Review: Lines and rows

This Essen brought a surprise to the Giuoco stand in Hall 5. Last year, they’d brought Koplopers and Dwarsliggers, a family pick-up-and-deliver game based on Dutch intercity trains, this year their showcase game was an abstract! Always a fan of abstracts, I made sure I came away from Essen with a copy of Lino.Lino is another member of the large n-in-a-row abstract game family where the primary goal is to create rows of four or more of your own stones on the board. Lino adds a couple of interesting twists to this basic recipe to make things much more interesting, though.Rather than a traditional board, Lino is played on variable board made up of 56 white square tiles. These are initially laid out in an asymmetric cross, then players take turns to each move 3 tiles to a new location on the board. These moves can create holes or strange extensions from an edge that make things a little more interesting. Once the board is set up, players take it in turns to place their white or blue glass stones onto any empty tile. The primary goal is long continuous rows, but there is another important scoring to consider.

During the game, whenever a row of tiles (diagonal, horizontal, vertical) is filled with stones, the player who placed the final stone receives one point for every tile in the row. Often multiple rows in different directions will be completed by the same stone, in which case the player receives points for all of them.

The game ends after the players have placed all their stones, and the end-game scoring starts. Players receive points for rows of 4 or more of their stones: 10 points for a 4-row plus 10 more points for each extra stone up to 40 points for a row of 7 or more stones. Once these have been added to the in-game points, the player with the highest score wins!

The game is pretty despite being minimal, the clear and blue glass stones provide an effective contrast on the white cardboard tiles, and there’s no annoying artwork or extra fiddly pieces. Set-up is fairly quick and you can easily play several games in a row on the board once you’ve laid it out and finishing the tile-moving phase.

After reading the game rules before my first game, I was concerned that the game would be broken by large number of points available for rows scored at the end of the game. I set out to test this in a first game where I romped around the middle of the board setting up lots of rows of my own stones while my opponent slowly picked up the row-completion bonuses (and a couple of full rows) around the edge of the board. The result? I lost convincingly.

With my eyes now open, I tried again. When played correctly, Lino is a subtle game of blocking your opponent while trying to create scoring opportunities for yourself. The in-game scoring of full rows provides a fascinating opportunity to tempt your opponent away from a blocking move so you can get another critical placement, but at the same time, those points from completed rows can make substantial difference to scores, so you can't give them away too easily. Of course, your opponent is making the same decisions on the other side of the board.

As with any row-building game, the key strategy is creating forking structures where you can’t be prevented from forming larger rows, but the variable board (particular if it has holes) can make this much more challenging as players try to build their rows around the missing parts of the board. At the end of the game, there will also be some vacant tiles and the last few moves of the game are usually a tense scramble as players decide which of their plans to abandon due to too few stones left over, perhaps hoping their opponent will be incautious in their blocking.

I was quite surprised by Lino. Despite the very simple rules, the clever inclusion of the balancing in-game scoring makes this a subtle and entertaining abstract that can be easily played in 20 minutes. Fans of minimal abstract games should look out for a copy.