Zillions of Games

I don't usually like computer programs, since half the fun of playing a board game is the interaction with the other players; besides, computers don't burst into tears when you beat them J . However, as a fan of two-player abstract games, I often find it very difficult to find an opponent, and that's where Zillions comes into its own.

While there are a few very good computer programs out there for some of my favourite abstracts (like Doby 3 for Trax, and GIPF for One for GIPF), Zillions of Games is a logical progression from the many specialised games programs out there. Zillions of Games itself contains a user interface and a powerful game engine, but not the rules of the game. These are stored in small text files, which Zillions reads when you choose the game you want to play.

The practical upshot of this is, Zillions comes with the rules files to play about 200 games and variants, but if the game you want to play isn't represented, then the odds are that you can write your own rules file and teach Zillions how to play. In fact, if you visit the Zillions web site, then you'll find another 100 or so games and variants available for download.

Stephen (red) losing at blobs…

Of course, the real questions are, can Zillions really play anything, and how well does it play? Over the last few weeks, I've been teaching myself to write Zillions rules files, so I'm in a fair position to answer the questions. My first observation is that Zillions was designed by folks who have been writing chess programs for years, and it shows; if you want Zillions to play a chess variant, then you can probably do this in 5 minutes with just a few small modifications to the existing chess rule file. The odds are, it will then proceed to wipe the floor with you given a reasonable thinking time. (Play power is governed principally by thinking time, which means it's largely determined by the power of your PC, so comparisons are difficult. If it helps: at 10 seconds a move, playing chess, Zillions searches 7 moves deep and looks at about 40,000 positions on my 300MHz pentium.)

Other games can be more problematical. The designers didn't consider stacking games when developing the rules definition language; you can still program them, but you have to go to some lengths to do so! So far, I haven't found a game that couldn't be implemented in Zillions, but the effort involved can be daunting - like creating 256 pieces in Octi, for each possible combination of pegs on a piece! As for the play level, Zillions behaves best when there is a simple objective, like capture of an opponent's King, and where there are a relatively small number of moves available each turn. From the games I've implemented, I can tell you that Zillions plays a mean game of Terrace, a pretty good game of Octi, and a lousy game of Amazons (hardly surprising, since each Amazons piece has about 1,000 moves available each turn, compared with about 30-40 in chess)!

Oh, a few things about the user interface; it's very well thought out, and provides all of the facilities you'd expect in a chess program - take back moves, give hints, and much more. The quality of the graphics is determined by what comes with the rules files; generally very good for the games bundled with Zillions, but some of the freebies available for download can be quire crude by comparison (on the other hand, some are superb).

Finally, I should point out that Zillions allows players to play over the net, so that even if Zillions doesn't play a game very well, it can still enable you to play with a real, live, human being on the other side of the world… assuming they also have a copy of Zillions!

So, has Zillions changed my opinion about computer games? Well, no, not really - I'd still rather play a human, but it is certainly the next best thing. Zillions is an incredible achievement, and I have nothing but admiration for the programmers, Jeff Mallett and Mark Lefler.

Zillions of Games is available for $29.95 plus shipping from: Zillions Development, P.O. Box 2037, Boulder Creek, CA 95006-2037, USA, Fax: 001 877 848-2949, or through their web site at: http://www.zillions-of-games.com/