Havannah: the Twilight Zone

Christian Freeling


My first game was like Frankenstein's monster - all separate parts and no life of its own.  I turned to simplicity and it didn't come much simpler than the connection game Hex.  The game showed a certain elegance but soon appeared to have no tactical finesse and a dull strategy. As a matter of taste:  I didn't like the board either.  So I started pondering the idea of connecting edges on a hexagonal instead of a diamond shaped board.  Several ideas competed for attention.  The ring, the bridge and the fork were among them.  The moment I saw them merge I knew I had my game.

Havannah is not self-explanatory in the sense that contemplating the idea 'connecting by placement' on a hexgrid, would lead you automatically up to it.  It was a lucky merger, yet immediately alive and self-revealing.  I sensed a very high resolution, an almost Go-like feel of refinement in the interaction of tactics.  The three principles appeared to play very different roles.  A fork was clearly a strategic goal and a ring displayed tactical uses.  A bridge would depend.  It felt very uncompromising in the outcome.  Strategy appeared evasive: what did this thing want.  By nature it was hungry for speed, but fast attempts would be easily defused by another side of its nature, one feeling more like an octopus.

For the record: It didn't feel as abysmal as Go - I doubt any connection game could - but I felt I was comparing a Porsche to a Rolls Royce: not as noble, but powerful, fast, and made to be pressed to the limit.

The club was not enough.  I introduced the game at the university's math center where huge coffee breaks were usually filled with chess and Bridge.  It immediately attracted a lot of attention, and the year that followed may give an idea of what would happen if Go suddenly became non-existent and were reinvented.  It wouldn't even die a modern classic - it would be still born.  We used the small 169 board, some twenty players in a highly intelligent community of abstract thinkers, and if not all participated to the same degree, yet there alone close to a thousand games must have been played, the first year - and all in strategic twilight.

Very early games didn't even resemble Havannah.  What kept the game going - what might already have killed Go for lack of it - were its fairly immediate goals.  Not as immediate as five-in-a-row, but a lot less evasive than territory, for absolute beginners.  So pretty soon basic tactics emerged and the fun that came with them.  We never saw a draw.

A glossary emerged - a sure sign things are going the right way.  Frame, anchor, block, cup, trap, split, mill, kite, magnet, jumping, dropping, a running game, the safety-speed dilemma - some were taken from Go:  sente, gote, miai.  Tactics were blooming and strategic insight was growing - to a degree.

Because then Roelof Moll, a student and chess player, joined in.  I for one had never seen him play.  He opened right in the center.  Some of us were amused, it was almost like opening Go in the center.  We had developed a Go-like strategic approach, playing for initiative along the edges first.  But you don't win or lose locally in Havannah, you just win or lose, and he did win.  I got an uncanny feeling: there's no such thing as beginner's luck in a strategy game.  And I was only too right:  it was neither luck, nor was he a beginner.  He proceeded to beat us all, black or white.  He would always open in the center and that's where it eventually would come down.  It was a rude awakening for all of us - I finally saw the octopus revealed.

Roelof did not elaborate on strategy, but he had like all of us noted that a drawn position, though possible, would in actual play be something like a black tulip.  Of all games that can end in a draw, Go included, Havannah must have the smallest margin.  So a good defense would at some point inevitably turn into an attack.  Not as a style of play, but because a draw is not an option and a loss wouldn't qualify as 'good'.  He was never in a hurry and cleverly exploited our hunger for initiative.  He knew it would eventually all come down in the center where he would have dominance.  He had us swimming like fish into a bow-net.  He introduced a whole new style of play: the best attack is a good defense!

This is not uncommon in connection games, and we weren't completely unaware of it and playing like stupid or anything, but we were simply too focused on local initiative.  He had shifted the strategic horizon.

Of course we had to adapt.  A synthesis emerged between the original hunger for initiative and the patient strangulation Roelof had subjected us to, and the extremes were coined 'snake strategy' and 'spider strategy'.

Before it was marketed by Ravensburger, they suggested to give it a theme like the Chinese Wall.  I envisioned something classic like Go.  The resulting compromise made it look like a nice tactical game.  But it never really had any other chance than to sink into oblivion.  Afterwards some exceptionally strong players emerged.  But I doubt whether their numbers amount to even a few dozen worldwide today.  Most buyers will have experienced the fun of basic tactics without the support of strategic clarity - twenty players had failed to get that fully focused while playing for a year on a daily basis, so what chance did they have?  Nowadays the internet may change all that.