Has anyone developed a video game as elegant as Go?

An old guy asks whether there are any videogames with the strategic possibilities and staying power of the ancient Asian board game Go.

I'm old.  I'm so old I feel like I should insert an "I'm so old ..." joke here.  You know the kind. "I'm so old Millard Fillmore was my paperboy."  If you don't know who Millard Fillmore was, don't worry.  I'm sure polling would indicate that most people don't.  A paperboy, in case that's a mystery too, was a kid who delivered newspapers via bicycle. 

If you don't know what a bicycle is, I can't help you.

The reason I'm pointing out how old I am is that I am absolutely, positively, not the target audience for AAA games.  I've never held a game controller.  I'm aware of the names of popular mainstream video games, because many people I know on social media are involved in them in degrees ranging from Facebook games to hardcore shoot-em-ups.

I do play online games though.  I play one Facebook sword and sorcery game (Castle Age), a retro game (a flash version of Pacman), one android game (Desert Golf), and, most importantly for the question I'm about to ask, the ancient Asian board game variously called "Go", "Baduk", or "Wei Chei".

Of the games I've listed, Go is the one that makes my life richer. 

The community aspect of social media games can be satisfying, and Pacman makes me nostalgic for the arcade game installed in a bar across the street from a factory where I worked in the early 1980s. 

But Go is in a different league.  It  requires concentration, study, skill development, and the cultivation of a strategic sense.  Go is at least as complex in strategic potential as chess, but has an amazingly simple set of rules.  Put in computer programming terms, Go is the lisp of the gaming world.  Put in martial arts lexicon, it's Aikido.

Go is played on a 19x19 grid.  The two players place stones at the intersections of the grid lines, and attempt to surround the stones of their opponent.  Beyond that, there really aren't many more rules, but the enormous number of possible approaches have sustained interest in the game since at least the 4th century B.C.

So I have a question for those of you who are knowledgeable about the overall state of the video game industry.  Is there a video game comparable in strategic possibility to Go (or chess, for that matter)?  If not, are there game developers who aspire to create games with enough tactical and strategic depth that they stand the test of time?

Current tools for building virtual worlds should create the possibility for games even richer than Go or chess.  The "board size" allowed by those virtual worlds could be infinite, and the landscape could even be self-modifying.

My old-guy sense of the state of video gaming may be off-base, but what I've seen in the mainstream is analogous to moviemakers recycling the plot of Road House for every movie, changing the locale and costuming, but keeping the same plot elements.

This is a serious question. 

Am I wrong?  Are there video games as strategically solid as the best of the games developed hundreds of years ago using only pebbles and wooden planks?

If so, point them out to me, and I'll give them a try.


Larry Felton Johnson is currently the World's Oldest Journalism Undergraduate. He retired from his previous career after far too many years as a software systems engineer (aka unix sysadmin)

Platforms Board Games
Published Jul. 13th 2015
  • Alex_2161
    I actually LOVE playin GO. Unfortunately, its really complicated, and no one i knew liked it. I am very much into slow paced strategic video games. And i know there are people would will easily disagree, however, games like, DOTA 2, (my current favorite) would be able to suffice in the intricate strategies needed, similar to GO. I wouldn't say, at the moment, that being able to read 30-40 steps ahead of the opponent will allow you to get the advantage, however, the game revolves a lot of decision making, and strategies, more than just who can click faster, like other games listed here, (Starcraft BW). Yes, its strategic, and i loved playing that game for about 8 years, but, the person who also has high APM(actions per minute) is greatly needed.

    Despite i'm not a super high APM gaming pro, i do manage to win many of my games, (even through 5000+MMR) through strategic planning, and picking. The very first part of a ranked game is equally as important as the rest, if not more. Those first 10 minutes of the game, (the hero picking phase) is the part of the game that would most closely identify with GO, as you do nothing, but sit there, with a timer, and pick your heroes, and ban heroes. Its hard to explain in just this comment, but its very important to be able to build your 5 man combination of heroes well, that also can put you in a position of an advantage against the opponents, or stand toe to toe with them, (with over 100+ heroes, with different skills,, and different ways one can help each other, or counter, the variables of team combination is huge)

    Anyways, as a 15 year game, almost 7 years on Dota now, and also likes to play GO, (also have the good GO apps installed on my Iphone and Ipad, which are awesome, mostly go problems) i would say, at the moment, and competitively, Dota would be the most popular, and has a lot more depth than meets the eye.

    PS, its free, and on steam. Also, the internation tournament is happening august, and its the 5th one. I also recommend watching "Free to Play" movie made by Vavle. If your interested in learning about the game, and the Dota world. =)
  • Ashley Shankle
    Associate Editor
    The first Starcraft (and subsequently its expansion pack, Broodwar, which is well-worth the play) is definitely the first answer that comes to mind. Broodwar itself has always been toted as one of the (if not the) most balanced game out there. It's also not overwhelming in mechanics but requires an intricate knowledge of all three races' units and building order in relation to what strategy you want to go (and what you believe your opponent will be going for). Starcraft 2 does not have the balance found in Broodwar.

    Now, if you want a more direct correlation to Go you may want to consider Hanafuda, which is a Japanese card game with simple rules but requires a good amount of strategy when going against skilled opponents. There is Koi-Koi Japan on Steam that serves as a good primer and has a fair amount of AI opponents at varying skills. This game can be found here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/364930/ I've been playing Hanafuda for years, both via games and physically.

    There are definitely more games I could list, but I can't think of them off the top of my head at the moment.

    In terms of board games, have you tried Shogi? I assume you're aware of it because of your familiarity with Go, but I felt it worth mentioning.
  • obliviondoll
    I think I found another one.


    It's as simple as throwing a punch, or walking. You just have to know which muscles are involved, in which order, and how to move them. It's a simultaneous turn-based fighting game where both players set the muscles of their "Tori" - a human-like figure - to move, relax or tense in various combinations, and the resultant movements play out. If you did well, you could see your opponent's limbs go flying, or throw them out of a ring in some game modes.

    The basic mods most players have and use are loosely based on martial arts, but players have created all manner of insane variations. Some mods allow you to practice parkour and free-running tricks. Some have higher or lower dismemberment thresholds, potentially making your Tori come apart at the slightest provocation.

    It really feels like when you master a move in the game, you understand a little more about how your own body works. It's as easy as walking. Yet it's also as complex as... well... making all the right muscles in a human body fire in the right ways to walk.
  • Larry Johnson
    Thanks! I'll jot down both (or all three, counting Prime) games you've mentioned to try out as I get time.
  • obliviondoll
    Honestly, the closest I can think of in terms of simplicity, strategy and consistent application of rules is with Frozen Synapse and its kinda-sequel-remake thing, Frozen Synapse Prime.

    Simultaneous turn-based strategy. Both players create their turn as they wish, attempting to anticipate their opponent's moves, then "prime" the turn when ready. Once both sides prime their turn, 5 seconds plays out, then the next turn begins.

    Other games use this structure, with varying time spent in each turn. Most of those games let you custom-design your units or force composition to a large degree. They also usually rely on RNG (equivalent of dice rolls) for coombat. Frozen Synapse has strict rules defining which unit will win an encounter. Weapon, range, cover, movement and aim all factor into an encounter to define who lives and who dies. If two shotgunners meet, and one has already made it into cover, the other will die. If two identical units run into one another around a corner, the original game arbitrarily decides who gets the kill, but Prime has a double kill, further removing the random element. Both games have single player with a sci-fi story and multiplayer. The original game has a more unique graphical style, and better integration with steam for multiplayer, but Prime is easier to pick up and play, and refines the interface and mechanics slightly.

    EDIT: Also, both games come only as 2-packs, so you have a copy for a friend too.
  • Durinn McFurren
    This is a really tough question to answer, in part because I think the medium of video game lends itself to a different kind of challenge than the medium of board games. After all, when a computer is keeping track of the rules, you can make those rules more and more complex without much trouble. Plus, video games often rely on challenges like quick thinking and quick reactions, rather than on long contemplative strategizing.
    Of course, the idea that video games are often derivative or similar to one another is very true. There's different genres, but any two games within those genres will have a lot of similarities. At least superficially. However, the same can sort of be said of board games: 'chess is like checkers but with lots of types of pieces and movement,' 'Go is like checkers but with the complexity of chess,' etc.
    So maybe the question to look at is really 'are there video games which take a simple concept and do it so elegantly that they seem to transcend the genre the way that Go transcends being a mere board game?' In other words, what games are able to take the same basic things other games have and bring them together in a truly outstanding manner?
    There are three games that I can think of which _might_, depending on your tastes, at least come close to this.
    The first two are actually in a series. Thief: Gold, and Thief: The Metal Age are both fairly simple, and yet playing them combines careful strategic thinking with split-second timing. The graphics are horribly dated but these games remain at the top of my list of all-time favourites. And even with the dated graphics, they manage to create an incredibly atmospheric experience.
    A more modern take on the same concept is Styx: Master of Shadows, which is somewhat similar in concept to the Thief games, but throws in some interesting mechanics of its own.
  • Larry Johnson
    Nice reply. I see the Thief games are available on steam. I'll give them a try.
  • Durinn McFurren
    Apologies for a second response - I just wanted to mention they are also available on gog.com, for those who prefer that source over Steam (I think they are even on sale right now for under $4).

    And for anyone who has not played the original Thief games before - once you have mastered the highest difficulty, try to play the levels in the 'ghost' fashion: don't knock anyone out, don't let anyone see you, steal everything not locked down. These games were made before the 'achievements' that many games include now, but even back in the late 90s there were many gamers who set themselves the goal of figuring out how to beat the games without even using your trusty blackjack (the highest difficulty already requires that you not kill anyone). Styx has included this kind of thing as an achievement, of course.

    Hopefully some other gamers can come up with more examples of really great video game experiences that utilize the platform of video gaming to produce a complex experience beyond the ordinary games.
  • Larry Johnson
    I'm taking the games people have suggested, in the order of replies, and trying them out. I got the two Thief games you mentioned, and so far have just been toying around with Thief:Gold in the training area. It looks really interesting so far. I'll let you know what I think when I get into actual game play.
  • Durinn McFurren
    For anyone new to the game: in the training area, after the fight against the live opponent (which if you're on the highest difficulty, you will never actually do after the tutorial since you can't kill guards, you can only knock them out with blackjack or gas arrows...), as he goes back into his building you can run past him and through the door he is going toward before it closes. Back there is an easter egg including quotes from the developement team.

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