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Hive box
Designer: John Yianni
Players: 2
Time: 10 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

Hive is a two-player abstract wherein players try to maneuver their assortment of bugs to surround the opposing Queen. It comes in a small, sturdy little box with full-colour instructions and 22 wooden hexagons. These are thick, hardwood pieces with a label attached showing the type of bug it represents. For a self-published game the presentation is very nice and somewhat unexpected. The pieces feel great in your hand and it adds much to the pleasure of the game.

The art has a somewhat generic feel to it but it's functional and clear for the most part. Unfortunately, the player colours can be all but impossible to differentiate in some light. The printing on the labels is metallic, silver for one player and blue for the other. If you've ever seen this sort of printing you'll know how lighting and the angle of view can have a big effect on how it looks. So, in certain lighting conditions there won't be a problem at all as the colours will be very distinct, but in others it will be very difficult to tell one players' pieces from the others. This is a real shame and mars an otherwise excellent production. There are a couple of "fixes" for this problem however. The easiest is to make sure that your pieces always point towards your opponent. Simple but often this will give enough of a visual clue so that mistakes aren't made. Other people have mentioned drawing a black border around the labels on one set. I suppose you could also apply some wood stain which may have a nice look. I'm a little leery of permanently marking my copy though so I haven't actually tried either of these.

Play is very straightforward—on your turn you either place a new piece on the "hive" (the collection of tiles that make up the "board") or move one of your existing pieces. New pieces must be placed so that they do not touch any opposing pieces. Each type of bug has its own method of moving:

  • Ants can move anywhere around the edge of the hive.
  • Beetles can move one space in any direction, even stacking on top of other pieces.
  • Grasshoppers jump over one or more pieces.
  • Spiders move exactly three spaces along the edge of the hive.
  • Queen Bees move one space around the edge of the hive.

A very important rule is that you cannot move a piece if it causes the hive to be broken into two or more sections. (This will prove strategically critical.) Finally, you must place your Queen Bee on one of your first four moves and you are not allowed to move pieces until you've done so. The first player to surround the opposing Queen wins the game. (Note that your opponents' pieces can also be used to surround the Queen.)

It only takes a game or two to discover that the key to winning is mobility—retaining yours while restricting your opponent's. Immobilizing opposing pieces is accomplished in two major ways. The first is by placing your pieces so that your opponents' are physically unable to move. If you can't physically slide a piece (because other pieces are in the way) then that piece may not be moved. (Note that the Grasshopper and Beetle are somewhat immune to this.) The second (and more common method) is maneuvering such that opposing bugs are required to keep the hive in one piece. Since you can't move a piece if it breaks the hive in two, these pieces are effectively immobile.

Once the initial placements are made the game switches to one where you must immobilize the opposing Queen. Ants are arguably the most powerful pieces and are very useful in this role. Once you've got the Queen pinned down it's a matter of placing and moving pieces to completely surround her. This can be tricky as it's usually the case that your opponent will have your Queen surrounded as well and so it becomes a race to see who can win first. There are also some clever little tricks and subtleties to be aware of. Often you might find that the Queen you thought had been pinned suddenly becomes able to move. (This usually happens when the Queen is immobilized by the need to keep the hive in one piece. If another "connection" is made by a careless opponent, suddenly the game is all but lost as the Queen flies away.)

An example of some of the clever possibilities is shown in the picture at the left (note that this shows just the relevant part of an actual game). The blue Queen is seemingly surrounded. However the blue Ant (in combination with the silver Grasshopper) prevents any of the "sliding" pieces from moving in for the win. It can be difficult to maneuver Grasshoppers and if the opposing Beetles are immobilized then the silver player will be hard pressed to win even though only one additional space needs to be occupied. Silver may decide that it's best to just move his Grasshopper so that the last free space is no longer "blocked". However, as soon as he does, the blue Queen can move to the now vacated space and is wide open, most likely a winning move.

I was rather surprised at the scope for strategy in Hive. While the game lacks the depth of Chess, there are multiple methods of achieving your goal. The first several games I played saw heavy use of Beetles. These can be very powerful especially if planted on top of the opposing Queen. (A covered opponents' piece does not prevent you from placing new pieces next to your own Beetle so you could very quickly win the game with this tactic.) Later, the strength of the Ants became apparent and these were then quickly deployed. This then introduced another level of strategy—instead of playing to directly surround your opponents' Queen, you play to immobilize his other pieces. Then, once many of his pieces cannot move, you add yours and win the game. This process of discovering tactics and counter-strategies was very enjoyable and the sign of a superior game.

Now, with all abstract game of no luck there's the issue of whether the game is "solvable". That is, is there a way of playing perfectly so that you can either guarantee a win or prevent yourself from ever losing? With many of these types of games it can take a lot of analysis or many, many games to figure out if this is indeed true. Having played 20 games or so I'm unsure if this is the case with Hive. Still, the fact that I've been happy to play the game this many times speaks volumes about its appeal.

One aspect of the game that might be viewed as a shortcoming is that it can be over very quickly. The games are never very long in any event but I'm referring to the situation where each player makes relatively few moves and it then becomes obvious which player will win. This can be a bit of a let down as the game ends just when things were getting interesting. I suspect that this is more common with novice players and that with more experience you'll start to see these foregone situations earlier (and therefore making moves to prevent them). This happened in the games I played as I gradually was able to see deeper into the decision tree.

Either way, the games are quite short and I often found myself wishing that they'd go on just a bit longer. It's easy enough to play a series but this had the feeling of eating several appetizers rather than a full meal. In any case, this is a very good little game and I recommend it highly.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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