Tom Tube is a highly original connection game. To my knowledge, it is the first such game to use rhombs and triangles. It employs an interesting scoring system, and provides the player with a range of decisions and options, ranging from longer term strategic approaches to nifty tactical arrangements. I will return to Tom Tube, but please allow me to indulge in a long digression so as to put the game in the proper context.
It's now been one generation since I seriously got interested in board games. In the late 1970's, I discovered B'infa, Pagode, Mentalis, Thoughtwave, all remarkable abstract games, and I've been hooked ever since. I'll never forget my joy at discovering the British magazine Games and Puzzles. I ordered all of the available back issues, and was nearly delirious when they all came in the mail. In the 1980's we had our first batch of German games. When the Internet came of age in the 1990's, we could zip translations back and forth and it was only a matter of time before all kinds of information, discourse, and trading of board games became possible. Indeed, the Internet allowed us to network games. We are now in a true golden age of boardgames, spurred by the relative amount of available disposable income, and the possibilities of global trade. In my view, this has been one of the few really positive benefits of the global economy!
Among the interesting proliferation of board game genres is the remarkable number of connection games. In the 1960's and 70's there were a few railroad games and a couple of interesting abstracts (Hex, Psyche Paths, Thoughtwave), and consider the extraordinary number of games in the last 25 years that primarily involve building an efficient network to get from one place to another. The abstracts abound (Octiles, Trax, Ta Yu) as do the thematically based games, including dozens of rail games, Morisi and Elfenland among hundreds).
Bear with me for another moment as I put on my professor's hat, and then I promise, I will get to Tom Tube. The emergence of these connection games neatly parallels the growth of the Internet, and the increasing complexity of international transportation networks. Since 1800, the most profound conceptual reconfiguration of globalization has been the emergence of these networks. In 1867, the transcontinental railroad spanned America, allowing commerce to travel unfettered from coast to coast. In just fifty years, an entire nation became an efficient commercial network. At the turn of the century, the same process was repeated with the wiring of the continent (try to imagine your home landscape without wires and telephone poles), and finally in the last ten years, the same process has been repeated with the arrival of the Internet. The challenge of constructing, navigating, and exploring these networks is incredible raw material for gaming. It should be no surprise that we enjoy these connection games so much as they are reflections of our everyday circumstances. Just as Go reflects the territorial yin-yang of Ancient China, or Chess represents the hierarchical power relationships of Medieval Europe, connection games reflect the vicissitudes of a complexly networked political economy. In a global economy, it would stand to reason that "collectible" card games (the ultimate symbol of commodity capitalism), bidding and trading games, and network games, would flourish. From an evolutionary perspective, games have always represented a way to practice life experience through play. The twenty-first century will be the era of the network, and we have just seen the beginning of interesting networking games. If you like trying to figure out how to get from here to there and back again, and linking as many nodes as you can in the process, then stick around, because this genre is till in its infancy. Finally, I think many of these games will incorporate interesting random elements to reflect the complexity of creating networks within organized structures that are influenced by random events.
Congratulations, then, to Tom Tube's designers, for taking this concept to outer space! In brief, the game comes with 40 rhombs and 18 triangles which two players alternately place on a six-sided board with nine triangles on each side. That accounts for a dense, but visually acceptable tessellation of rhombi. This geometric configuration is absolutely ingenious. Each of the rhombs has distinct yellow and red paths, joint yellow and red paths, as well as nodes and spheres. As the game develops, you place yellow, blue, and green counters on the nodes and spheres, depending on how they lie on the matrix. You're an astronaut who will eventually traverse the network of spheres and nodes, to gather your solar counters, placed at the opposite triangular ends of the board, and to gather the colored counters, which afford different scoring rewards or movement advantages.
This game's originality lies in both its unique configuration of rhombs and triangles, as well as its interesting scoring mechanism. Your task is to collect your two solar counters, retrieve any other counters along the way, and then finally return home. Solar counters score five points, and the various colored cubes score one, three, and five points, depending on some simple availability and location rules. However, keep in mind that this is a race, as the "faster astronaut" scores one bonus point for each additional turn it will take for his or her opponent to arrive home.
Hence, Tom Tube is filled with interesting choices you must make every turn. Interestingly, and similar to Octiles, during each turn you have a choice of either placing a tile or moving. You agonize as to whether to build a more efficient network or beat your opponent to a strategic node. Similarly each turn provides difficult offense/defense decisions, as you ponder whether to construct the most efficient network for your transport or make life difficult for your space buddy across the board. This becomes even more intriguing as you start roaming the board and picking up scoring counters (which may lead you farther afield).
The space landscape emerges in surprising ways as the rhombs get placed. A neat feature of the placement rules is that rhomb placement sometimes results in a solitary triangle. If you create such a triangle, you get to fill it in with one of nine of your own triangles, which are either devoid of routes, or consist of paths in your color. Rhomb placement that creates solo triangle placements is a crucial tactical maneuver.
I've played Tom Tube about thirty times now and I have just about begun to understand how the paths, rhombs, and triangles all fit together. Nevertheless, with each play the network is entirely different so you have to plan your game accordingly. There is an important random element here, as you usually don't draw the tile you are hoping for (they all seem to be confoundingly misshaped for your purposes). So you must make the best possible use for each tile you draw, and more often than not, the best use is defensive. Similarly, with tactical skill you can set up numerous proximate scoring counters on the nodes and spheres. The random element will annoy the purists, but for those of use who really enjoy games where good thinking prevails, despite the vagaries of faith, there will be no problem.
When we first started playing Tom Tube, the obvious strategy seemed to be to construct the most efficient network and then start moving. But after five games, this didn't work, as the defensive approach seemed to yield more victories. Then we got into a counter collection phase (which ultimately is more a path to temptation than victory) until we realized that we still don't entirely know what we are doing. This is a good thing as it reflects the mystery and depth of an easy to play, colorful game. I, for one, am enamored with games that are fun and reasonably quick to play (under an hour), thought provoking, but accessible, light and deep. Tom Tube scores well in all of these categories. I am sure that people who have played this game one hundred times or more (are there still people out there who play one game so many times?) will be able to name a whole bunch of clever strategies and tactics. Surely that is the mark of a very high quality game.
If you like connection games, especially those in which you have to plan a great route and collect a few goodies along the way, while discouraging your opponent, if you don't mind enough of a random factor to add some mystery and intrigue, if you are intrigued by rhombs, triangles and nifty tessellations, and if you like outer space themes, then you will absolutely adore Tom Tube.
I am pleased to write that I have enjoyed the game immensely and look forward to many more plays. I am glad, too, that the designers have advanced the connection game genre with their original shapes and scoring mechanisms. Let this be another node in the network of emerging connection games!
- Mitchell Thomashow