Everyone knows the game of chess. It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous, universally-recognized game in existence. Even if you don’t fully know how to play, you probably have a decent idea: two armies of pieces, each type equipped with a differing skillset of movement, moving around and whittling down options until only the strongest remains. That’s the nutshell version, anyways. And the only reason I bring it up is because I want to make sure you understand what I mean when I say that Thrive is like what you would get if you reached inside of chess and turned it inside out. Do I have your attention?
What Is Thrive?
Adam’s Apple Games is an indie publisher from Minnesota whose past games include the popular Kickstarter games Brewin’ USA and last year’s Swordcrafters. Company owner Adam Rehberg has a penchant for finding unique designs that take a singular concept and execute it simply and elegantly. Thrive, his newest Kickstarter project by designer Martin Grider, is no different. Featuring uniquely fascinating lotus pieces at the heart of the game, Thrive pits 2 players in a fight for dominance over the lotus pond with their ever-evolving gang of flowers (which, admittedly, is a sentence I never thought I’d type). Designed for 2 players aged 6+, Thrive plays in a brisk 20-30 minute span and is currently funding on Kickstarter here, with a pledge of $35 for a copy of the game.
How to Play Thrive
Thrive provides a wonderfully fresh take on the skirmish style of abstract strategy games. Whereas chess, Dragon Face, Hive, and other such games are almost paralyzing with the different moves and options that are available to you, Thrive turns things around, giving you almost no options to start and then unlocking more and more potential as you go.
Each player starts with their six lotus pieces arrayed along their side of the 6×6 cloth board. In the center, a red peg is placed, which represents the piece itself and its current location on the grid. Then a second peg (black, this time) is placed one spot in front of the red one to signify where that piece can move in relation to itself. So, in a nutshell, to start the game, each piece can only move one space forwards. That’s it. So, on turn 1, the first decision isn’t too overwhelming: Which of your 6 pieces do you want to advance by a space?
There is an additional supply of black pegs nearby, because soon you’ll begin adding them to your lotus pieces, enhancing their scope and ability. Each piece had holes in it up to 2 spaces away from the center peg in any direction, though you won’t have access to those moves until you’ve placed pegs in those space.
The goal of the game is to eliminate 5 of the other player’s 6 lotus tiles, which you do by landing on them with your own pieces and then removing them from the game.
Taking a Turn
There are two basic parts to each turn: movement and growth.
First, you choose any of your pieces that remain on the board and move them according to the pegs on that particular lotus. Anywhere you have a peg place in that piece represents one possible space they could move to. It could be backwards, or diagonal, or even over one and two forward, as it all depends on whether there’s a peg placed in the corresponding spot to where you want to move. If there’s not? Well, you can remedy that in a moment, because after you move, your lotuses are going to grow.
On your turn, once you’ve made your move, you will take two pegs from the shared supply and place them in any open hole in any of your remaining lotus pieces. Want to beef up the piece you just moved? Add both pegs there. Is another piece going to be in danger soon? Give it the option to retreat by playing a peg appropriately. You can mix and match these two pegs any way you want, opening up brand new possibilities and strategies for your very next turn, and giving your opponent two new threats to consider when planning their own move.
The game progresses in this fashion until either player has only one lotus tile left, at which point they lose. Alternate rules are provided for if/when each player has exactly two tiles remaining, as well, but in my experience that didn’t occur very frequently).
Should You Back Thrive?
I should start by saying that I play a lot of abstract strategy games. I grew up with them, they kindled my love of boardgaming, and I still adore the entire genre. That said, many of the new abstract games that I play are simply re-walking the tired, beaten ground of what’s come before, using different board shapes or modified piece movement to try to augment something that, while not stale, is already quite familiar.
Thrive, for all its simplicity and ease of play, doesn’t fall into the trap, feeling at once new and clever. The core concept is as simple and appealing as that of fellow abstract game Onitama, and serves as an excellent springboard to get it to the table and draw new players in. Similarly, rather than steering into the “abstraction” of the game (something I see many new games do), the designer and/or the publisher was smart enough to find a suitable theme to make the game, the setting, and more importantly the artwork that much more enticing. It’s beautiful and lush and immediate in a way that many new abstracts simply don’t aspire to. But if games like Reef, Azul, and Santorini have shown us anything, it’s that an artfully-decorated and smartly-themed abstract still has the potential to outkick its coverage in today’s market.
Which isn’t to say that Thrive is a bad game with a pretty lick of paint. It’s a sharp game. A clever game. And I think it’s a good game. When a game boils things down to an essence, there’s always a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that there’s a way to break it, to narrow down the “optimal” way to play, and potentially suck the liveliness out the whole affair. That feeling dogged me every time I played Thrive, and every time the game progressed in confoundingly different directions. Because despite the simplicity with which the game begins, it’s an open sandbox of opportunity once the gears start to turn.
You find yourself cleverly wedging a piece between two defenders who are unable to threaten it, and you use your pegs to ensure that your piece can threaten both defenders, forcing your opponent to allow one piece to die or, sadistically, to spend their turn fortifying their other pieces so, if you do capture, they will immediately capture you in a blinding, gory flash of stems and leaves and blossoms (they are lotus flowers, after all). Because new pegs are added so quickly, it’s rare to find yourself in a situation you can’t get out of, or can’t at least neutralize in a standoff of, “If you take mine, mine takes yours, then that one takes this,” and so on.
It’s a brisk game, with the inevitable, vegetal carnage ensuing quickly and usually abating 10-15 minutes later with one player having edged out a narrow advantage that they can then, if they’re careful, leverage to press their opponent and win the game.
All in all, it’s familiar enough that it is easy to pick up and relatable enough that you should be able to tell whether it’s your style of game just from reading this article or browsing the Kickstarter page. After that, though, it is a game that provides a fresh enough and new enough entry into the genre that it should keep your attention well after the novelty has worn off.
So if you like chess, but you’ve played it a lot or have friends who don’t like it, then maybe play the chess-turned-inside-out game that is Thrive.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.