Overview: I first came across Zoxso at PAX this year, where game designer David Weinstock was running demos. He calls it “The New Ancient Game” because it has some elements of chess in it and has the feel of a classic abstract strategy game. With a simple set of rules, Zoxso plays very quickly but still allows for some interesting strategy and thinking.
Ages: 10 and up (though anybody who can play chess could learn this)
Playing Time: 15 minutes
Rating: Excellent: elegant and intense.
Who Will Like It? People who like the idea of chess but aren’t thrilled about learning 600 years’ worth of openings and gambits and plays — Zoxso allows for some similar strategies but boils it down significantly.
There isn’t really a specific theme, although the gold stone in the center of the board is called the “throne” and you try to get your “Xing” onto it. The names of the pieces come from Chinese and the game has sort of an Asian flavor to it, but it’s abstract strategy so there’s not really a story or plot. (Nor does it need one.)
The game includes the game board and 20 pieces (10 per player). There are 10 light pieces and 10 dark pieces, though apparently the dark pieces come in different colors. My set has green and white pieces, but the one I played at PAX had red and white. (The backgrounds of the pieces are either a light tan or a dark brown.)
Each of the pieces is double-sided, with a “Silver” side and a “Colored” side. There are 5 Dao (the square-ish symbol/sword), 4 Ma (a three-pronged symbol/horses), and 1 Xing (the 8-pointed figure/dragon heads).
The pieces are nice, sturdy plastic, about the size and heft of medium-weight poker chips.
The board is 20″ square, and folds into sixths, which allows the whole game to fit into a fairly compact box. The graphics on everything are pretty nice and give the board an illusion of depth.
All in all, they’re high quality components and the pieces are pleasant to handle.
I haven’t seen the deluxe version myself, but it comes with metal-and-plastic pieces, a vinyl playing mat, and a faux-leather zippered case for everything.
The rules are available as a PDF here (with lots of illustrations), but here’s a quick overview.
The object of the game is to either get your Xing onto the throne, or capture your opponent’s Xing.
The board consists of different types of spaces: the pearls (the small blue-green dots) and the stones (the brown octagons). Pieces can be on either the pearls or the stones, and behave differently depending on where they are. The center stone is gold-colored and is called the Throne — only the Xing can land on this stone, although other pieces may pass through it. Finally, there is a wall that connects the second ring of stones, forming a square; pieces on the pearls cannot cross through this wall.
The first phase of the game is placing the pieces onto the board. Players take turns placing pieces, silver-side up, onto the pearls outside the wall. No pieces can be moved or captured during this phase, and placement continues until all 20 pieces are on the board.
The second phase is the race to the throne and all the action begins.
Pieces on the pearls (silver-side up) move one space at a time orthogonally. If you move onto an opponent’s piece, you capture it and it is removed from the board. You can also perform a “chain move”: if your piece is adjacent to one or more of your own pieces on pearls, you can move to any pearl adjacent to any of the pieces in this contiguous group.
Pieces on the stones are colored-side up, and this is where the three different pieces actually come into play. The Dao moves and captures like a rook: any number of spaces in a straight orthogonal line, until it is blocked by one of your own pieces or captures an opponent’s piece. The Ma moves like a knight: a 2-by-3 L-shaped move in any direction, jumping over any pieces in its path. The Xing moves a single space orthogonally.
But how do you get onto the stones? Here’s the tricky bit: you can flip pieces from the pearls onto the stones and vice versa. Any piece can be flipped from its location to one of the four spaces touching it. Also, a piece can be flipped and moved on the same turn, but only in that order. You cannot capture by flipping, but you can flip onto an empty space and then capture. A piece can only be flipped once per turn. Pieces on the stones can cross over the wall.
I’ve played many games of Zoxso against a few different opponents, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The flip-and-move mechanic opens up a host of options for any piece that is on a pearl: Think about the eight locations that a knight can normally cover in chess (if it’s not too close to the edge). A Ma on a pearl near the center can cover 28 stones, because it can flip onto any of four stones. (There are some overlaps in coverage, which is why it’s not 32.) Likewise, a Dao sitting on a pearl can cover two vertical rows and two horizontal rows, rather than one each. All of that means that flipping up onto the stones tends to make you an easy target for your opponent — but since it’s the only way to get over the wall, you have to do it eventually.
Also, because of the way the pieces move, there’s likely to be a lot of carnage early on, particularly if your initial placements are near each other. There’s a lot of swapping of pieces as you try to find the best way to get your Xing onto the throne. Once somebody manages to clear enough of a path to get their Xing up over the wall, though, it’s usually too late to stop them, and it’s a pretty quick endgame after that.
The placement phase of the game is interesting, and I haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet. I’ve tried putting all my pieces close together, mixing it up and throwing them all over the board, and even putting them right next to my opponent’s pieces (ensuring a lot of capturing right away). I haven’t figured out yet which placement is optimal, except that it certainly helps to have your Xing as close to the center as possible, because it takes that many more steps if you’re hanging out in the corner of the baord.
You really have to shift your thinking a bit from playing chess, though: the flipping up and down between pearls and stones makes it almost a three-dimensional game, like a game that takes place on two planes of reality. If you get too stuck thinking about attacking and defending only in one of those planes, you’ll be caught off guard.
One complaint a friend of mine had was that once a player goes onto the offense and starts moving their Xing toward the throne, the opponent is stuck in defense mode and it’s over. While I did find that the game is almost always decided when a player gets the Xing over the wall, I think there’s still plenty of strategy left in the prelude to that moment — in the placement of the pieces, and the maneuvering to clear a path. It’s better than games in which, after you get to the endgame and it’s clear who the winner will be, you still have half an hour or an hour to play before the game actually ends. With Zoxso, it’s a speedy denouement.
I love the fact that I can teach the game and play it several times in under an hour. Whenever I’ve played it, it’s always been a few games, never just one. The rules are simple enough that even younger children could learn how the pieces move (it’s simpler than chess, perhaps), but because it’s a newer game and doesn’t have all this accumulated history, there aren’t a pile of standardized starting moves and placements, which makes it fresh and exciting.
If you like abstract strategy games and you often play two-player games, check out Zoxso for a fast-paced, elegantly-designed game.
Wired: Simple ruleset belies complex strategy; gorgeous board and high quality components.
Tired: Some might argue the endgame is over too quickly.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.