The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Buffalo

Designer: Alex Randolph
Publisher: Piatnik
Players: 2
Time: 10 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

In order to tell you about Buffalo, I first need to tell you about Fox & Hounds (also know as Fox & Geese and at least several other names). For those who do not know this traditional game, it's quite simple:

Place 4 "hounds" on the rear-most black squares of a standard 8x8 checkerboard. Place 1 "fox" on any of the front-most black squares. Movement is as in Checkers without the jumping—you may move into any diagonally adjacent square. Hounds may only move forward whereas the fox may move forwards or backwards. Note that there is no capturing. The winner is the player who leaves his opponent unable to make a move.

This game is actually quite clever and very useful as a bar trick, I've won a few pints with it. At first glance, it may seem that the hounds have a rather unfair advantage, all they need do is slowly advance each hound in succession and there's no way that the fox can get through. In practice, this proves rather hard to accomplish and it's quite easy for a player to casually move his fox, disrupt the line of hounds and escape. Again and again and again. Opinion quickly shifts and it seems that the fox is the one with the strong advantage. (Here's where the winning of pints takes place.) You then offer to switch sides at which point you capture the fox every single time. The truth of the matter is that Fox & Hounds is solved and with proper play, the Hounds will always win. The reason it remains interesting is that the correct moves are not at all obvious and figuring them out can be an interesting exercise.

Why mention all this? Well, Buffalo is obviously inspired by Fox & Hounds and I'm almost certain that it too has a solution. The trick is that I have not yet been able to ascertain if this is so. In fact, I can't even say for sure which side is favoured!

Play is on an 11x7 board with 11 buffaloes placed along one edge (one per column). The Indian and his four dogs start one row in from the other edge. Turns alternate with each player moving one of his pieces. The buffalo player may only move his pieces one space directly forward as long as that space is unoccupied. The Indian player may move his dogs any number of spaces in a straight line (like a Queen in Chess) but may not move onto or through any other piece. The Indian himself may move one space in any direction but not onto a space with a dog. The Indian can move onto a buffalo which is then removed from the game. The buffalo player wins if he can get any one piece to the opposite side of the board and the Indian wins if he can prevent this.

You can't get much simpler than this but it has proved to be an interesting challenge. The game has flip-flopped back and forth as players try a variety of different "openings". First one approach will be attempted, effective counter-moves will be discovered and it will seem that one side must surely be the "winning" one. Then another approach will be tried and it will seem that the other side has the guaranteed win. At this point I haven't explored Buffalo enough to make any definitive statements but while it does seem that the buffalo player has the easier time, I have the sneaky feeling that the Indian has the guaranteed win. Even though the game will lose all interest once (if) I'm ever able to figure it out completely, it has been an enjoyable exercise working through the various approaches and responses.

Of course, you could easily just ignore all this nonsense about "solving" the game and play it as a very quick and simple contest but I'm not sure that it's all that engaging as a game rather than an interactive puzzle.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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