Taking Apart Connect 4

by Kwasi Mensah

January 30th, 2013

Intro

So for Ananse’s new game we’re borrowing some mechanics for the popular board game Connect 4.

A picture of the travel sized version of the game.

From: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Connect_Four.jpg

I’ve been a little stuck on how to properly integrate this mechanics because I didn’t take the time to fully understand what’s made Connect 4 such a popular. I recently did that to make sure I was on the right track and figured I’d write it up for internet perpetutity.

How To Play Connect 4

The board has 7 columns and 6 rows. Players have checkers of alternating colors (let’s say red for Player 1 and black for Player 2). Players take turns putting in their checkers from the the top of the board. If there are no other checkers in the column it’ll fall to the bottom row. Otherwise it falls to the first empty row.

You try to connect 4 pieces of your color either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in a straight line.

Its actually based of an old sea game called The Captain’s Mistress (which means I can’t be sued for this!) . There’s an old anecdote that sailors wanted to play checkers while they were out at sea but the rocking of the boat meant their pieces shifted all over the place.  The Captain’s Mistress was made so that there pieces would be locked in (assuming they weren’t hit by a huge wave!).

A picture of the original wooden version of The Captain's Mistress

From: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/table/captains-mistress-orig.htm

Important rules

These are the key parts of the game that we’re keeping in mind in the design for our new game.

Placement rules

The way checkers are placed makes sure past actions matter. The row your checker ends up in is completely dependent on what’s been there before (as opposed to letting you place your letter anywhere that isn’t taken, that’s only partially dependent).

It forces the actions of each player to bump up into each other. which adds to the level of competition. In fact the dimensions of the board make sure you have to “bump” into the other player in order to make your four pieces connect.

It also reduces the problem space by limiting the number of valid places a tile can be placed. If you’re know the other player has three in a row but can’t get the fourth in place because of the column rules you  don’t have to worry about that spot.

One Piece at a Time

In Connect 4 you’re only allowed to put one piece in play every turn. Since the game stops as soon as the first set of of four player pieces are connected in a straight line you want to make this happen as slowly as possible. Compare this to a game like Scrabble where you can put as many pieces on the board as you want to as long as they make a word.

You always have to be conscious of what the smallest unit of excitement is. In Connect 4, it’s jostling for position. In Scrabble its making words and trying to take advantage of the bonus squares. Even though position is very important to our game, it’s still a word game. Once piece at a time doesn’t work for us because in the best case it means at least three turns until someone is able to make a word. Not fun!

Permanence

Permanace: Is the illusion of every age

From: http://www.demotivationalposters.net/permanence-ruins-time-south-mansions-demotivational-posters-144332.html

Unlike games like checkers or chess, there’s no way to remove a checker once its on the board. There are variations of Connect 4 that allows this (called Pop Out). But one thing we’re actually trying to mess with is what happens if you do let pieces disappear from the board. It makes the possibility for connections much larger. And it also gives each player the ability to mess up the any connections the other player is trying to make.

Another thing to change about permance is just that pieces always stay on the board, but that pieces always stay the same color. A game like Go  can create millennia of strategy by having  simple rules about how to change the color of a piece. This is another avenue we’re looking into to add strategy to our game.

Asynchronicity

Players aren’t reacting in real time to each other (like you would in a game of tag). Each player gets as much time as they need for their turn and then control passes over completly to the other player. This model works really well in the mobile games world because it lets people play the game when they’re free, on their own schedule.

Conclusion

I know some of these seem really obvious. But it turns out its still really helpful to formally state them and have a strategy for how to deal with each of these factors. I actually spent a lot of time on letting people place multiple checkers on the board in the same turn without fully understanding why the one per turn rule is important. I also had a tough time explaining why the connect 4 placing rules made sense in our game but fully fleshing it out gives me ideas on how to make it more important to the game. We’re also messing with getting rid permance in order to do some interesting things with strategy.

I’ll be doing another one of these on another game we take a fair amount of inspiration from, Scrabble!

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