Hey hey, Zeke here! It’s been a while, but I’m back to present you with another board game! In this continuing series, we will be looking at various games from Japan. And no, not the ones from Nintendo (though if we can find some of their Hanafuda cards, that’s a different story…). I’m talking about those games where you sit at the table and lay out some pieces to match wits with your opponents. This week I’m bringing you another classic game many associates as being distinctly Japanese: Go.
History & Game Type
The full Japanese name for the game we know as “Go” is igo which is derived from the original Chinese name weiqi,which roughly translates to “board game of surrounding.” Evidence suggests that the game was being played as long as 2,500 years ago, making it one of the oldest board games still played today.
The game reached Japan sometime in the 7th century CE and was mainly popular in the imperial court for a few hundred years until it caught on in the public eye as well. It was so popular that when Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in the early 1600s, he appointed the best player in the land “Minister of Go.” It was in Japan that Go was formalized into the system we see today. The new minister quickly saw to the founding of the first Go school, after which several rival schools were also founded. It was from these schools that we got the current day system of professional rankings and formalization of the rules we still use.
Much like the last game I examined, shogi, this game is classified as an abstract strategy game. An abstract strategy game is categorized as one having no hidden information, no random elements, and players taking sequential turns.
The equipment for Go is quite simple. In fact, the entire setup can be seen in the picture above (that is my set by the way.) A Go sets consists of a board, black and white stones, and something to hold unplaced pieces (traditionally a set of bowls.)
First up is the board. The board consists of a grid composed of 19×19 lines, though beginners often play on 9×9 or 13×13 grid boards. Go boards come in two varieties: an independent board, much like chess, and a floor board, which is a free-standing table with the board built in. My board folds in half and clasps shut to hold the stones and bags when not in use. A traditional free-standing table is carved from a single, large piece of wood. Due to the difficulty and rarity of the trees usually used, these board types have become increasingly rare and expensive.
Next are the stones. A full Go set contains 181 black stones and 180 white stones, which is enough to cover all points on the board. Black gets the odd stone because the black player always goes first. This is traditionally made of slate for the black and clamshell for the white, though they can also be made of materials ranging from glass to plastic.
The last piece of equipment is something to hold the unplaced stones, traditionally a bowl for each player. As you can see, mine is a small bag for each player.
Set up and Game play
The set up for Go is very minimal. Basically, each player gathers their stones and play begins. Each turn consists of a player removing a stone from the respective container and placing it on the board. Pieces are placed on the intersections and not in the squares. Play then passes to the opposing player, who places their stone and so on and so on. Go is interesting in that there is no end condition: the game doesn’t end until a player concedes or both players decline a play.
The goal of the game is to capture as much territory as possible. This is done by surrounding a piece or group of pieces by filling in all its “liberties” by placing stones in them.
Liberties are the open spaces around a piece, not counting diagonals. In the picture above, the corner piece has two liberties, the piece against the side has three liberties and the piece in the middle has four liberties.
In this picture, each of the pieces has had some liberties filled. In the next picture, we will see what happens when all of a pieces liberties are filled.
Black has filled all of a white piece’s liberties and it has been removed from the board, signifying its capture. In some scoring variations, the pieces are left on the board until the end of the game. It is important to note that a player may not play a piece in a spot that results in its capture. In the above photo, white could not legally place a stone in the middle of the four black ones.
When placed on the board, pieces form groups by having liberties filled by same-color pieces. When in a group, pieces act as though they are one unit, capturing and being captured as one.
The above photo shows two groups. Next, we will see how these groups may be surrounded.
Notice that both groups remain un-captured because they have remaining liberties. Fill those in, however…
…and the groups get captured. As above, when all of a piece’s liberties are filled, it is captured by the opposing player. Groups act as one piece in this case and the entire group is captured.
An important concept in protecting from capture is the concept of “eyes.” Eyes are basically open points in groups that prevent a group from being captured.
As you can see above, the white player needs only to place two more stones to capture the black group. But as he can’t place a stone where it would get captured, he is unable to capture this group.
A group which has formed two or more eyes is called a “living group” as it is immune to capture. A group which can no longer form eyes is called a “dead group.” A player is not obligated to continue filling a dead group, as its capture is inevitable. Dead pieces may be left on the board until the end of the game.
There is a special rule involving repeated moves called ko. Ko prevents an infinite series of moves by disallowing players from placing pieces to return the board to a state it had previously. This rule is a bit confusing, but it is important to Go strategies. I will try to illustrate through pictures to better explain.
In the above picture, black can capture a white piece by playing in the middle of the white four. (Notice that this goes against the self-capture rule, but as white is captured in the process, this play is allowed.)
Now, white could place a stone inside black’s four, but this would return the board to a previous state, so this move is not allowed until white moves somewhere else.
The game continues until both players pass on their turn. Points are then calculated by adding up territory (the open space within a color’s groups) and captured pieces. The person with the most points wins. There is a special note on scoring: due to the advantage of going first, the white player receives bonus points called komi. The komi amount varies based on the difference in the experience of the two players, but it usually ranges from five to eight points.
Whew! That was a lot to explain, and we didn’t even get into the finer points of strategies! I know it was a lot to go through, but I hope you gained a familiarity with the game and maybe even an interest in learning more. There are plenty of resources out there from people much more experienced than I am in the game.
Whether you’re just starting to learn or you’re a grand master, I hope you enjoy the game. Games can be an excellent way to sharpen your mental skills and engage in competition, but remember to have fun doing it!
And that wraps up another Zeke’s Board Game Revue! What did you think? Have any interest in the game? Maybe you already play! What would like to see me cover next? Let me know in the comments below!
Wanna try playing the game? We suggest purchasing this Go board game on Amazon.