Nick Bentley‘s Catchup is a game that I’ve only recently played, but that has captured my imagination in a big way. If you’ve read this blog for any significant amount of time then you might have noticed that I like to talk about programming languages and the process of creating them. With this in mind it should come as no surprise that the reason that I admire the game Catchup is that Mr. Bentley has written quite extensively about its design, creation, and evolution. Indeed, most of his thoughts about game design, with some surgical use of sed, could effectively stand-in for discussions on programming language design. I’ve talk about this kind of synchronicity before, but no where is it more apparent than in Bentley’s writing.1
In a nutshell, Catchup is the epitome of elegance in game design. It’s a medium-weight game of abstract strategy meaning that it’s not as complicated as Chess or Go, but it’s got more to offer than say Connect 4, Dots and Boxes, or even Kamisado (IMO). I’ve fallen for Catchup in a big way, and I want to share this joyful game with you.
That said, it’s probably worth talking a little about how to play the game. I’ve found it very easy to teach, so allow me to try here.
Caveat emptor: I am a rank beginner at Catchup. My goal with this post is to expose a great game and hope others find it compelling enough to explore themselves.
What you need to play
You can print out a Catchup board with a scoring track or just use the iOS app (discussed later). If you go with the meatspace board then you’ll need some small Go stones or beads of two different colors, 30 of one color and 31 of the other.
Catchup is a connection game of majority control on a hexhex5 board2 (see the image above) with a very simple set of rules:
- The first player of the game places 1 stone
- On each subsequent turn a player can place 1 or 2 stones
- If the size of their largest group grows or becomes the largest group on the board as a result of their placement(s) then the other player may place up to 3 stones on the next turn
When the board is full the game ends.
And that’s it!
note: The image above has a scoring track around the game board that’s used to track the size of the largest group for each player.
The player with the largest group at the end wins. If there’s a tie for the largest group then the next largest determines the winner, or the next largest if again there’s a tie, all the way down to the final group.3 Ties in Catchup are not possible.
Amazingly this simple ruleset belies the fact that the game is quite deep. In my plays so far at the tabletop and on the phone/tablet have revealed hints of Hex and Y with a similar feel to the timing tension that I get when playing Battle Line.
Should I connect now? If I don’t I might get cut off there… But if I do I’ll reveal my plan…
Catchup in your devices
Lately I’ve been playing Catchup on my phone against people around the world (full disclosure, I appear to be the worst player in the world). Early this month an adaptation of Catchup was released for iOS systems for $1.99. The app looks like this on my phone:
One of the cool things about this app is that it will adjust its own skill level to match your play. That is, at the beginning it plays very poorly, but after a few wins it’s quite challenging. Indeed, I’ve plateaued a bit at level 13 and bounce back and forth between 12 and 13. This is fine by me because it allows me to always play an AI at my level. This is a nice feature given that Catchup itself does not have an obvious handicapping mechanism like Go. I suppose that one could lay extra stones in the beginning, but I suspect the nature of the game would change too much for that to be viable.
This adjusting skill feature is almost worth the price alone given that, in my experience, most game apps have three settings: stoopid, laughable, and impossible.
Simple strategies and observations
While I mentioned that Catchup doesn’t have a natural handicapping mechanism, it does have a… ah hem… catch up mechanism. That is, the rule that allows someone to place three stones instead of two allows the trailing player to get close to the leader quicker than the leader can widen the gap. If this is done properly then a player can intentionally trail right up to a critical moment where they can pull ahead for the lead. This is easier said than done. The whole game is a delicate balance between trailing and embiggening (a technical term that I just made up) groups. I still haven’t quite figured it out. I played the designer once and he made it look super easy, but that’s how those things go I suppose.
That said, there are basic patterns that help to maximize your group growth potential while also minimizing your opponent’s. They are as follows:
The designer, Nick Bentley has written more information about basic Catchup strategies than I can include here.
Catchup, unlike Homeworlds before is a game with very simple rules that work together towards deeper implications. I suppose you could say that it’s a “1-minute to learn, a lifetime to master” kind of games, but that’s not to imply that it requires a lifetime of study to master like Chess and Go. Instead, it’s a relatively new game, so its depths have yet been plumbed. This is an exciting opportunity from my perspective. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Catchup is a beautiful idea.
Consider trying it out.
The term hexhex5 means that the board itself is a hexagon composed of smaller inner hexagons, five on each side. ↩