SHŌBU Review: A Better Chess?

Overview

SHŌBU was a strange experience for me. I prefer heavier games, and SHŌBU is about as far from heavy as you can get. The rules can be summed up with a single page. Chess is a fairly good comparison. Except SHŌBU is even simpler than chess as there’s only one type of “game piece” so to speak.

You can be ready to play within 30 seconds of setting the game on the table for the first time, and yet, in spite of its lightweight, it seriously hurts your brain, or at least it does mine. That’s because of how SHŌBU uses its pure simplicity in a completely non-standard way. In Chess, you have to plan many moves ahead despite its relatively simple nature.

A close up perspective view of SHŌBU

in SHŌBU you have to do the same thing, but those plans and moves have to factor into a special kind of spatial movement, where the piece you’re moving, isn’t always the piece you’re intending to move.

I liken the experience to how I felt when I attempted (and failed) to learn to draw. The way you have to train your brain to see shapes, and how they relate to other shapes to form a picture from a bunch of lines gave me the same kind of light-headedness as SHŌBU did when I was still wrapping my head around how it worked.

Bias & Information

Review Copy Used: Yes                                  Genre: Abstract Strategy
Number of Plays: 10+                                   Player Count: 2 Players Only
Player Counts Played: 2                                Weight: Light
Fan of Genre: No                                       Publisher: Smirk & Laughter
Fan of Weight: No                                      Designer: Manolis Vrana, Jamie Sajdak
Abbee's Thoughts: Liked it                             Price $29.99

SHŌBU’S Components

Like the rest of the game, the components in SHŌBU are somewhat of a contradiction, simple, but also not. It essentially boils down to the fact their high quality.

You get four custom-cut wooden boards that look and feel fantastic. A length of knotted rope for dividing the play area and two sets of literal stones. They may be plucked from a river, but the stones are polished extremely well and give off a great natural beauty.

You don’t get much in the box itself. But everything you get has a very warm and classic feel to them, even though SHŌBU was just released in 2019. It’s difficult to judge its value purely by the components, as they may be few in number but are by no means cheaply made. On one hand, the game pieces are just rocks, but they are damn fine rocks at that.

Gameplay

SHŌBU is a two-player game where the goal is to knock the other players’ stones from a single board. You can use your stones to push their stones, and if you push one off the side of a board, it’s gone forever. While that might sound simple, the devil is in the details. The four boards aren’t simply for show.

Two of the boards on one side of the rope are yours, while the other two belong to your opponent. They all have stones on them that belong to you both.

The tricky part comes in how you actually move the stones. On your turn, you actually move two stones. One on your own board, and then one on a board that’s a different color from the board you just moved a stone on. That second stone must follow the exact same movement as your first stone and can push an opposing stone when it does. Your first move can’t push stones at all.

A view of SHŌBU fully set up.

It becomes a tangled web of actions very quickly. Your initial moves might be moving two of the stones the exact same way, but any of your stones on your board can be used to move any of your stones on two of the other boards. This means that the relative placement of your and the other players’ stones ends up being completely different as the game progresses.

You might be able to move one of your passive stones in a direction, but the stone you want to move on the other board can’t move in that direction at all. At the same time, you have several options for each turn between the two sets of boards and your stones on all of them

Furthermore, your stones are being targeted by your opponent. You have to balance moving your stones in a defensive manner to prevent them from being knocked off, while also making moves to put pressure on your opponent and eventually win the game.

A mid game view of SHŌBU.

The design is nothing short of brilliant and is incredibly elegant. The evolving web of moves makes the game unpredictable and forces you to adapt to the fact you aren’t planning only planning moves ahead of time. You’re planning how to move those moves in the first place while balancing the delicate nature of protecting your own stones while attacking your opponents

SHŌBU captures the engaging nature of Chess where you have to carefully sacrifice some pieces to win, with an elaborate movement mechanic that half feels like you’re playing through multiple dimensions. It’s a clever cerebral duel of skill between two players that makes it’s hard to believe you’re just simply moving rocks a space or two each turn.

Verdict

SHŌBU’s mechanical design is astonishingly simple but hides an incredibly skillful game beneath its veneer. The abstract twin-pronged movement rules extract an incredible degree of depth from a wooden board and sets of river stones.

My partner and I had the pleasure of speaking to Curt. The owner of Smirk & Laughter, and Smirk & Dagger at Origin’s Game Fair. He passed us SHŌBU, and as he described it, he said that the “game feels almost like it was discovered, not made.”

After playing it, I’m inclined to agree. SHŌBU very much feels like a game that would have been played in the ancient past. It could stand alongside ancient classics such as Senet, Go, and Mancala, and I mean that in the best way.

My Perspective

It’s hard not to appreciate everything that SHŌBU is, as well as everything that it isn’t. It’s a modern game that falls outside of modern conventions without feeling dated in any way. I think it could easily stand beside classics such as Chess on equal footing, but there is a caveat there. I don’t play or have any interest in Chess.

Let me be clear. This fault is entirely a simple mismatching of tastes and nothing more. SHŌBU is brilliant. I just prefer heavier less abstract games. There are two kinds of depth, one that comes from a massive variety of interlinking systems, and variables. And then one that comes from a relatively simple set of mechanics with a high skill ceiling. I prefer the former, and SHŌBU falls into the latter.

So, despite the praise I’ve given it, SHŌBU won’t hit my table all that often. But I’ll still enjoy the brain ache whenever it does. It’s also not a game that will ever leave my collection as it has a very distinct itch that it scratches should the mood strike me, rare though it may be.

Anyone with even a passive interest in games like Chess, Shogi, and the like should certainly give SHŌBU a try. There’s very little to criticize, and even less if you’re already a fan of abstract games.

A copy of the game was provided for me for review purposes.

Reviewers Note

SHŌBU serves as a wonderful example of why I recently dropped review scores. Concepts such as being Light or Abstract aren’t actual flaws, even if I don’t prefer them. I’m still able to enjoy and appreciate SHŌBU as a game even though it doesn’t match my tastes. Any numerical score wouldn’t make sense.

A high one would be a misrepresentation of my personal tastes, and a low one would be penalizing it for daring to exist outside of my narrow spectrum of personal preferences. My experience with games means that even if I’m not madly in love with it, the fact that it’s so well designed means I can point it out to those who will love it.

Support me On Ko-Fi

Pros

  • Exceptionally simple to learn, but very challenging to master
  • Beautiful and well-made natural components
  • An extremely clever spatial movement system

Cons

  • I found nothing with the game that I truly consider a flaw.

Who Would Like Shobu?

  • Fans of Chess, Shogi, Hive, and Onitama might enjoy SHŌBU as they have a lot in common with how they play.
  • Fans of Abstracted Games won’t mind SHŌBU’s lack of theme
  • If you want a light game with deep strategy SHŌBU has that in spades
  • If you want a game with an incredibly fast setup and tear down. SHŌBU takes less than a minute to do either.

Who Wouldn’t Like Shobu?

  • If you prefer games with a lot of gameplay variety. SHŌBU doesn’t have that.
  • If you don’t enjoy abstracted games, SHŌBU is just stones, wooden boards and a rope. There’s no theme