Putting my cards (tiles) on the table early, I’m going to say I don’t like Hive. I’m also going to say it’s not really the fault of the game. I’ve seen more than enough supporting evidence that shows this is a rich experience with endless strategic and tactical complexity. I have played it a fair bit, and I know I’m only paddling in the shallowest of what are extremely deep waters. Some people have called it a chess beater, and to be honest I’m not even sure I’d disagree. It might well be a better game than chess. It might well be a more interesting game than chess. It might have endless variety to be found within its simple, elegant rules. This might indeed be a game that I could play for the rest of my life without feeling as if I drained it of its secrets. The problem is that none of that really matters.
Hive is an abstract tile-laying game of area control in which each player takes control of an excitingly diverse hive of insects. These are represented by pleasingly hefty Bakelite tiles that clink together with an agreeable melody. As with the splash of poker chips on a growing pot this is a game that is as much an auditory treat as it is anything else. Clink. Clink. Clink. The pieces are big and nice to handle. Sometimes it’s just fun to get your hands on something heavy and firm and just let your fingers roam over it.
You start with a set of creepy crawlies, each with their own special move patterns. You’ve got the grasshopper that can leap over pieces. You’ve got a soldier ant that can orbit the perimeter of the hive. You’ve got spiders that can move three spaces at a time, but only three spaces. You’ve got beetles that can move a single space but can climb onto other pieces. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And finally you’ve got the queen bee – she moves one space at a time, but if she’s ever surrounded on all sides the game is lost.
The parallels with chess are obvious, but Hive goes a little bit farther by adopting a more easy-going relationship with spatial constraints – there is no board to speak of. The hive that you are fighting over is made up of the interconnected beasties within. As such, it’ll grow, and shrink, and elongate, and contract. That’s undeniably awesome – it gives every game its own physical puzzle that you need to solve.
Breaking even farther out of the chess mold, Hive also eschews fixed opening positions. You get to create the hive yourself by placing your creatures where you think they should go. During your first four moves you’re going to have to place your queen but other than that you have complete freedom, within the constraints of positional correctness.
Ah yes, the constraints – these are what turn Hive from a tile-laying drudge into a thought-provoking challenge. There are two rules that must always be obeyed in the hive, regardless of the stage of the game:
- You can only new play tiles adjacent to a tile of your own colour, and only if it won’t also be adjacent to your opponent. That is, except for the first move, but never mind that. Just, never mind.
- You can never split the hive.
You don’t have to play out all your tiles before you can move – as soon as the queen is in the hive, your pieces are free to go where their movement rules let them. During your turn you can place one of your unplayed tiles, or move one of the existing ones – this creates a nice asymmetry to play and largely solves the fundamental problem of learnable opening strategies in chess. It also means that the starting phase of the game is always going to be a tentative exercise of ‘let’s see what happens’ because you have no real idea where the enemy queen is going to end up emerging. Still, it’s an opportunity to size up your opponent and trying to get a feel for what their deployment is going to permit in terms of hive domination. It’s the WWE smack-talk that precedes the fighting proper.
There are advantages to bringing out the queen early – she’s the starter pistol for your tile movement. There are also advantages to be had in holding back her placement until the last moment. You can’t place new tiles adjacent to your opponent, but you can move existing tiles there. Mastery of piece position is how you win the game but it’s also how you stop yourself losing it.
After a few turns, the hive has taken on its own personality, with its own risks and rewards.
The relationship between tiles is important – the grasshopper that was placed below the soldier ant can leap over to the other side of the hive, encircling the queen. That black soldier ant can manoeuvre around to the bottom left of the grasshopper, pinning it in place. You can never split the hive, and this kind of careful mobilization is key to success. Every turn though you need to decide whether you’re going to protect your queen or undermine your opponent. If you choose unwisely you may find the momentum of play is stolen away from you.
Having tiles across the hive is important, because it eases the placement conditions – each tile is its own breeding pit from which another beastie can emerge. Infiltrating into the enemy side of the board means that you can start spawning off your troops at the point they’ll be doing maximum harm to your enemy queen’s mobility. Of course, you can’t neglect defense because your opponent is trying to do exactly the same thing to you.
This is how wars are fought in the hive, with painstaking maneuvering.
With the hive becoming bigger and more complex
Until you reach a final point of tension
And the game is won.
Different games will tax different insects – the beetles for example pin opponents beneath them, and can break a logjam with inexorable progress over the top of other crawlies. They’re slow though, so you’ll only want to bring them into heavy use if there’s no other option. You can block enemy beetles in turn with your own beetles. You can even have beetles on top of beetles on top of beetles. Beetles for days, if you want.
The mechanics perfectly feed into the theme, such as it is, because every move has the contents of the hive writhing and constraining each other part with everything trying to eat everything else. Playing a game of Hive can be enough by itself to make your skin crawl, but persevering does allow for some very satisfying play. There’s nothing quite like seeing your opponent set themselves up for a win:
And knowing that you can stop that with your own careful deployment. That soldier ant can neatly manoeuvre into the empty slot by the white queen, but all you need to do is…
You can’t ever split the hive, so if you have a piece that would be left orphaned by a move, that move is invalid. It’s exactly the same thing that stops the grasshopper leaping to surround the queen. Games of Hive are ever shifting puzzles of logistics, working out how to break and rejoin the hive in the ways that work for you. It’s intense. This is almost certainly a game in which you can lose yourself if you look too deeply into its faceted eyes.
I still don’t like it though.
For me, the problem is something other than its design. It’s that I cannot justify investing the time needed to develop the skills needed to appreciate it in all its complexity. Adjacent to that is another problem – even if I did, who am I going to play it against? This is a game that is at war with its own audience. It insists upon expertise before you get the maximum benefit out of play, but doesn’t scaffold the game such that it’s fun to develop that experience. It reminds me of the old Mark Twain joke, ‘a classic is something that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read’.
It’s not fun to play as a novice against an expert, because you’ll get your arse pounded into a brand new shape. It’s not fun to play as an expert against a novice because you’re too easily molding their posterior into a novel configuration. It’s not fun to play novice on novice because unfamiliarity means you can’t take advantage of all the cleverness dripping out of the mechanics. This is a game for experienced players only.
How do you find that expertise, though? You have a hard job training someone up. Unless you’re setting up and then breaking elegant chains of tiles you’re just moving things morosely around a hive, hoping for a phone-call that will let you call the evening to an abrupt halt. If both players know what they’re doing, Hive is more flexible than chess and a good deal faster to play. If both players know what they’re doing.
Hive has a vibrancy to its design that deals with much of the stuffy sterility of chess – it’s a game that is as much about reaction as it is about planning, and there are surprises aplenty in its elegant design. Opening positions have a fluidity that can feed into expressiveness even given the uncertainty of placement. The pieces complement each other well, giving all the sophisticated interrelationships of chess on a shifting, emergent game board. Don’t underestimate how much meaningful gameplay comes from the pieces themselves being the battleground.
I’m still very much at the novice level – I’ve played it a few times against real people, and most of the rest of my playing has been against a computer because nobody has been very enthused about playing it again. I’m good enough now that I feel as if I’m executing a strategy rather than simply moving tiles around in the hope it’s doing some good. I’m not good enough though that I feel that the game has opened itself up to me in a way that makes me want it in my life.
And it’s here we come to the crux of my problem – how much effort can a game reasonably expect of me before it becomes fun? At what point is it okay to say ‘Yeah, I can see the merits in this but I don’t have the time?’. The answer to that is going to be different from game to game, but for me I feel like I gave Hive its fair chance and it refused to meet me half way.
Hive might be a better game than chess when you master it. That claim certainly strikes me as credible. The problem is – people know chess. There is a social benefit to being a good chess player. If you’re the pretentious type, being good at chess is a lazy shorthand for ‘I’m smart’. If you’re a social gamer, then the chances are good that you’ll find people in your circle of friends that play, or have played in the past. At one point in Scotland, playing chess was even something we were taught at school. It has traction that Hive simply does not. Most people not only don’t know how to play Hive, they’ve never even heard of it. ‘It’s a bit like chess but with insects and no fixed board’ is a hard sell.
I’d say both games demand roughly the same investment of time to develop mastery, but the benefits of knowing how to play chess well dramatically outstrip those of Hive. More critically, whereas the problems of Hive manifest at lower skill levels, those of chess are most keenly observed when the game itself has already been thoroughly understood. These problems relate to the dominance of fixed positions and the library of chess knowledge needed to play at the highest levels. Even they can be easily solved by adopting one of the chess variants. I like Fischer Random Chess, for example, as a way of injecting interesting variety into the starting setup.
That’s why I don’t like Hive – because it asks me to invest a great deal of time into mastering its intricate systems, but offers me very little in return that I can’t get elsewhere. If someone asks ‘do you want a game of Hive’, I’m very likely to answer ‘No, but how about a nice game of Chess?’.
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