How Pentago Works


If Connect Four had a baby with Go, this is approximately what it'd look like. See more pictures of popular games and toys.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

When my brothers and I were young, my dad built a four-tiered vertical marble run out of wood and painted it red. The game was simple but fascinating, and I spent hours placing marbles at the top and watching them race down each angled chute to a collection tray at the base. I've loved every game that involves marbles ever since, including a more recent entry into the marble game market: Pentago.

Pentago features a board comprised of four rotating quadrants with a total of 36 divots designed to nest the black and white marbles that serve as game pieces. Turn by turn, players compete to create a row of five marbles by placing one marble on the board per turn.

Although this may seem like an effortless objective, players must contend with the added challenge of continually moving marbles: After placing each marble, the players must rotate one of the four quadrants 90 degrees in either direction (with a couple exceptions, which we'll explain in another section), and this adds layers of action, suspense and spatial challenge to the game. You can go from the edge of defeat to the verge of victory with each turn. And because Pentago is a fast-moving game that can be played in a matter of minutes, and since it lends itself to best-out-of-five-type tournaments, these dramatic moments come fast and frequent.

Recommended for ages 6 and older, Pentago has been compared to other games that are easy to learn but difficult to master. For example, the game of Go, whose origins can be traced back thousands of years to the palaces of China and plains of Tibet, has only a handful of rules. However, it can take a lifetime to fully explore the nearly unending strategies of game piece placement as you strive to control the most territory and conquer your opponents. And SET, a pattern-recognition card game with a complex substructure built on mathematical principles, offers a similarly fast learning curve with layers of complexities.

The Invention of Pentago

Here's something to think about the next time you have to sit through an exceptionally boring meeting: Why not invent an award-winning board game?

That's exactly what Swede Tomas Floden did in 2003 during a meeting at the firm where he worked as an account analyst specialist. He and his friends enjoyed playing the game so much -- and so often -- that within a year they'd formed a company, Mindtwister AB, to produce and market the game in Sweden. If it hadn't been for a Christmas gift, however, Pentago may never have become a household favorite in the U.S.

In 2005, Mathias Ringstrom, an expatriate and professional skateboarder living in the U.S., returned to his childhood home in Stockholm for a winter holiday. However, when Ringstrom, a professional skateboarder, opened a Christmas present from his mother, he thought it must be a mistake. Although the game exhibited the hallmarks of Scandinavian design, including clean lines and a well-proportioned aesthetic, it appeared to be made for a child.

Ringstrom's mother quickly proved him wrong as he lost a series of Pentago challenges to her -- he then spent much of his two-week holiday puzzling over potential strategies. By the time Ringstrom returned to southern California, he was hooked. He introduced the game to Tony Mag, a fellow expat and pro skateboarder who, like himself, had experience developing and marketing products for the youth action sports market. Before long, they'd contacted Floden's company and reached a licensing agreement to manufacture, market and sell the game in North America. It seemed like a natural progression -- after all, Mag had already replicated a hand-built copy of the game in his garage so that he and Ringstrom didn't have to share their single official copy.

Under the umbrella of Mindtwister USA, they began developing a U.S. version of Pentago. They redesigned the packaging and added a more comprehensive play and strategy guide. Then, without an established network of contacts in the board game industry, the two set up a booth at the New York Toy Fair -- where Pentago drew scores of fans who praised the game for its versatility, both in complexity and player age range. Pentago even garnered the attention of Frank Martin, one of the toy trade's most experienced salesmen, who eventually joined Mindtwister USA in developing a national network of sales representatives and introducing the game to retailers [source: Mindtwister USA].

How to Play Pentago

For the travel edition pictured here, the board's quadrants are attached to the base by sliding, swiveling mechanisms.The spatial reasoning required to plan ahead for quadrant twists will challenge children and adults alike.
For the travel edition pictured here, the board's quadrants are attached to the base by sliding, swiveling mechanisms.The spatial reasoning required to plan ahead for quadrant twists will challenge children and adults alike.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

Like many popular board games (such as Monopoly), the original Pentago game has spawned several variations. There's a travel version, Pentago CE, with a plastic lid to keep the game's marbles in place. Although the game isn't exactly portable enough for playing during a car trip (the marbles and board aren't magnetic, meaning a bump in the road could cause a marble coup), the lid presents a workable option to prevent marbles from running amuck in a backpack or suitcase [source: Mindtwister USA].

To play Pentago anywhere, consider the mobile app for iPhone and Android; it offers solo and dual play. It was developed by UTV Indiagames and released in 2010 by Mindtwister USA [source: Gamasutra]. You can get a feel for the app with the "lite" version, which offers basic play against the computer free of charge, or upgrade to the full version for $1.99 (as of early 2012).

There's also an analog version for up to four players or teams, aptly named Pentago Multiplayer. This game includes nine quadrants of molded, turnable plastic as a playing field; instead of marbles, it uses four colors of disks [source: Mindtwister USA].

Pentago Classic, meanwhile, features a solid wood base outfitted with aluminum dividers to keep the four wood quadrants separated. This game uses a set of 16 black and 16 white marbles for its game pieces. As with all the Pentago variations, the quadrants rotate; however, unlike the other variations, the classic game's quadrants can be removed entirely from the base [source: Mindtwister USA].

Determine which player goes first by hiding a different-colored marble in each fist and asking your opponent to choose one. The marble revealed when you open your hand will be your opponent's color, and he'll make the first move by placing a marble on the empty game board. (Each player's marbles or disks should be all the same color, and if they play a series of games, they should alternate who goes first.)

Players take turns placing one marble in any open space on the board and then rotating a quadrant (any quadrant) 90 degrees in either direction. At the beginning of the game, when only a couple marbles have been placed on the board, turning a quadrant might have little or no effect; thus, turning a quadrant is optional at first. As soon as all the quadrants have more than one marble, however, one quadrant must be turned at the end of each player's turn.

To win the game, be the first to place five marbles in a row -- vertically, horizontally or diagonally, spanning two or three quadrants.

Although a tie game is rare, it can happen if one of two scenarios occurs [source: Pentago]:

  • Players have positioned all their pieces on the board, but none have five in a row.
  • Players get five in a row at the same time. This can happen if one player rotates a quadrant to create a row of five, but in doing so, also creates a row of five for an opponent. (Keep in mind that after you get five in a row, you don't have to finish your turn by turning a quadrant; thus, you can avoid making five of your opponent's marbles line up.)

How to (Not) Lose Your Marbles

Pentago is as much about recognizing your opponent's strategy as it as developing your own. As the game quadrants turn, the composition of the board constantly changes. With each turn, you'll need to decide whether to be on the defensive or the offensive before you place your marble. Your success at Pentago hinges upon strategy more than luck.

If you're new to the game, start with a basic strategy. Try to place three marbles in a row in one quadrant and two in a row in another, which, when you twist the blocks, will line up to create a row of five, hopefully without tipping off your opponent and leading to a blocked line.

According to the Pentago rulebook, there are four variations on this basic strategy. First, we'll take a closer look at the diagonal strategies.

Monica's Five: This five-in-a-row placement runs diagonal across two quadrants and always starts at one corner on the board. It's one of the easiest techniques to master, but also one of the easiest for your opponent to block by simply placing a marble anywhere in the diagonal. Fortunately, the strategy's simplicity can work to your advantage; a masterful opponent may be on guard against more complex strategies and overlook the basic diagonal. (It was named for the girlfriend of one of the game designers who often used this strategy -- and won, much to the designer's chagrin.) To use this strategy, start the game by placing marbles on the center of two quadrants that are diagonal from each other. Proceed by placing three in a row in one quadrant and two in a row in the other quadrant, and then lining them up.

The Triple Power Play: Difficult to defend against and even harder to spot, this strategy is a killer. The goal is to build a diagonal row of five across three quadrants -- two marbles on quadrants that are diagonal from each other and one in the corner of a third quadrant that connects them. Start by picking out such a line on the board -- if you can keep its position in your head, you can quietly fill it in as the game progresses. (This play is perhaps the most tricky when you place that corner marble as your K.O.) Although this strategy may be relatively easy for an advanced player to notice when the board's empty, it becomes nearly impossible to see as the board begins to fill and rotate [source: Pentago].

Pentago Strategies

Whoever's turn it is, someone's about to win -- the player with the white marbles could complete a Triple Power Play, and the player with the black is set to score a Straight Five.
Whoever's turn it is, someone's about to win -- the player with the white marbles could complete a Triple Power Play, and the player with the black is set to score a Straight Five.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

The next two strategies can be built either horizontally or vertically, and as the quadrants rotate, the orientation of your potential five-in-a-row could change mid-game. Both these strategies are powerful, and blocking them will be a challenge to everyone but the most experienced players.

The Middle Five: When used as a backup strategy for the Triple Power Play, the Middle Five can be a winner. The goal is to put five consecutive marbles in the middle row of two adjacent quadrants (three in the middle row of one quadrant, two in the middle row of another quadrant) and then line them up. Beware of opponents who can easily block this play by placing a marble in the center spot of either quadrant. If this happens, try to minimize the damage by shifting to a Triple Power Play instead.

The Straight Five: The Straight Five is a versatile tactic, and the more powerful of the two horizontal/vertical strategies because it's more difficult to defend against. Place three consecutive marbles on the outside row of one quadrant, then place two additional marbles in the outside row of an adjacent quadrant and line them up to create five in a row. If your opponent blocks your marble lineup on one quadrant, simply move on to the other adjacent quadrant [source: Pentago].

In addition to these offensive strategies, you'll want to perfect a few defensive maneuvers. In general, it's a good idea to keep your opponent's two-in-a-row chains from becoming three-in-a-row chains. However, you don't want to spend so many moves on blocking that you forget to build your own lines; the best defensive marble placement is one that can be incorporated into your own five-in-a-row tactic. For example, placing marbles in the center space of each quadrant is one good way to dominate the board -- it will push your opponent to the edges of each quadrant and prevent them from building a Monica's Five, as well as a Middle Five.

And never underestimate the value of psychological warfare, even in such a simple game. Purposefully distracting your opponent during play would be rude, but occasionally, just to be ornery, you could spend a few turns twisting quadrants solely to undo your opponent's previous twist.

Author's Note: How Pentago Works

I played Pentago for the first time while researching this article and it's already on my personal list of top five board games. (Plus, in homage to my childhood, I really do like any game that involves marbles.) Simple as an elementary game of Connect Four, yet nearly as complex as chess, Pentago proves to be a challenge. The more I play it, the deeper my strategy grows. It's commanded so much of our family game time each evening that I'm even thinking about writing a thank you note to Mathias Ringstrom's mother. I'd hate to think what would have happened had she not given him Pentago as a gift and then challenged him to a game.

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Sources

  • Gamasutra. "UTV Indiagames and Mindtwister Bring 'Pentago' for your Mobile Phones and iDevices." Sept. 9, 2010. (March 12, 2012) http://www.gamasutra.com/view/pressreleases/62808/UTV_Indiagames_and_Mindtwister_bring_Pentago_for_yourmobile_phones_and_iDevices.php
  • Mindtwister USA. "A Little Bit of Mindtwisting Pentago History." (March 12, 2012) http://pentago.com/about-us/
  • Mindtwister USA. "Pentago Classic." (March 12, 2012) http://pentago.com/games/pentago-classic/
  • Mindtwister USA. "Pentago CE." (March 12, 2012) http://pentago.com/games/pentago-ce/
  • Mindtwister USA. "Multiplayer Pentago." (March 12, 2012) http://pentago.com/games/pentago-multiplayer/
  • Mindtwister USA. "The Awards." (March 13, 2012) http://pentago.com/the-awards/
  • Newcorn, Claudia. "Pentago Goes Multi-Player, Multi-Dimensional." February 2010. March 13, 2012) TD Monthly. http://www.toydirectory.com/monthly/article.asp?id=4025
  • Pentago. "Strategy Guide." (March 10, 2012) http://pentago.com/pdfs/Strategy_Guide.pdf