Oddly enough, the best new abstract game I found in Essen last year was an American game, called Octi. Inventor Donald Green has tried to design a game that is easy for a human to learn, but difficult for a computer to analyse; while I'm not sure that it'll take long for the computers to catch up, I must agree that he has succeed in creating a game that is simple to learn, but full of strategy and surprises.
The board is a 9x9 grid; within the grid, each player has 3 home spaces. The objective of the game is for one player to occupy all 3 of their opponent's home spaces (called "Octi spaces") with their pieces (or just 1 or 2 for a shorter game). The intriguing aspect of this game is the pieces themselves; each piece is a wooden octagon (called a "pod"), with a hole on each side. Each player also has a supply of "prongs" - wooden pegs which fit into the holes. In each turn, a player's main options are: add a prong to a pod, move a pod one space in the direction of one of its prongs, or make a series of jumps (each jump is in the direction of a prong, over one pod of either colour, and may result in a capture).
When I first looked at the rules, I was expecting a fairly dull game; lots of moves where nothing happens except the addition of pegs to pods, or the slow advance of pods across the board. I was wrong - the jumping, and potentially great manoeuvrability of the pods, means that when pods do move, they can sometimes cross the board in a single move, possibly capturing several pods along the way. The most common move is adding a prong to a pod, but even these moves are full of tension, because the addition of a single prong can cause a complete re-evaluation of a position.
Above, I have mentioned the main options each move; there are, in fact, several others; each player starts with 7 pods - 3 on the board, and 4 reserves. One option is to bring a reserve pod into play; it appears on any Octi space you occupy - yes; pods can stack! Rather frighteningly, all the pods in one stack can be moved in a single turn, though they must not jump when doing so. When pods are captured, the prongs are taken by the capturing player, and may be re-used; a player may bring a captured pod back into play if they occupy one of their opponent's home spaces; this makes for an interesting twist, because like reserves, these pods appear on any Octi space you occupy, including an opponent's home space… this often makes it easier to attack an opponent's remaining home spaces, so losing a few pods is not necessarily a disadvantage! Finally, I should mention that you can capture your own pods as well as your opponent's.
All in all, an excellent game with good production - vinyl board and wooden components - as you'd expect from the Great American Trading Company. The sheer number of options available makes things very hard for a poor computer, which is probably going to have to consider around 100 moves per turn in a reasonably complex position (compared to around 30 in chess), yet a human player can play intuitively and ignore the majority of these options. Still, computers are getting faster every day, so I don't see us humans keeping the edge for very long!
Octi is produced by the Great American Trading Company, 90 Willow Springs Circle, York, Pennsylvania 17402, USA,www.gatco.net, and sells for around $30+postage. Octi also has its own web page, at www.octi.net.