Oliver Games, £19.95
Designed by Oliver Cockell
2-4 Players, about 30-45 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
PinPoint is in some ways the archetypal British game. Oliver Cockell has designed an outstandingly good game which, for the usual reasons, he has been obliged to produce and market himself. Unusually, both of these roles have been performed well and PinPoint is already moving well in the big stores. Whether the game will receive the overall success and critical acclaim it deserves is difficult to say there still seem to be strange forces at work in the UK game industry. What is certain is that, for the fan of abstract games or the casual gamer, this one is a must purchase and all those that played it at Essen, where it completely sold out, would surely agree.
There is no denying that PinPoint is an abstract game. It is played on a ten by ten grid which is represented by a hundred holes in a plastic base. Into these recesses are played pieces that resemble large pill capsules, being half black and half coloured. These are known as pins. Unlike most games, you are not a 'colour' from the start of the game. Each turn, both players take one piece of each of the four colours. By playing these into the grid, either singly or in combination with others already in place, you aim to score points each turn. After twelve turns each, the highest cumulative score is the winner.
At its simplest, you score one point for placing a pin in a hole. Play it next to another pin of the same colour (horizontally or orthogonally) and you score two points. This rule is valid for lines up to five pins in length. Six or more, hard to achieve for reasons explained below, score ten. You can also score points for crosses and squares of four or nine pins. There are bonus points on offer when these shapes are formed over one of the ley lines that criss-cross the board or, in the case of the squares, exactly in the middle of one of the nine regions delineated by the said lines.
There are two clever tweaks that really make the game intriguing. Firstly, and most original, is the fact that when a line of six pins is completed anywhere on the board, the pins are removed from the board and re-inserted with their black side uppermost. Logically, this prevents further scoring on that line or in neighbouring areas. As the game goes on, particularly with an open or beginners game, large areas of the board can turn black and fascinating walls can develop that block expansion. This is one reason for playing your jokers early, so as to maximise their potential. A joker is simply the opportunity to replace one colour pin in your hand with another colour, giving you, say, two purples. This of course doubles the chance of a big score in that round and timely and effective play of your two jokers is vital.
I find it quite difficult to describe every feeling that PinPoint engenders. It has a bit of Go, some Othello, a hint of Connect 4, a sprinkling of Scrabble and a lot of pattern recognition a la Rudi Hoffman, but there is an overriding, novel game system here. The indescribably important factor, for me, is the lack of look-ahead required by the game. I know many can do it; I can't. PinPoint requires just one or two move's foresight at most. Ahh, bliss. This means it shares the same quality as Fibonacci that makes a heavily abstract game playable by most everyone I should think kids could quite happily play with adults. Actually far more important to good play is the ability to see the patterns and layout of the whole board and spot scoring opportunities and potential loopholes in your defence.
This constant attack/defence symmetry encapsulates the game quite well. From turn one onwards you have to strike a balance between scoring points and giving away even bigger scores to your opponent. The extension of any line, or forming a small square, will inevitably give a chance to the other side to exploit for a big single turn score. Add in the jokers and the potential swing is even greater. The partial way around this is to block vacant ends using a pin of a different colour, probably one that offers little scoring potential elsewhere. This will restrict your points for that turn, but at the same time effect damage limitation. The really clever aspect is that if tight defensive play works, forcing a mistake, it is often possible to benefit two turns down the line. Consequently, the equilibrium of offence and defence needs to be constantly monitored fail in this and the game can gradually drift away.
This is a game with depth to spare. I have played around ten games, mainly two player but with a couple of four player outings, and each time I learn something new and need to try new tactics. Oddly, this is not a game like Chess in which you try set attacks or defensive ploys, it is more a reactive system every game immediately unfolds in a different way and it is up to you to use the developing patterns to advantage. Some games somehow feel 'tight' with points commensurately hard to obtain, while others are fast and loose with great rolling plays and much use of jokers. I am confident that PinPoint is a system offering plenty of gameplay.
PinPoint is superbly produced, featuring injection moulded plastic pins in four attractive colours, in a striking box, and the whole impact is impressive. My sole moan is that the lines are a little hard to distinguish in anything less than direct light, but that is a small problem. What does intrigue me is that the game components beg to be used in both variants and completely new games. Anyone familiar with Parker's Orion will know how much potential there can be in this type of game. The rule book is perfectly straightforward and clearly shows the signs of care and professional editing. The game is accordingly easily learned (most of my opponents have been up and running in minutes) but of course there is virtually limitless strategy to learn and each game seems to provide new clues.
And that's about it. PinPoint is perfectly executed, suitably deep and a real challenge to play well. I'd say it is more fun with four playing as partners, as it tends to be a bit more chaotic and social, but it is at its best with two for those head down, serious thinking sessions (as you would expect). Easily holding its own with such outstanding games as Fibonacci, Chamelequin and Quick, it has just right length and weight for the market it is targeting. PinPoint is an excellent game and I recommend it highly.
On to the review of Lord Carter's Sack O' Bricks or back to the review of La Trel.
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