Here at Kubiya games we love our classics, and there are few games older than the strategy game Go. It's a great game with a following as large as its pedigree, but it's nearly impossible to discuss Go without comparing it to chess. You'll occasionally hear people say that Go is more complex than chess, or more difficult to master. Hearing game enthusiasts argue about the merits of the two might make you think of fans rooting for their favorite sports team, but it’s more than just opinion. Whether or not it makes for a better game, the claims of greater complexity, at least, are valid.
Easier to Learn, but More Complex?
It's not an obvious comparison to make. Go’s fewer rules and identical pieces (called “stones”) actually make it easier to learn at first, but the complexity that arises from those simple rules far exceeds that of chess. As a small example, chess pieces come in six varieties, each with their own rules for moving and capturing. Go stones are entirely identical, and only capture as a group surrounding the opponent. At the start of a chess game there are 20 possible moves, while the start of a Go game has 361. Critics have argued that it’s mostly about the board, or “goban”; surely chess on a 19 by 19 board would also turn into a battle on many fronts just the same way that Go does. These criticisms are only partly true: Go on an 8*8 goban would still have over three times the opening moves of chess, because there’s no movement for the stones to restrict.
The relative simplicity of Go also lends itself to small adjustments, such as the handicap system where a stronger player grants a weaker one a number of “handicap stones” to offset the difference in skill. There’s no clear parallel in chess because there value of stones vary so much, especially in different positions. When handicaps are even considered in chess, they are usually some abstract commitment to “go easy on” someone or determined ad-hoc among the players.
Two Rules, Unlimited Strategy
“a few simple rules combine into a large array of heuristics and strategies”
Go’s status as a strategy game is all the more impressive that it is extrapolated from only two rules: The rule of liberty (to remain on the goban, every stone must have at least one orthogonal space open, or must be part of a connected group that has at least one such "liberty") and the ko rule (stones must never repeat a previous position of stones). Almost every other rule of Go can be derived from the application of these two fundamental rules. In this way, it is similar to many Japanese logic puzzles, such as Kakuro, Nurikabe and Hashiwokakero (Bridges). In all these cases, a few simple rules combine into a large array of heuristics and strategies in practice.
In the same vein, the levels of complexity for a game of Go are staggering despite the simplicity of the rules. There are “ladders” and “ladder breakers,” “nets” and “snapbacks,” all means of capturing a group of stones. Groups of uncaptured stones can be considered “alive,” “dead,” or “unsettled,” leading to “life or death” conflicts that are as complex as any chess paradox. Go players talk about how many “eyes” a group has, and about the state of “seki” or “mutual life” as if it was acceptable to have a stalemate on the board while the rest of the game proceeded to conclusion.
The Game of Scholars
When it started in China, Go was called Yi, and later became known as Qi, one of the "four arts" of the ideal scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy (shu), painting (hua) and playing the guqin (qin). In this, Qi was sometimes contrasted with Xiangqi (Chinese chess), which was seen as more the pursuit of commoners. The rules were passed on verbally, rather than being written down, but it did eventually spread to Korea and Japan. The first references are obscure enough that we don’t know if the game started as a way to teach discipline to the emperor’s son, or as a way to map out attacking positions for battles, or even as a way to divine the weather. We do know that it was played on a 17 by 17 board, the 19 by 19 one coming later. It's now called weiqi in China, Go in Japan, and Baduk in Korea, but hasn't seen the Western expansion of chess.
Ironically, the variety of pieces is probably the biggest factor in the spread of chess throughout the Western world, at least during the Middle Ages: in order to tell pieces apart, they had to be sculpted differently. In many Middle Ages sets, each one was a work of art, making chess sets expensive gifts that anyone could appreciate as miniature statuary, even before accounting for rare materials like ivory. To this day, many houses in America and Europe display expensive chess sets that never get played, just as a status symbol or conversation piece. The most expensive Go sets are known for their solid gobans carved on tables made from a single tree trunk, and elaborate “goke” bowls for holding the stones, but there’s nothing there to impress someone who doesn’t already love the game.
There is No MVP
Likewise, the two games may appeal to different cultures. Social psychologists classify Asian cultures as collectivist, meaning they identify the goals and achievements of the family or community above those of the individual. Western cultures do the reverse, focusing on the actions of superstars rather than bands, athletes over teams, and individual business leaders rather than companies. It's pretty easy to see how the two games reflect these values: not only does chess have a variety of unique individual pieces, but most chess games have an "MVP," such as the queen or rook who smashes the defenses and takes piece after piece. While a Go strategy might temporarily rely on a stone in a critical position, any stone could play that role, and since it can’t move, each stone relies upon a team in a way that chess pieces never will.
Whatever the reason, Go hasn't caught on yet in the Western world, but there's still time for it to spread. If you have a game enthusiast who can see past the simple appearance, check out our version. It may not be sculpted from a single tree trunk, but it’s very similar to the travel versions found all throughout Asia: a folding goban with green felt inside to hold the black and white stones in simple goke. Great for someone looking for a new challenge or seeking a connection to the Asian heritage and culture.
Thanks as always for spending time with us here at Kubiya. Be sure to comment below with your experiences and thoughts about Go.
By Matthew Barrett