There’s an ancient board game you may (not) have heard of, and you can play it on your Xbox, PC or mobile phone. It involves two players, black and white pieces played on a grid, and an incredible depth of strategy. No, I’m not talking about Chess. The game I am talking about is over one thousand years older! It’s called Go (wéiqí, igo, baduk, cờ vây), and it dates back to China over 2500 years ago! It is played throughout the world, and is very popular just about everywhere except the United States, where the American Go Association is attempting to get the word out about this amazing game.
Go is simple enough to understand. Two players (one with white stones, the other with black) take turns placing stones onto the board one at a time. If one player’s stones are completely surrounded by the other player’s stones, the first player’s stones are captured to be counted for points when the game is over. That basic rule is pretty much the only rule in the game. There are a few other details, but that is enough to start playing. So how can it be that Go is so frequently described as the most complex game in the world?
Despite the stone capturing rule being the main rule in the game, in a normal game of Go, capturing stones is quite rare. In fact, if you focus too much on capturing stones, you are quite likely to lose the game. The real objective is to place stones in such a way that you secure the most territory around the board. Like captured stones, each spot of territory is also worth one point to be calculated when the game is over. The game board is made up of a 19×19 grid. That’s 361 possible spots for a stone to be placed, as well as a great deal of territory to fight over! With such a large board, there is an immense amount of choice and personal style that goes into forming a strategy for securing the most territory and winning the game, and herein lays the complexity.
Every move in Go is a major decision. Should you place two stones within a few spaces of each other so that they form territory? Or should you put a stone all by itself in an unclaimed part of the board, and try to build new territory there? Or maybe you should try to invade your opponent’s territory before it becomes too secure! But what if your opponent just invaded? You should probably place two stones together and establish a firm defense. But wait, you were too defensive and your opponent has spread out across the board! That’s okay though, with his stones spread too thin, you have a good chance of capturing some of those lonely stones and claiming that territory for yourself.
Go can be described as a game of war, but also as a game of compromise. If you claim a territory in one area, it is very likely your opponent will find territory of equal value elsewhere on the board. And the player who tries to take too much ends up with nothing.
To try to describe the complexity of Go in a few paragraphs is an exercise in futility, as thousands of books have been written on various aspects of the game and strategies. Like Chess, it is a game that can be played, but also studied. For some, it is a lifetime hobby, and even after a lifetime, there is still more to learn. For others, it is a career, as a few extremely talented players can become professionals (and celebrities), playing in leagues and televised tournaments throughout the world.
But more importantly for the sake of spreading the word about Go, it is the simplicity of learning the basics that should be emphasized. Go is the very definition of, “Easy to learn, difficult to master.” It can be learned in minutes and practiced for decades. It’s also a great deal of fun!
My introduction to Go came originally through an anime called Hikaru no Go, based on a manga by the same name. In it, a young boy is possessed by the spirit of an ancient Go player, who really wants to play Go again, but the boy has never played before. The anime is actually a useful tool for introducing a new player to the game! It shows how fun Go can be, but also how serious and intense it can get. It’s also a damn good anime!
Another great tool for beginners is The Interactive Way To Go, a free website which describes and teaches the basics of the game using interactive boards. I recommend it to all new players. If books are more your thing, Learn to Play Go by Jeong Soo-Hyun comes highly recommended.
The last thing you will need is the game itself. As you might expect of an ancient game, there is a great deal of history behind it, and that history presents itself even when choosing what board and stones to buy. If money is no object, you can easily spend thousands of dollars on a history rich board made of rare golden wood from a 700 year old Kaya tree, black stones made from nachiguro stone, white stones made from Hamaguri clam shells and stone bowls made from rosewood.
Far more realistically, there are a variety of boards and stones available on Amazon. There’s also a game on Xbox Live Arcade called The Path of Go, which provides a basic introduction to the game, and even a short single player campaign that involves playing against an increasingly difficult computer on a 9×9 beginners board. You can also play Go on your computer for free on a variety of internet Go servers, such as KGS, and through a variety of mobile apps.
But by far the best way to get started is to find a local Go club. These clubs usually have a dedicated group of players that get together once a week to play, welcome newcomers, and learn together. Visit PromoteGo.org to find a club near you.
So what are you waiting for? Go play Go!