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Review: Journey Stones

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Have you ever seen a Viking longship? I mean, it’s basically just a carved out hull with benches. No cabins. No decks. No lavatories. So what exactly did those plundering Norsemen do on long sea voyages in such recreationally challenged boats? Did they just sit there, rowing or chatting or staring off in the distance? Sudoku wasn’t invented, yet. And knitting sweaters wasn’t an appropriate hobby for blood-thirsty warriors. What if they played games? Something suitably manly. Something to hone their strategic wits. Something like…well…Checkers…?

How it Plays

Journey Stones is a two-player, abstract game of maneuver and capture. Played on an 8×8 Chess board, the goal is to move your pieces around until you take seven from your opponent.

Each player has twelve pieces – six journey stones and six warrior stones. Journey stones, marked by a rune-like ‘R’ symbol begin in the back row in columns 2-7. Warrior stones, identified by an arrow symbol, situate similarly in the row above. Warrior stones may move 1 space in any direction orthogonally. Journey stones move one space diagonally. Stones cannot move through or jump over any other pieces on the board. To capture an enemy stone, simply move into its space with any of your own pieces via the normal movement rules.

The game set-up. It’s kind of like a shield wall…?

There is a way to increase your maneuvering capabilities, however, called stacking. Through a normally legal move, you may move one of your stones on top of another, up to a maximum of four per stack. Or you could move one stack on top of a single piece – or even a stack of 2 onto another stack of 2. You can stack either kind of stone together. However, a stack will only move in the same manner (i.e., orthogonally or diagonally) as its topmost piece allows, albeit one extra space per additional stone within it – all in a straight line. Capturing a stack wins all of the stones therein, so be diligent in targeting your opponent’s juicy prizes while protecting your own.

There are a few variants for “tournament play.” You can limit games to 45 minutes. If neither player captures the requisite number of stones, then the victor is whoever took more. You can require that players capture a piece every six turns or risk sacrificing one of their own. Alternately, you can always increase or reduce the number of pieces necessary to win the game.

It’s not Ragnar Lodbrok and King Ecbert clashing steel, but it is an interesting strategy game, nonetheless.

Leave No Stone Unturned?

So what if Vikings didn’t knit. Surely, they had to be about more than just their work and pillaging? They had art, architecture, epic poetry, great cosmetology, and excellent haberdashery…so why not games? Journey Stones is just as logical, fictionally-speaking, as any other design. And while I’ve tried really hard so far not to play the “it’s more in-depth than Checkers, but less than Chess” card…I can’t keep that in, anymore. Because that’s essentially the crux of its weight class.

Journey Stones is very accessible and intuitive. There are only two kinds of stones, thus two types of movement to remember. And both only move one space apiece, unless they’re stacked. The additional movement is simple to master – one extra space per extra unit in the stack. We even found that the ‘↑’ symbol on the warrior stones was a helpful reminder that those units move straight up and down, or side to side. I’m not sure if that was the intention in the design. Anyway, by process of elimination, we understood then that the rune-like ‘R’ symbol designates the diagonally-moving stones.

By far the most unique and distinctive element in Journey Stones is stacking. It is the heart of the game. First of all, it gives you more freedom beyond the boringly generic one-space-per-move. Second, strategy and game play revolve around how both of you decide to stack, and when.

A stack maxed out.  This is freedom!
A stack maxed out. This is freedom!

Stacking order is critical because you don’t want an imbalance between warrior stone stacks and journey stone stacks. You also don’t want to skew you’re ratio of singleton stones, as well, since they can come in handy for laying traps and/or covering broader ground. Having just a few large stacks with their powerful movement allocation may seem nifty, but it’s more difficult to corral your opponent’s stones since you have less to work with. Finding that balance is a good deal of the design’s challenge…and most of its enjoyment.

Journey Stones also caters to a duo’s tastes and play styles. As a light game, it is family-friendly and accessible to a broad age range, yet it’s not overly simplified. It makes you think, but doesn’t overwhelm you. At the same time – or perhaps because of that – it has surprising depth. Therefore, players can customize their session according to experience and age level. A smart, but quick game for family or casual players. Or a slow and methodical one for serious strategists.

A face-off! Try to balance your stacks and singles between warrior and journey stones.
A face-off! Try to balance your stacks and singles between warrior and journey stones.

Regarding that slow, methodical style – understand that play can develop in a very Chess-like manner. Journey Stones is very much conducive to an “analysis paralysis” style of play where you are thinking several turns ahead and scrutinizing every move. It’s not as intense as Chess, but it is still possible for sessions to bog down in a stalemate of maneuver. Some will welcome that. For those who don’t, just use the variant rules to speed things up in case you find yourself impersonating Kasparov and Fischer. Or would that be Bjorn and Ivar?

Printed by Victory Point Games for this new publisher, Journey Stones is Spartan on the components. I would recommend the boxed version if you’re interested, as it comes with a mounted, puzzle board. The quad-fold mat doesn’t lay flat. Or, if you decide on the inexpensive route with the polybag version, you could use any Chess or Checker board. The board included with the game does has a synopsis on each player’s side for referencing movement and action. But really, after one game you won’t need to consult it, though it is handy for teaching new players.

The board does have a quick reference for its movement and action rules…all 5 of them.

Journey Stones will definitely scratch an itch for abstract gamers wanting something light, but still challenging. It’s generally quick-paced, but can certainly lend itself to a more prolonged, cat-and-mouse struggle for those with the inclination, and temperament, to do so. As an abstract game, it will have a more limited appeal, but thanks to its simplicity it could actually work as a sort of “gateway” in the genre, with a unique twist in stacking and good family access. Plus, it’s better than knitting.

 

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank General Nonsense Games for providing a review copy of Journey Stones.

Summary

  • Rating 7
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple
  • Good strategic challenge
  • Stacking mechanic is unique

Cons:

  • Can get stalemated
7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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