Currents

CURRENTS

A game by Jason McIntosh

Rules as of August 11, 2001

Trouble poses as the pawn.

This game plays kinda like a cross between air hockey and that old Parker Brothers board game Bonkers!, except it allows up to four players, uses a relatively cramped playfield, and contains extra levels of antagonism and randomness.

These rules are beta, and subject to change (though probably not too dramatically), as I continue to playtest them. They appear below in their most current revision. See the Suggested Rule Changes section for some possible further modifications.

Backstory

Off, way way off over the horizon, past the hills and forests and beyond the white sandy beaches, lives a small clan of restless minor seabreeze deities who, bored from the lack of passing ships to vex, pass the time by blowing an old Clorox bottle (which one day happened to float into their domain) back and forth across the sea's glittering surface, in an ephemeral, endless game of catch. After some centuries of this (wind spirits are slow thinkers, but luckily for them the bottle is non-biodegradable) they have developed a game of sorts.

-OR-

Up, way way up over the sky, past the sun and its planets and inside an unnamed nebula, lives a small clan of restless startide godlings who, bored from the lack of passing ships to vex, pass the time by magnetically repelling an old metal space probe (which one day happened to float into their domain) back and forth within the cloud's glittering depths, in an ephemeral, endless game of catch. After some centuries of this (space spirits are slow thinkers, but luckily for them the probe is non-biodegradable) they have developed a game of sorts.


Description

Currents is a game of luck and cunning in which you and your opponents vie to push a pawn off the edge of a checkerboard by laying down playing cards that represent currents which exert an influence on the pawn's movements. Each player tries to nudge the pawn toward his or her own goal line while foiling their opponents' attempts to do the same. Alliances might come and go like the very shifting of the winds as the pawn drifts around, and a crafty (or desperate) player can quickly turn the tables on everyone!

Players

This game probably works best with four players, and acceptably well with two. You could probably play a decent three-player game of Currents using Eeyore's three-sided chessboard, if you and your friends are cool with non-Euclidean geometry.

The rules below assume four players; see the section on Currents for Two for information on playing two-player Currents. A three-player game on a three-sided chessboard should work with the same rules as a four-player game. Show me a two-sided chessboard, and that will obviate the two-player variant, as well. :)

Setup

You need: a checkerboard, a poker deck, and a pawn. The board should be large enough to allow the cards to be played as described below without overlapping one another; an ordinary board with two-inch-wide squares and a pack of standard-sized (2.5 x 3.5 in.) cards works fine.

If you want to add a dash of extra randomness to the game, shuffle a couple of jokers into the deck; optional joker card rules appear below. (This is not meant to imply the game particularly lacks randomness without them.)

Place the pawn in the intersection at the very center of the checkerboard, where the corners of the four central squares meet. The pawn will always be on the various intersections between the squares, and not on the squares themselves.

You also need to make a compass rose, a separate section of the play area with space to hold four cards in a diamond pattern labeled as the four cardinal directions. You can make a quick one on a blank sheet of paper thus, with the X's being spaced far enough apart to let one card sit comfortably on each:

.---------------.
|               |
|       X       |
|               |
|       N       |
|  X   W^E   X  |
|       S       |
|               |
|       X       |
|               |
'---------------'

Separate the four aces from the deck, and lay them aside for now.

Deal three cards to each player. The remaining cards become the draw pile.

Choose someone to go first.

Now, set up the compasss: starting with the player on the first player's right, and then continuing clockwise, each player chooses an ace and places it on one of the empty directions on the compass, so that the first player to do this has a choice of all four aces and directions, the next has three of each to choose from, and the last will have no choice, with just one ace and one unused direction left.

Now the game starts with that player taking the first turn, and continues until the pawn manages to cross someone's goal edge -- the edge of the baord opposite their current seat -- making that someone the winner.


Turns

A turn has two phases: Play, during which a player can play cards from his or her hand to make adjustments to the prevailing currents in some way, and then Move, when the pawn reacts to all currents in play by sliding elsewhere on the board. (Or not, if the conditions so dictate.)

The Play Phase

A player begins his turn by draw cards from the draw pile until she has four cords (usually, this means drawing only one card), and then either playing or discarding a card. There are three ways to play a card: on the compass rose or as a current on the board, both of which influence how the pawn will move during the Move phase, or as an action, which has an immediate effect.

Playing on the Compass Rose

You can place any card (except for the joker) on any one of the four directions (north, east, west, south) on the compass rose, so long as the one of the following is true:

  • The space has no cards on it.
  • The rank of the card on the space is greater than the rank of the card you wish to play.
  • The suit of the card on the space is the same as the suit of the card you wish to play.

In the latter two cases, the new card replaces the old, which moves into the discard pile. Note that this means that one suit can live in more than one space on the compass; in this case, it represents all those directions at once during the move phase.

Playing a Current

The board's border has 16 spaces for currents, four along each side (as pictured here), so that each card supports two rows or columns of squares. You may play any card (except for jokers) on any space, so long as one of the following is true:

  • The space has no cards on it.
  • The rank of the card on the space is less than the rank of the card you wish to play.
  • The suit of the card on the space is the same as the suit of the card you wish to play.

Calling an Action

Face cards are special: not only may they be played as above, but you can also play them as actions, which modify the current state of the game's currents or compass in some way. Action cards are discarded when played.

Jack
discard any one compass point.
Queen
swap any two currents. If the board has empty current spaces, you can swap a card with one, effectively moving that one card.
King
Rotate the compass cards by one space in the direction of your choice. empty slots are also rotated.
Joker
(OPTIONAL, only if you are playing with jokers) Shuffle the compass. Pick up all the cards on the compass rose, mess 'em up without looking, and redeal them into the compass. Any spaces that were empty remain empty, however.

Discarding

If you don't want to play any of the cards in your hand, AND there are NO blank spaces in the compass rose, you may discard one card from your hand.

The Move Phase

The pawn now moves in accordance with any currents that influence its current vector, though sometimes other players can stop it.

Currents and Influences

Each current influences three lines on the board: the two lines that border the two squares under which it lay, and the one line between these two squares. Note that each current space thus shares one or two influence lines with neighboring currents.

To determine which influences a pawn receives during the Move phase, tally the suits of all the currents influencing the pawn's position, which might be as few as none and as many as eight. Then refer to the compass rose to map these suits into a list of directions, tossing out any suits which aren't on the rose at all. Finally, from this list, cross out any pair of directions that directly oppose each other -- i.e., if there's an east and a west, they both cancel out, as do two easts and two wests. Three easts and two wests, on the other hand, will leave one east. The final result describes how the winds blow the pawn around during this turn, and the player finishes his turn by moving the pawn as so listed.

For example, if clubs are north, diamonds are east, and hearts are south, and the pawn's vector receives influence from two hearts, a club, diamond and a spade, then we read this as south-south-north-east (ignoring the spade, which is not on the compass rose, and is therefore a dead current). One of the souths and the north will cancel each other, leaving us with south-east. The pawn will slide one square-length south and one square-length east, ending up in the vector southeast of its current position.

Redundant currents have additive effects! In the previous example, if that club weren't there, the two hearts would work together with the diamond to blow the pawn in an L-shape, two hops south and one east.

If influencing suits lie in more than one position on the compass, than all those directions take effect. If hearts lives in both the east and north spaces, then a pawn influenced by hearts will have both north and east influences. If, on the other hand, hearts appear in the compass's east and west positions, then that suit cancels itself out tidily!

The locations of the influences are irrelevant. A north-pushing current can blow in from the east, or even from the north. (This also explains why two currents originating from the same side of the board and influencing the same line an pull the pawn in two opposite directions!)

The pawn's destination vector may have influences of its own, but they won't take effect until the next Move phase (if they're still around by then). No cascading effects!

Goal Edges and Goaltending

Each player claims one edge of the board as their goal edge; should the pawn slide off the board by way of that edge, that player wins the game... if he can surmount one final obstacle.

If, during any Move phase, the pawn is about to move off the board, thus making someone the winner, the player sitting opposite the would-be victor (and therefore the player sitting directly before the edge about to be breached) can stop it by immediately playing (and discarding) a card from her hand that belongs to the suit opposite of the offending current. This will cancel out a sigle card's influence. A player can use more than one card at once to stop stronger influences, if necessary. This is the game's only "interrupt" play, when one can legally do something out of turn.

Playing these counterinfluences can only stop the pawn at the board's edge. They can't push it further away, or slide it to either side, no matter how many counterinfluences one plays, or what other positions on the compass its suit might hold.

If this player cannot provide enough counterinfluence to stop the pawn, then the first player wins.

If the pawn is about to move diagonally off a corner, then there are two potential winners, with one having advtantage over the other, depending upon the relationship between the current player and the corner in question. Determine who has advabtage as per the list below, and give that player's opposite a chance to defend. If this bid succeeds, though, then the other potential winner gets a go, and his opposite must defend, or give up the game to him. Tricky, eh?

  • If it's blown off either corner opposite the current player, the current player has advantage.
  • If it's blown off the current player's near left-hand corner, the player seated to that player's right has advantage.
  • If it's blown off the current player's near right-hand corner, the player seated opposite that player has advantage.

(If this seems arbitrary, consider that we merely start from the current player and then go clockwise around the table, granting advantage to the first potential winner thus encountered -- in other words, the player who played most recently.)

Note that, if the compass has no suit attached to the defending direction, then goaltending becomes impossible. Tough break!

Goaltending depletes your hand, so that when your turn comes around again, you'll find yourself holding less than three cards. Fortunately, you can, when drawing, replenish your hand up to four cards again, and then play one (or discard one) as usual. Even though you usually draw only one card per turn, remember that you can (and should!) draw more if you've been busy defending your edge since your last turn ended!


Currents for Two

Two-player currents works much like the normal four-player game, with one important difference: each player chooses two goal edges, which must lie opposite to one another.

Conversely, players can play goaltender on both their opponents' edges, supplying counterinfluences as described above.

Furthermore, when setting up the compass at the start of play, the player who goes last (that it to say, not first) gets to place two aces on the compass at once.


Suggested Rule Changes

Some nice rule ideas have floated up, usually from other players, during playtesting sessions. I've thought of a bunch more on my own, as well. Here are the noteworthy ones, in what I feel is a descending approximate order of probably for addition.

  • Really wild Jokers Jokers, when played, cause all currents to be shuffled. Or perhaps one joker shuffles the compass, and one the currents. Or maybe both cause the compass and currents to be shuffled together!
  • Easier usurpingIn addition to the normal rules, you can additionally replace a current or compass point with a card of equal rank.
  • Combination attacks If you demote a current or a compass point by replacing it with a weaker card of the same suit, you can optionally follow up your move by replacing it again with a stronger card of a different suit. This sacrifices a little elegance for making the demotion play a more advantageous move, without making it too easy to pull off, since you need to hold both a weak same-suit card and a stronger other-suit card for it to work.
  • Obstacles A few of the board's intersections have obstructions of some sort, either preventing the pawn from entering them at all, or limiting the directions from which it could enter. I envision 'riptides' pointing away from the board's edges as a way to make offensive maneuvers harder than defensive ones, forcing players to push the pawn through the resulting 'channels' toward their goal edge, while defending players can push it back again however they please. Of course, this would make it difficult to play with a normal chessboard; you'd either need to place markers on these special points, or obtain a special board.

Strategy and Design notes

Section in progress...

Math Made Easy

After a few turns, the pawn's movements became increasingly difficult to compute at a glance, due to all the currents converging on it, and the complicating fact that the compass has probably seen its share of redefinitions, so remembering the suit-direction map does you little good.

Rather than trying to figure out the pawn's landing point in your head, Currents etiquitte allows for players to use their fingers or a separate "scout" token to figure out the pawn's destination. Pick one of the currents influencing the pawn, and move the scout or your fingertip from the pawn's location in the appropriate direction. Then continue around the board, moving this marker one vector for each influencing current, until you've covered them all; wherever it ends up is where the pawn goes. Just remember to count only the currents influencing the actual pawn, and not the scout!

eray and chodacki study the board

Owners of an Icehouse set can add a bit of style to this technique by using two Icehouse pieces, a three-point pyramid capped by a one-pointer, as the pawn and the scout, respectively. When not in use, the little pyramid caps the bigger one.

Built-in time limits

I don't usually like games that take more than an hour to play, so I favor games that have some mechanism that acts as a sort of timer, especially if it's also integral to the game's rules. To use a couple of popular small-press card games as examples, the action on the famous Chrononauts timeline can shift back and forth and players undo, redo, and then un-redo history, but they accumulate cards while doing so, and since holding 10 cards is a victory condition (where all players begin the game holding 3 cards), and nothing can make a player's hand count drop, even the most back-and-forth games are guaranteed to end in due... time. Meanwhile, in Lord of the Fries, players start with large hands of cards and then race to get rid of them. The game has no draw pile; players can gain new cards only when other players pass them around. The total cards held among all players continually drops, also assuring the game's end at some not-too-distant point.

The mechanic of this flavor in Currents is the currents themselves. The game starts with an inert and perfectly stable board, but players quickly work to change this, playing cards around the edge to their advantage. The magic is in the fact that, once a current exists, nothing can stop it; other players can change its direction or location (by outranking it or using a Queen on it, respectively), or can temporarily disable its power (by mucking with the compass) but its presence and influence is permanent. As the number of currents around the board increases, the greater the likelihood that the pawn, wherever it may drift, will receive at least some influence, and the harder the players will have to work to get it to move against these influences. When nearly all the currents slots have cards in them, the pawn is ever-moving in an entropic vortex, making it only a matter of time before somebody wins; meanwhile, all the players scramble to claim that prize! Yay, fun.

Delayed Aces (or: "Release the hounds.")

The fact that the aces start out life on the compass brings up what I think of as a neat hidden feature in the game: should play last long enough that the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the draw pile, it most likely contains all the aces, since players have probably replaced all four points of the compass with cards of their own. This brings four very powerful new cards into play, able to trump any current on the board, and impossible to discard (though a Queen can still move them, or they could be demoted). This, of course, only bolsters the sense of a built-in time limit: this game is obviously taking too long, so it's time for some really mean currents.

Demotions

I don't expect demotions to happen very often, and in fact might remove them from the rules if, during playtesting, nobody ever does it. It's a weak play, since lowering a current's or raising a compass point's rank does nothing to change the direction of its influence. However, in multiplayer games, one can use it diplomatically: if one player sets things up so he'll win in two more turns if nothing changes, and the player up next doesn't have any cards to trump the offending currents or compass points, that player can at least try to demote one of them, hoping that the next player can follow up by outranking that card and changing an influence's direction.

A little history

I started envisioning this game long ago, when I got my first plastic Icehouse set and wanted to invent my own Icehouse game. When I just recently got around the hashing out the rules, I ended up with something not very Icehousey at all (despite the fact I have used a black three-pointer as my pawn during initial testing). I think it would, however, be an interesting challenge to invent a game that uses the basic principles from this one, but assigns each player a whole (or part of a) stash of pyramids, rather than giving everyone a single shared pawn. Heck, maybe that game would be even more fun than this one.


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