Thump? Thunk? Thwap? Thud!

2 02 2009

If you’re unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld novels, you may not find this post as immediately compelling, but the game Thud, based on a Discworld book, is interesting and requires no knowledge of the books to enjoy. Also, if you’re not familiar with these books, you should seek to rectify that- they’re easily some of the best fiction to have been written in the last decade. They’re known in this country as humorous fantasy but that’s really selling them short. Yes, the characters include witches and trolls and werewolves, but the novels are far more accurately categorized as contemporary satire, pointing out our foibles ranging from the everyday and commonplace to issues as big as the Iraq war.  Some of the recent editions are even downright somber in tone, though not without the occasional incredibly clever pun. Suffice it to say Pratchett is a master storyteller and everyone owes it to themselves to indulge in his world.

OK, enough with the prologue. Thud, created by Terry Pratchett and Trevor Truran, is an apparently chess-like board game based on the game of the same name which has appeared in multiple Discworld novels, particularly Thud! itself, wherein as you might guess, the game is rather a major plot point. The American edition of the game I acquired is quite nice with well-made and attractive components. There are no silly Discworld logos plastered all over the game. The game is instead presented as it is in the book: as an authentic game crafted within the Discworld itself. The board looks like an old fashioned style chess board, albeit with 8 sides, with worn printing and fleur-de-lis a-plenty. The pieces are made of cast porcelain and painted to both look and feel reasonably as though they were carved from rock. The overall presentation is quite nice and gives the game a respectable character, enhancing the play experience.

The game is packaged with one basic set of rules as well as a minor variation for quicker play. After my initial reading of the rules and first gaming session I’m given to feeling that these rules are a bit flawed, for a few reasons, but most significantly being that the game only ends in a draw, upon which both players must agree. However, there is an active online community of Thud! players and many strategy guides and alternate rules have been developed, leading me to feel that the game will hold up for the persistent player.

A full game of Thud! consists of two rounds, with the players switching roles, playing once each as the trolls and dwarves. The eight-sided game board starts out with the 32 dwarves limning the perimeter and the 8 trolls huddled at the center, surrounding the fixed “Thud-stone” piece, which is merely an obstacle in the standard game rules. The pieces each have two kinds of moves: movement and capture. Dwarves can move like a queen in chess, as far in any direction as they like. However they can only capture a troll by building up a line of dwarves which must be greater than the number of empty squares between the dwarf-line and troll in question. The dwarves then capture said troll by launching their lead dwarf at the troll, knocking it out and then occupying its vacated square. Dwarves can only launch when it results in a capture. Trolls can move like a king in chess, only one square in any direction. However, when they move next to any number of dwarves, they capture all dwarves occupying the 8 squares surrounding that troll. Trolls also have a launching move, called shoving, which they can perform only when it results in a capture. Trolls launch by building a line such that the line is equal to or greater than the number of squares the lead troll is going to traverse in the shove, ultimately landing on a square next to one or more dwarves and capturing them all. So the trolls initially seem far more powerful than the dwarves, despite their lumbering slowness. And indeed they are. It’s up to the dwarf player to group his dwarves into a square or rectangle as quickly as possible, from which position they can begin picking off trolls one by one. The match ends when both players agree to a draw, (or after a predetermined number of moves,) and is scored by the number of pieces left on the board, with the dwarves worth one point each for the dwarf player and the trolls worth 4 points each for the troll player. The players total their scores from both matches, with the player with the most points winning the game.

My friend David and I played our first game together the other day. I started as the dwarves and he as the trolls. Being our first game, we definitely learned alot from each other about how to use the other’s pieces when it came time to switch roles for the second match. Having the trolls for the second round, and strongly suspecting that the dwarves have a steeper learning curve, I managed to score more points in the second match, and ultimately winning the game. David and I both felt the game was an enjoyable two hours spent, but we did find something lacking from the initial experience. I’m sure that with experience the game will become much more fairly balanced and that some of the alternate rule-sets will also be quite entertaining. However, I play quite a lot of games, (and drag David along with me,) and having to devote many hours and several gaming sessions to Thud! just to get it to a well-balanced and fully enjoyable state does not bode well for it’s future presence on the game table in my living room. We’ll undoubtably give it many more tries, as it was an enjoyable game, but it’s my personal preference that a game feel fully rich and realized within the first one or two plays.

Thud is published by The Cunning Artificer.