of DVONN and ZÈRTZ; the winning condition of Gyges; the trapping element of many abstract strategy designs — but it’s very much its own thing.
The game tree of possible moves starts out fixed, as in chess, because you have the same starting situation each game and can’t interact (sort of) until the second turn, but as you make your initial moves, more possibilities open to you. You can reach more spaces from an edge than from a corner, from the middle than from an edge…but as you keep playing, branches of potential moves are truncated because the board itself vanishes.
You have a nimbus of fuzzy possibilities, but you can see — possibly too late as was often the case for me! — that move X would lead to trouble in a couple of moves. You have only five pieces, so each one that’s not free gives your opponent more options…except when it doesn’t. Sometimes the opponent traps you, but they are also trapped in return because if they moved the trapping piece away, you’d win.
If you manage to land on an opponent’s piece in their back row, they must trap it immediately to keep you from winning, but now two of their pieces are pinned to one of yours, so you still have an edge.
Clemente Musa (center), demoing Passo at SPIEL ’23
Your opponent’s final row is clear at the start of the game, but if they move all of their pieces forward one space, then their final row has moved up as well. In my game with Ken, I’d need to advance down the center of the board, then past that final piece to win — but if he moved that piece forward two spaces, then his final row would be on my left, which means that you can sometimes neutralize an opponent’s advances by moving a token, thereby shifting their target.
Again, all of the action is small scale, with each player having only five tokens and with your options shrinking Nim-style over time as you try to push your opponent into having only bad choices. I love games in this style as I can better wrap my head around the entire game, not think about the rules, and focus solely on the playing…ideally getting better over time, and I have a lot of room for improvement at this point!
If you want more examples of movement, check out this video: