Orbs is an easy to learn game that can be played with equipment you probably already have around the house. While the rules are very simple, the actual gameplay can get very complex, and developing winning strategies can take quite a while, not unlike other games such as Go.
All you need to play is a Chinese Checkers board and lots of different colors of marbles. The marbles in play will be known as orbs, and each player has a distinct set of orbs which only they may control. There are four kinds of orbs, each associated with one of the traditional occidental "elements", fire, earth, air, and water. Thus, you will need four times as many distinct types of marbles as you have players. I suggest using red or orange for fire, black or brown for earth, white, pale blue, or clear for air, and dark blue or sea green for water. It's best if you can get different textures for each player. For instance, each player could have red, black, white, and blue marbles, but player one's are flat-colored, player two's are clear "cat's-eye" marbles with an appropriately-colored swirl in the middle, player three's are marbled in texture, player four's are chromed metal balls, etc.
Each player on their turn simply moves one of his or her orbs to an adjacent space. A player may not move an orb onto another orb that they control, and they may not move an orb onto an enemy orb of the same element. If the orb is moved onto an orb of the opposite element (fire-water, earth-air), both are removed from play. If the orb is moved onto an orb of an adjacent element, one of the orbs is removed. This is determined by the following pattern: fire "burns" air, air "evaporates" water, water "erodes" earth, and earth "smothers" fire. (Note that there's no mystic significance whatsoever to any of this. It's just that the "elements" and the actions mentioned are a convenient metaphor for remembering that actions of the pieces, and more exciting than "type 1 destroys type 2, etc.") The winner of the game is simply the last individual to have orbs left on the board. Or, you can play in teams, where each player still has his or her own orbs, but is allied with one or more other players, in which case the last team with any surviving orbs still wins. Draws are certainly possible, as it is possible for all orbs left to be of the same element and thus incapable of affecting each other, or for the last two players to be wiped out simultaneously. Draw by mutual agreement of all remaining players is also allowed (but it's not much fun).
The initial conditions of the game are not set, and that's where a lot of the fun comes from. You can give each person an even mix of 25% of each element, or you can have two players each of which has two different elements, or orbs of some elements may be much rarer than others, and thus more valuable. Several suggested opening configurations are described below.
Have any favorites of your own?
One obvious variation is to play on boards that are different. Using just a Chinese checkers board, you can play on the entire surface, or you can declare the points off-limits and play only on the central hexagon. This doesn't have much effect on gameplay because the board is, topologically speaking, still equivalent. More interesting is to put holes in the board; that is, to declare off limits certain spaces in the middle of the board (best done by filling them up with some type of marble not being used to represent an element). On a board with no holes, if there's only two orbs, one of them can run down the other and trap it in a corner. It is mathematically impossible to elude the pursuer forever. However, if you put in a hole, you can run around in circles indefinitely. Adding even one hole tends to turn many situations that would be a definite win on a normal board into draws. Also, you can declare that certain edges of the board wrap-around; that is, an orb can go off one edge of the board and reappear at the corresponding point on the opposite (or another definite) edge. Again, from a topological viewpoint, this is really the same as introducing holes in many cases, but you can do some things this way that you can't do with merely holes, like effectively play on a sphere. And, since distances do matter for movement, it's not quite the same as holes in terms of gameplay. Experiment and have fun!
Another one that my friends and I have found to add to the game is to introduce a new element, Void. We normally use purple or gray marbles for void orbs. When a void orb moves onto another orb (or when another orb moves onto a void orb), both orbs are removed from play; unlike other elements, void orbs can even move onto other void orbs, destroying both. Void is simply the opposite of every element, including itself. If you use void orbs, keep the number low (1 to 3 is good), or the game tends to get somewhat boring and predicatable.
Any ideas of your own?
In my spare time, I'm working on a program to allow you to play this game on a computer. It's going to be Mac OS X-only, and offer multiplayer internet play, an initial condition editor with easy-to-distribute gameboard files, and a public plug-in API to allow anyone with some programming skills to create computer opponents. It's not very far along, and I do a lot of other things (as this site shows), but I'll post announcements here as work progresses...
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