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How Abalone Works

How to Play the Game of Abalone

The equipment needed to play Abalone is pretty minimalistic. Basically, all it takes is a hexagonal (six-sided) board with 61 circular spaces, and 28 marbles, half in black and half in white [source: Abalone]. The rules are so simple that Foxmind, the game's current manufacturer, boasts that "they can be learned by almost anyone within a minute or two" [source:].

In an informal game, you can start out with the marbles arranged however you want on opposite sides of the board. But in tournament play, players begin by putting their marbles in what is known as the "Belgian daisy" configuration. In that setup, each player's marbles are arranged in a hexagon, with the black marbles in the left-hand corner and the white ones on the right [source:].

After that, the players take alternate turns. Each player can move either a single marble or a column of marbles (that is, two or three marbles of the same color that are adjacent and arranged in a straight line) one space at a time. Marbles can be moved either forward or diagonally in any direction. The one exception is that in a "side-step" move, in which marbles are moved sideways into adjacent free spaces, they cannot be used to push an opponent's single marble or column [source: Abalone]. The sidestep move is also known as a "broadside" [source:].

Essentially, you win the game by pushing the other player's marbles back, sending them to unoccupied spaces and eventually off the board completely to the rim, where they're no longer in play. The trick, though, is that a single marble can't push an opponent's marble. To do that, you need numerical superiority, a situation called a "sumito." In that situation, a player's column faces a lesser number of the opponent's marbles, giving him or her advantage. A player can then use a column of three black or white marbles to push one or two of the opponent's marbles one space, or a column of two to push one of an opponent's marbles back a space. If the opponent has a column of three marbles, it can't be pushed at all, even if a player has four marbles in a row [source: Abalone].

That's pretty much it, except for local variations that players may come up with on their own. Seems simple, right? But Abalone can also be devilishly complex, as we'll explain in the next section.