Pentago

Reviewer Reviewed On Publisher Designer Published In Rating
March 27, 2006 Mindtwister AB Thomas Floden 2005 8.5
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I distinctly remember that crushing moment as a child when I first realized that Tic-Tac-Toe would always end in a tie when played "correctly". Before that moment, we had debated as kids as to what the best strategy was, but it turned out to be a fruitless task. Still, the idea of Tic-Tac-Toe was intriguing, and I spent many an hour in one of my college classes, trying to make a form that worked well. I came up with some interesting ideas, but none of them felt "right". Then, just a couple weeks ago I received Pentago (Mindtwister, 2005 - Tomas Floden), which appeared to be a variation on the game - but with a twist, literally.

Pentago, a game in which players attempt to get five in a row, is only a simple step up from Tic-Tac-Toe; but the fact that players can twist a section of the board makes it much more interesting and fun. I've lost count of the number of times I've played it, and even yesterday, my wife and I had a "best out of seven" matchup. Pentago is one of the simplest abstract strategy games that I've ever taught yet offers enough depth and fun, not to mention an extremely short playing time, that I'll be glad to play it dozens of times in the future.

The board is made up of four sections - each a three by three grid into which marbles can be placed. One player takes white marbles; the other takes the darker marbles (colors differ from version to version). One player is chosen to go first, and then players simply take turns.

Turns are very simple: a player places a marble on any open position, then twists one of the four sections ninety degrees. A player must twist a section, unless a "neutral" block is still around (a neutral block is a section with either no marbles on it, or only one marble in the central position). As soon as one player gets five marbles of their type in a row - either by twisting or placing, they win the game! Ties are possible, either by a row of both players being finished simultaneously or all the marbles being used. Gameplay is so short that players can play a match of games (like best out of three, etc.), to determine the ultimate victor.

Short rules, huh? On to my comments…

1.) Components: Pentago has some of the nicest components of an abstract game that I've seen in a long while, rivaling those from Pin International - a company well known for high quality abstract games. There are three different editions of Pentago, two in solid birch, and the other in solid oak. Two of the sets use black and white marbles with natural colored wood, while the third uses black and red painted wood with red and white marbles. My edition is the oak version, and it's incredibly durable and well designed. There is a bottom wood piece with metal dividers on the top of it. Each of the four block sections slide easily into place on top of this piece, one in each corner, with the metal dividers keeping them in place. The wooden blocks have indentions in them to hold the marbles, which are nice glass marbles, each color stored in a little wooden case lined with felt. Everything fits snuggly together in a small (but heavy) box. Pentago has some incredible components and is an excellent candidate for a "coffee table" game - one that you leave set up because it's so beautiful.

2.) Rules: There is a page of rules inside the box lid, which is really all that you need, but an eleven page rulebook that not only gives the rules in slight more detail (read above - do you think they can even add that much?) but also six pages of strategy. Anyone can learn this game from young children to adults, and it's a tremendous candidate for my logic games day in my math classes. It's very simple to learn but offers a depth beyond its simplicity.

3.) Strategy: Please don't misunderstand me; I do not mean to imply that the game rivals Chess or Go with their thousands of strategies. In fact, the basic strategy guide lists the four different ways to connect five marbles in a row, showing examples of each and how to set them up. Even with how interesting this is; it's trivial compared to much deeper games. However, what thrills me about Pentago is that one does not have to put in the energy (read: years) that games like Go require; the strategy is much easier to fathom in Pentago. When I first teach it to players, they immediately catch on quickly; but I can defeat them, because I know what to watch for. A play between people with dozens of games under their belt (ie. my wife and I) can take a long time, as we feint and counter-feint with our moves.

4.) Twisting: The whole game revolves around the twisting. I don't think I've ever seen a game in which a player simply placed a marble and won; it's by twisting a section to connect a row of five. A good player can make it so that the other player is trapped and can't stop him no matter which way he twists a block. And unlike some abstract games, there is no back and forth in Pentago. It's possible that, by twisting a block a certain way, I'll win; but my opponent twists it the other way, then I twist it back on my turn, etc. Instead of turning into a stalemate, however, players are also placing marbles at the same time, so the game will most likely end another way anyway!

5.) Fun Factor: A month or so ago, I wrote an article on what makes a game fun for me. One of the factors was the "aha!" moment, when you make a great move, or win the game in a swift action. Pentago is full of those moments, when you rotate a block to complete five that your opponent had no clue, or you trap them into a position in which you can only win. My favorite "aha!" moment is when one player is on the verge of victory, and sits back smugly, and then watches in horror as the opponent rotates their way to victory. And because games are so quick, you can have several of these moments in a fast series of games!

The advertising brochure for Pentago states that it's "more fun than a rollercoaster!" That, dear readers, is an exaggeration, because I have ridden rollercoasters; and they are much more fun. However, I will place Pentago as one of the best games that I've played in 2006 - and may be the game I play the most - simply because it's so easy and fast. I've fallen in love with this little gem and feel the urge to play another series of games with my wife right now!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"