Designer: Manolis Vranas, Jamie Sajdak
Publisher: Smirk & Laughter
Price: $49.00 Amazon.com
Shōbu is an abstract game from Smirk & Laughter. Played out on four boards, players take turns moving a stone and mirroring the move on a different board. The first player to knock all 4 opposing stones off of a board wins. It is a deeply thinky game that rewards multiple plays.
Shōbu could easily be 3,000 years old; if someone told me it was designed in ancient China, I would believe them. This abstract game of moving and pushing stones feels timeless.
The game is played on 4 wooden boards, which come in 2 colors. The boards are arranged such that each player has a light- and a dark-colored board on their side. Each board begins with 4 black and 4 white stones set up as shown below; a piece of rope divides the tableau in half.
On a player’s turn, she begins by moving a stone of her color on her side of the rope. A stone can be moved 1 or 2 spaces in any direction, including diagonally. The player then copies this move on a board of the opposite color, on either side of the rope. In taking this second move, she may push an opposing stone. If a stone is pushed off the board, it is out of the game.
I have illustrated a example gameplay sequence below:
The black player begins by moving a stone on her dark-colored board 1 space forward. She must then copy the move on a light-colored board (which can be on either side of the rope).
The white player also moves a stone 1 space, and copies the move on a board of the other color.
Black then moves a stone on her light board 2 spaces, and duplicates the move on the opposing dark board.
White moves a stone 1 space on her dark board. When she takes the same move on her light board, she pushes the black stone back.
Finally, black moves 2 forward on her light board and pushes white off with her duplicate move.
The game continues like this until a player has cleared all opposing stones off of a board. That player immediately wins the game!
Shōbu is a work of art. With its naturally-sourced materials and tactile components, it easily wins my “Best Production of 2019” superlative. Honestly, it’s one of the most attractive games I’ve ever seen. (Look at that box cover and tell me it doesn’t look like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog.)
Strategically, it has the same kind of brain-twisting decisions I so enjoy in games like Pentago, Santorini, and Onitama. I constantly find myself trying to reverse-engineer my turns – I know what I ultimately want to have happen, but I need to figure out what move I have to do first in order to make it possible. It’s interesting that sometimes, a player must make a “bad” move, possibly endangering a stone on one board, in order to make a “good” move on another.
Abstract games are often simple in rules but deep in strategy, and Shōbu really fits that bill. Like other classic abstracts, it’s as if this game has some deeper meaning to it, some hidden wisdom that emerges through play. Shōbu is a standout of 2019, and a game that I foresee myself playing for years to come.
A review copy was provided by Smirk & Laughter.
The Bottom Line
Shōbu is a standout game of 2019. Highly recommended.