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Review: Tickle your tactical toes

Mijnlieff was an unusual (and somewhat difficult to spell) abstract game brought to Essen by Prime Games. Among the copies of Great Fire and 1860, this simple abstract stood out a mile and I ended up ogling it from a distance several times as I crossed the hall. Mijnlieff also won the UK games expo Best Abstract Game prize earlier this year.

In the cloth bag are four 2x2 wooden boards
and 16 wooden plywood pieces, each laser cut & etched with one of the four movement symbols. The four square
boards are laid alongside one another to forming the game board while the players each receive 8 playing pieces (two of each type) in either natural or darker-stained wood.

For folks who are used to the clinical lines of the modern plastic abstracts, Mijnlieff will be a change of pace. I love the look of the slightly weathered-looking wooden pieces; this game just exudes character as historic game, almost looking like a modern member of the Tafl family.

Mijnlieff is a member of the placement restriction family of abstracts. Each move restricts the next player's choices of move while both players work towards the goal of forming rows of 3 or 4 (or more) of your own pieces. The game is won by the player who completes the most valuable set of rows.

Each player's pieces come in four types. These are marked with clear symbols that indicate where the next piece can be played. Two types are obvious, simply having arrows pointing either in both orthogonal directions or both diagonals. The next piece played after either must lie in a line along those arrows. The other two are the pusher and the puller, represented by large and small circles. A puller forces the next piece to be played in one of the spaces adjacent to the just-played puller piece, while a pusher forces it to be played into an empty nonadjacent space.

After the playing board has been made up (the basic game uses a plain 4x4 square), one player starts by playing a piece on an edge of the board. Play continues with each player placing their piece into one of the empty spaces that match the criteria on the just-played piece. If a player has no possible move because all indicated spaces are already full, they forfeit their move and their opponent continues with an unconstrained placement (this is incredibly powerful).

The game end is triggered by one player placing their last piece. The other player has one final turn (possibly forfeited by not having any valid move) and the scores are added up. Each row (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) of 3 or more of the same coloured pieces scores points. Rows of 3 are worth 1 point, 4 are worth 2 and so on.

These simple rules make the game easy to understand, but when you're actually playing, it descends into an interesting battle for forking moves and trying to dodge out of the traps your opponent has left. There's just the barest hint of noughts and crosses; you have similar goals but entirely different ways of achieving them, but it's worth keeping in mind the forking-moves that can win such a game. If your opponent gives you an opening, you can use them to give yourself a much better chance of at least completing 3-piece rows.

The heart of the game is trying to manoeuvre your opponent into a situation where they either have no move at all (getting a free move and a one-piece advantage should win you the game), or are forced by their remaining pieces to give you a move you need to complete a row. This usually comes at the end of a bitter struggle to use pieces to block and build your own rows, only to realise that your opponent has seen a few moves further ahead and held onto a critical piece. Helpfully, a player who has forfeited a turn has a small advantage from that point, due to their extra piece (which is hopefully of a useful kind).

As you play the game, your impression of which of the four pieces are more useful starts to change. The pusher pieces are obviously great to maintain control of the board centre, but diagonal arrow pieces are much easier to generate moves that can't be followed. Good play requires you to keep a close eye on your opponent's remaining pieces as well as the rows they're trying to build.

There's some additional variations to be had from arranging the four boards pieces into shapes other than a standard square, although the designer recommends against getting too extreme. Some arrangements open the way to much longer rows of 5 or more pieces, so the game scores can swing much more violently. Another suggestion is using a second copy to play larger games. This actually sounds like a lot of fun, and I plan to see how this affects the game once I can get another copy.

I was pleasantly surprised by Mijnlieff. Out of the very simple rules comes an engaging game of looking ahead and trying to cut the other player off from scoring opportunities without then leaving yourself too vulnerable. One of my top carry-along abstracts from this year.