The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Bin'Fa

Designer: Ken Hodkinson
Publisher: Kenterprises
Players: 2-6
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: Mitch Thomashow

On a mild, cloudy, spring day, in May of 1978, while meandering through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, I passed a small, interesting looking shop that had attractively displayed games and puzzles. I drifted inside and was delighted to see dozens of games that I had never seen or heard of. I noticed a particularly eccentric box, with a peculiar oriental motif, vaguely reminiscent of some of the psychedelic rock posters that came out of San Francisco in the late 1960s. Bin'Fa, it read, the game of oriental strategy and conquest: the tao of war. As a card-carrying member of the coming of age in the 1960s club, a dabbler in things Taoist and Buddhist, and a nascent gameplayer, I couldn't resist opening the box, not knowing whether I would find a boardgame or instructions for higher consciousness.

Indeed, upon opening the box, it appeared that it contained both game and philosophy. The board was a striking rainbow colored design of ninety-six triangles, arranged symmetrically as a hexagon, with six sections of sixteen triangles, each section corresponding to a color of the spectrum, surrounded by a circular track of forty two similarly colored squares. Was this some kind of Taoist Candyland? I skimmed the rulebook, and read enough to know that the game looked intellectually challenging. I was intrigued to notice that each section was preceded by some Taoist aphorism. This game appealed to every aspect of my intellect and aesthetic sensibility. It appeared to be a very serious game. So I quickly bought it and carried it through Cambridge as if I had discovered the keys to an ancient temple.

Bear with me for a moment through some additional personal memories, as it is impossible for me to disentangle this stage of my life from my discovery of Bin'Fa. I was just passing through Cambridge, on my way to an island off the coast of Maine. This was the first trip my girlfriend and I had taken together. After several months of hanging out, we knew that something pretty neat was happening and a little springtime trip to the coast of Maine seemed ideal. We drove northeast and spent the night at the Strawberry Hill Motor Court in Rockland, Maine. We played Bin'Fa, ate strawberries, and well, we're still together, twenty-four years later. I discovered Bin'Fa at a time in my life when everything was coming together - great job, great relationship, wonderful place to live, and it just so happened, I rediscovered my passion for board games. We played Bin'Fa dozens of times. Over the last two decades I have played it more than any game in my collection and whenever I play it I am grateful for it's propitious appearance.

Perhaps we can all remember the first time we opened a gamebox and had the sensation of absolute joy and wonder, thinking to ourselves, what a delightful means to gain pleasure. It's no different than playing a musical instrument for the first time, or shooting a basketball, or discovering a passion for birds or wildflowers. Bin'Fa served that purpose for me. Hence I can't be objective about this extraordinary game, which appeared so magically, and allows me to conjure such fine memories.

When a new edition of Bin'Fa appeared some twenty-two years later (one whole generation of gameplaying), it allowed me to resurrect my interest in the game, not having played it for several years. Would it still hold up, after all of the fantastic Knizia/Moon/Kramer/Teuber brews we've all been drinking? Would the game stand on its merits and retain its classic status? Or was it now surpassed by our sophisticated gaming tastes?

Bin'Fa is an abstract game of territory and conflict, with very dynamic movement and capture rules. It is an extremely flexible gaming system, highly suitable for two players, with games of adjustable size and length, and with considerable interest as a multiplayer game as well (as many as six can play). There is an important luck element as die rolling initiates and resolves the movement of pieces, conflict, and supply management. However, the game is highly strategic and tactical, and chance is merely another interesting strategic variable, rarely so egregious as to subvert good play. Additionally, the die rolling adds a great deal of excitement and tension. The Bin'Fa board is different each game as there are movable terrain markers, depicting mountain passes and valleys, and vortexes, which allow you to travel instantaneously between vortex stations.

In the most basic game, two players choose a color, and set up their twelve pieces in the sixteen triangles of their color quadrant. Pieces can be stacked as high as you wish. So you can place six stacks of two pieces each, three stacks of four pieces each, etc. Single pieces may also be placed but they can be easily captured by the opponent. The object of the game is to reduce your opponent to three pieces. Movement occurs via the rolling of two dice, with the difference between them determining how far you can move a stack. So a roll of a six and a three means you can move the entire stack (or any reasonable division of it) three times. You eliminate pieces by surrounding them, either with all of your own pieces, or using the edge of the board or a terrain marker as a boundary. You can move an opponents piece if your higher stack is in an adjoining space and you roll a six on either of the two dice. The opponent then has to move her stack to a neighboring space. In this way you can corner and then surround your opponents pieces. If you roll a doubles, your turn must end.

Thus far we have a rather pedestrian game of movement and attack. However, on the outside of the board is a circular supply track, marked in the same colors as the territories. When it's your turn you can either move or attack with your pieces on the main playing field or you can move your marker around the supply track. By landing on a space of your color on that track you gain as many supply counters as the number of spaces you moved. Those supply counters are then used for movement or attack on the main board, one counter per move. You are always trying to balance your objectives on both the playing field and the track as you need enough supply counters to launch an offensive or to be prepared defensively. In practice, the key to Bin'Fa is to take advantage of lots of supplies when you have them, by inflicting lots of damage, or developing good position, and to restrict damage and loss when you don't have many supplies.

There are other rules involving movement, supplies, the use of vortexes, and stacking. However, the game is very easy to learn. It is absolutely intuitive to play. The rules are laid out so one can learn the game in stages, and play a series of basic games along the way. Moreover, the rules are easily remembered and learned, so that if you don't play for awhile, when you return you don't have to reread the rulebook. Eventually you work up to the six army game, either in its multi-player venue, or with two players controlling three armies each. I am most impressed with the two-player, three army game, which becomes a highly strategic, die-rolling ramble. This is the fully splendored Bin'Fa.

The game gains its "Oriental" flavor from the Go-like capture rule. To play Bin'Fa well, you have to learn how to gain territorial advantage, by controlling the flow of movement through various power points on the board. But you make those power spots by virtue of your own movement. With clever positional play, you can develop some pretty imposing power structures that evolve subtly. Things aren't always what they appear to be. Of great interest, too, is how you deal with good and bad fortune. No matter how powerful your position appears, if you squander and run out of supplies, you become stalled and impotent. Bin'Fa is an intriguing blend of daring and caution. Sometimes a run of good die-rolls makes you cocky and confident when you have no right to be. Mastering your strategic character is intrinsic to playing Bin'Fa well. The strong are easily humbled, and the meek sometimes inherit the earth! Similar to many of the modern German designs, Bin'Fa is filled with agonizing decisions and choices, and you are always balancing patience and urgency.

Interestingly, I had played Bin'Fa all these years with great enjoyment, when the designer announced that John McCallion of Games Magazine discovered a flaw in the game. McCallion and company disclosed that cautious play would routinely develop stalemated positions, as the game favored defense rather than risk. I don't agree with this at all, as only the most cynical players would approach the game in such a conservative manner. Having played the game well over one hundred times, I never observed such a stalemate emerge. However, the designer (Ken Hodkinson) was prompted to change a subtle, but crucial rule. He changed the supply rule so that if your pieces ended a turn in an opponent's territory (colored triangle quadrant) you would also gain supply markers when you landed on that color on the supply track as well as your own. Typically (if you are green), you only gain supply markers if you land on green spaces of the track. But if you end a turn with your pieces in yellow territory on the main board, you get supply markers if you land on yellow or green spaces. This simple rule change totally transforms the game to favor risk-taking and attack. I am not sure whether this improves the game but it surely makes it much different. It is now more dynamic and ruthless. I mention this seemingly small detail, because it reveals how one small change in a game can have such an enormous impact. Nevertheless, I find Bin'Fa equally entertaining in either circumstance.

The new edition of Bin'Fa is absolutely beautiful. It comes with chunky wooden pieces, wooden supply markers, terrain markers, and vortexes, and a beautiful vinyl board. It's all packaged in a very large tube. The materials, aesthetics, and feel of the game are absolutely first rate.

From my perspective, Bin'Fa deserves the fine esteem I've always given it. It's just as much fun to play now as it was when I discovered it. I'm still learning the strategic and tactical nuances of the game. And yes, it is both game and philosophy, in the same way that any great game is. That is, you learn a lot about yourself as you self-reflect on your participation in the game - the reflective gameplayer. Bin'Fa has the clarity and intrigue that prompt such a response. I could be happy to play no other board game. That would be too radical given all of the incredible games we are so privileged to enjoy but don't let me get too philosophical on you. The game is just great fun to play. The varied terrain, the die-rolling, the different ways to play, the interesting strategic choices, keep Bin'Fa fresh, original and entertaining. Depending on which version you choose, it will take you between thirty and ninety minutes.

Here's a caveat. Bin'Fa is decidedly abstract, although no more so than any of Reiner Knizia's most prominent designs. But there is virtually no dressing here, other than the Oriental milieu. If you can't deal with such an abstract design, you may not enjoy Bin'Fa. Although the games are decidedly different, Ta Yu may be a good measure for you. Most importantly, Bin'Fa's gameplay is first rate. And if you're idea of atmosphere is a dose of philosophy attached to an abstract game board (which I would argue leaves more to the imagination) than this game will blow you away.

I am delighted that I have played Bin'Fa for almost twenty-five years and the game is as special to me now as the first time I played it. There is no higher compliment than that.

- Mitchell Thomashow

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