Calvin’s Commentaries: Tumbleweed

Regular readers will know when it comes to a preferred style of game I lean heavily toward abstract strategy games; Hive, Arimaa, checkers, and chess among them.

So when a new game comes along in the genre I tend to be drawn to them with some interest.

So it was with Tumbleweed the latest creation by Michal Zapala.

Hailing from Poland, Tumbleweed evolved in many ways out of a life-long love of board games.

“Some of my first memories involve playing Ludo, Draughts, and Snakes & Ladders with my mom: I think I might have learned to play before I’ve learned to read,” Zapala said via email. “And, very early on I’ve decided I want to make games of my own. As a kid I made a lot of generic roll-and-move race games, then as a teen, I started experimenting with Go variants,(one of the ancient classics), and chess variants.

“Few of those attempts were even playable, and none was particularly interesting.”

But as the old saying goes, ‘if at first, you don’t succeed … ‘ and so it was for Zapala.

“My adventure with designing games has only truly begun at the start of this pandemic,” said the 23-year-old. “Being temporarily out of university and not having much else to do, I got fixated on board games to the point where they almost became a full-time activity. I started experimenting with more original ideas, and I discovered the very helpful BGG (Board Game Geek) Abstract sub-forum: soon, results followed.”

A quartet of games have been created, but Tumbleweed appears to hold the creator’s interest most.

“Overall, Tumbleweed is my fourth, and so far final, game that I’m really satisfied with.” he offered. “… I think I’m really satisfied with my current oeuvre. If Tumbleweed was the last game I ever made, I would have no regrets!

Tumbleweed is a two-player game. It is played on a hexhex board and a sufficient supply of stacked checkers. Hexhex-8 is the most common board size, although hexhex-11 is recommended for high-level play.

A stack is said to be “seen” from a hex, when they are connected by a straight line, with no stacks in between.

The players take turns “settling” hexes by placing a stack of their tokens on a hex of their choice. The stack height is equal to the number of your stacks insight of the settled hex. Only hexes that see at least one of your stacks may be settled. Removing a stack occupying a hex and re-settling it with a new stack is possible, as long as the new stack is taller than the previous one. This works with opponent stacks (to capture), or your own stacks (to reinforce).

So, what was the idea which led to the game’s creation?

“Before Tumbleweed, I came up with a combinatorial game named Tore,” explained Zapala. “The goal was to control empty hexes, based on lines of sight: if a hex cell could see more of your own pieces than those of your opponent, you controlled it. The placement was only legal on hexes controlled by neither player.

“Unfortunately, the game had serious flaws: it ended very quickly, and it was almost impossible to determine legal moves — let alone perform any meaningful analysis — without a self-scoring interactive board.”

But, Zapala was not deterred.

“At the time, I was learning to play Amazons, and I was stunned by its architecture. The game is ostensibly a stalemate game, not unlike Draughts: but anyone who played a game or two will tell you it’s actually territorial,” he said. “Territory is never defined in the ruleset, yet it emerges very sneakily as you play.

“I wanted to try the same trick: convert the vulgar, explicit ‘control’ of Tore into something more subtle and emergent. The best way of doing it was with the threat of capture. One very long stream of consciousness later, a promising prototype came to be. Playing it reminded me of the way tumbleweeds spread with the wind, hence the name.

“I was also inspired by fellow inventors of the BGG Abstract sub-forum: most notably Dale Walton, who proposed many territorial games based on lines of sight, and Alek Erickson, whose Benediction made me fall in love with the idea of stacks.”

Ultimately Tumbleweed came into existence as a way to save the work put into Tore from being a waste.

“I wanted it to improve upon Tore, and I had much fun toying with many cool concepts I’ve never successfully used before; hex boards, lines-of-sight, stacks, in such a simple, cohesive package,” offered Zapala.

“But beyond that, I don’t recall having any particular ambitions about it. I only started to take it more seriously after playtesting it with Alek, a skilled designer in his own right: we’ve become good friends and we play test each other’s games very often, but it was the first time I saw him this excited!

“That being said, I had many boardgame-related dreams I wanted to eventually fulfill: a game of mine being available for synchronic online play, a community forming around one of my designs — Tumbleweed gave me all that and many more.”

Interestingly the game developed rather quickly.

“Tumbleweed has a very cohesive rule set: once I came up with the basic idea, very few decisions were left to be made: stuff like board size, balancing protocol, and so on,” said Zapala.

“The game was pretty much finished after two days, but I only announced it as such after more than a month of heavy playtesting. It also gave me time to understand its complex behavior: I’m still far from being a master, but at least I grasp the basics. This is one of the most exciting parts of designing — or perhaps discovering — a game: coming up with something so much ‘smarter’ than yourself!”

The winner in Tumbleweed is the player that occupies the most spaces at the end of the game.

On a turn, you may settle a space by placing a stack of pieces on a space. The number of pieces in the placed stack is the number of spaces occupied by the player in space’s line of sight. If space is occupied, the stack being placed must be larger than the stack already occupying the space.

So the rules for the game played on a hex board are rather simple.

So, what in Zapala’s mind as a designer is the best element of the game?

“Good question,” he replied. “Tumbleweed is a great and ongoing adventure. The community around it is growing slowly but surely, and I keep discovering new tactics and behaviors. Perhaps this in itself is the best thing of all: its ability to keep surprising me on all fronts.

“One thing I particularly like about it is the presence of stacks: I always liked these mechanics, and it’s put to good use here. The stack height almost feels like its ‘health points’: a very modern concept, yet it arises naturally and it serves a very classic territorial goal.”

But, what does the game offer others don’t?

“It’s always hard to compare one’s own game to others, let alone to all others,” offered Zapala. “I feel like the most irritating mistake a rookie designer can make is exclaiming: ‘his is the best game ever!’

“That said, I feel like Tumbleweed has a very unique, ‘syncretic’ aesthetic to it: precisely the reason why it can stand on its own and not compete with well-established classics.

“For instance, some games, like Chess or Draughts, are “piece focused”: your main consideration is the position of each particular piece. Others, like Go or mancala, are ‘group focused’: your main consideration is the groups of pieces and, in particular, each group lives or dies as a whole. Tumbleweed is both and neither: it’s largely (though not entirely) ‘piece focused’ in the opening and early middle game, but becomes more, though not entirely, ‘group focused’ towards the endgame.

“One of the players remarked that it feels “like a mix of Go and Amazons”, and there’s a grain of truth in that. Hearing this, one would expect an overcomplicated Frankenstein monster of a game, but no! – Tumbleweed has a very simple ruleset, and everything feels very natural once you start to play.

So far Tumbleweed exists online only unless someone ‘bodgers’ a game together.

“Tumbleweed is a ‘quarantine child’: the ‘prototype’ was drawn in MS Paint, and all the playtesting was done online. So physical playability wasn’t my top priority, and it shows,” offered Zapala.

“Some people have tried playing it with poker chips, with mixed results: it’s somewhat hard to distinguish stack sizes. Another method is to use bulk dice instead of stacks, with a number of pips signifying height.

“Either way, a Tumbleweed set isn’t very cheap to make, and the game takes longer than in most commercially successful modern abstracts.

“So while I would love to see more over the board game and I feel like Tumbleweed deserves it, I wouldn’t expect any company to take the risk while it’s still largely unknown, and I have neither the resources nor skills to self-publish.

“For now, expanding the game’s online presence feels like the best way! I also like that it’s currently free to play.”

Zapala is putting some effort into the online promotion of the game.

“So far, the game has largely spread by word of mouth,” he related.

“But for such a grassroots, noncommercial effort that’s not even half a year old, I feel like we’re in a good spot: apart from MindSports and IG Game Center, our main playing hub, Tumbleweed can be played on Ludii,, Tabletop Simulator, and Ai Ai. There are a dozen or so active players, and around 20 more casual ones: it’s consistently rated as one of IGGC’s most popular positions, with a few games being played each day.

“But obviously I have an appetite for more! We’d love to see the player base grow, and the game is implemented on more mainstream platforms.

“Ultimately, I’d love the Tumbleweed community to be a few hundred players strong, with a few local playing groups and regular tournaments. I believe this can be done, even in our over-saturated market: for instance, Nick Bentley’s Blooms only came out two years ago and it has over six thousand players.”

The next step will be a tourney.

“The most serious effort we’ve undertaken so far is planning a Tumbleweed tournament for this March, with cash prizes for new players: $100 for the best performance among newcomers, $50 for the runner up, and $20 for a randomly selected participant,” said Zapala. “We hope this will attract some new people. All these prizes are funded out of pocket by the current players, and I’m very touched by their commitment!

“There is also a strategy guidebook in the making …

“Once the game gains more traction, creating some kind of association will be inevitable, for holding official tournaments if nothing else.

“But I will never let ‘Tumbleweed activism’ overwhelm the joy of actually playing the game – after all, the only reason we want to share it with the world is that it’s so much fun.”

Check out Tumbleweeds on the game’s Facebook page.

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