Review: Do the splits

Splits is this year’s release from Jactalea, the French publisher of abstracts such as Mana and Exxit. It was first demonstrated in 2009, only made it to production and sale this year, a little before Essen. In contrast to the other Jactalea titles with their leather mat boards, Splits uses 8 modular wooden pieces to build the game board. Players also have 16 stackable wooden discs in their own colour.

The rules are simple, in fact the French rules are simply printed (with examples) on the back of the box. Before the game, players construct the game board by alternately laying of the 4-hex tiles down so it touches the already laid ones. The shape of the board can be quite important, as a board with small isolated peninsulas will invite a lot more blocking.

Players choose their starting positions (any empty hex on the edge of the board) and place all 16 of their discs in a single large stack on it.

On each following turn, players choose any of their stacks of discs, split them into two stacks (with at least one disc in each) and then move the newly created stack as far as they can along a straight line of hexes. On the first move, this will almost always result in a new pile sitting on some other edge-hex.

As the game progresses and the game board fills up, moves will be interrupted by obstacles. Any movement stops at the last hex before a full hex, whether it contains your opponent’s or your own pieces. A stack which has all adjacent hexes filled is blocked and can no longer move.

The game ends on the first turn where a player has no valid split + move turn. This can be triggered both by blocking and running out of discs, since a 1-disc stack cannot be split further.

At its heart, Splits is an abstract area control game, a little reminiscent of Fjords (another game I enjoy), with a lot of the extraneous rules stripped away. The restrictions on movement (straight line, maximum distance only) force players to pick their moves among the small number of options they have now, with an eye to what new opportunities for placement they create for both themselves and the opponent. The other part, splitting existing stacks without new pieces available, force players to plan ahead to ensure that their high stacks end up next to empty areas so they can take advantage. It is deeply disappointing to end up bordering a large empty area with many 1-stacks.

The two interesting restrictions on placement add flavour, but all the important decisions of the game revolve around timing. Each player seeks to surround and block opposing stacks before they can split and move across the board, but also tries to spend time encircling peripheral parts of the board for their own use later in the game. At the same time, they also need to be dividing their own stacks up so they are less vulnerable to attack. The difficulty of surrounding areas changes with the shape of the board, so different layouts can result in quite different-feeling games.

Splits plays very quickly. We were able to easily churn through four  games in 40 minutes, helped by being able to spot the game’s turning point, and resignation rather than putting out the last few discs once the game was clearly won. It seems faster to play than several of the other Jactalea titles, but is definitely interesting enough to earn a place on my abstract play roster.