Space and The Start of the Game (1)
If there is a single most important idea when trying to understand Blokus, then surely it must be the idea that Blokus is about space. If you have ever read the rules of Blokus that come with the physical board game, then you may have seen a section about strategy tips, the first of which says: “At the beginning of the game, move towards the center of the board in order to take up a maximum amount space. If you remain confined to the corner you start in, you may not be able to put down many pieces.” This is certainly good advice, and is one of the central concepts in Blokus: Blokus is about space.
After playing a few games of Blokus, you should quickly get a sense of what it means to “move towards the center”, and hopefully a bit of an understanding of why you would want to do this. There is a limited amount of space on the board, and you and your opponent are fighting to use it. Any squares your pieces use, your opponent is unable to use, and vice versa. So if you want to use up more space than your opponent by the end of the game, you should try to use up as much as possible on every turn.
There are two main reasons you want to go towards the center of the board immediately – the first reason is that the center is where the most space is. We will often think of the board having 9 different “regions”, none of which are completely well defined. They are the Top Left, Top, Top Right, Left, Center, Right, Bottom Left, Bottom, and Bottom Right.
As you can see, the center has the most space in it, and since that’s where the most space is, it would be nice if you were able to control the center. Certainly you want to be able to play some of your pieces in the center. For this reason it certainly makes sense to go to the center. However, there is a subtler reason why it is important to go to the center: the center is the best way to access far away regions – for you AND your opponent.
Try placing a starting piece for each colour and take a look at the board. Think about the areas of the board any given colour will place pieces in within the first few moves. The only area a given colour is going to be able to use is the area closest to the corner in which it started.
In the image above, the next two moves for B will (and should) be contained, at least mostly, in the orange circle. Remember, since B wants to move to the center, the next few moves are usually played from the corner which is already closest to the center. As we noticed, the center of the board is a big chunk of open space that no other colour can yet play in, so its definitely a good plan to place your pieces in such a way that you are able to play in the center as quickly as possible – there seems to be lots of room for your pieces over there. However, as each colour starts heading to the middle of the board, the space in that area gets used up rather quickly, and after about 4 turns for each colour, you may notice that the biggest open spaces are actually along the sides of the walls instead of in the center.
Note that in the image it is the 4th turn for R, and already the center is blocked. Knowing this, you might be tempted to head straight toward the side-spaces with one of your colours, instead of toward the center, since you know the side-spaces will be big, and will have less pieces in them if each other colour follows the standard advice and heads to the middle. This idea is not bad, and in fact it will be very important later in defending against strong openings, but it is important to resist the urge to do this immediately, and still move your pieces toward the upcoming traffic jam in the middle of the board. This is because there is a major advantage of heading to the center that these side spaces don’t offer: access to far away places.
Look at B in the above image. By heading straight to the center, B was able to find a path through the center of the board, and has some corners from which he can play pieces in the R area. If B tried to get into the R starting zone without going through the center, it would have taken many more moves, and Y or G might have been able to block the path.
On the other hand, it seems that R is in a bit of trouble here – the center has been completely blocked by the 4th move for R, so it won’t be possible for R to make it through the middle. This might lead to the temptation to start by moving R to the top right immediately, without first trying to claim a piece of the center, as red did with V5 in the image. Unfortunately, if R initially moved toward Y in the top right, trying to stay completely on the right side, then after 4 turns, the only places that red would be able to play would be the top right, right, and bottom right. If R starts by moving to the center, with only a little bit of a bias toward the top right (a little bias is allowed), as in the image, then after a few turns R is able to play a piece into the top right anyway – the 4th turn for R should be up in the example – but also will have claimed a piece of the center, with the V5 in this case, and even have a chance to play into the bottom. In general, a colour which immediately stays on one side will have trouble accessing as many areas as a colour which initially moves toward the center.
If a colour makes it to the center however, the far side-spaces are more easily available, as is the far corner. Moving to the center not only allows you to claim a piece of the biggest open space on the board, but also gives you access to other, smaller but still important areas all over.
If you’re still not convinced that R did the right thing in the example, consider that the ideas explained so far apply to both players! The center is not only the best way for you to get to far away places, but also the best way for your opponent to get to far away places. If R decided to go straight up to avoid being blocked by Y in the middle, Y could have played down from the F instead of to the left, and Y might have had a good path to get into the bottom left, while partially blocking blue from getting into the bottom right. By going into the middle, R helped prevent Y from using the best path to the bottom left. Once you start playing a lot more blokus, you will probably find that most of the time only one colour actually makes it “through” the middle into the opposite corner from where they started, and sometimes not even one. However, you cannot just avoid the middle and go straight to the sides – if you do then it will be one of the rare games where two colours actually do make it through the middle – and they will be the two colours of your opponent, since you were unable to block them.
Alright, that was pretty wordy, so here is a brief summary:
At the start of the game you should move to the middle because:
1. There is the most space in the middle to put your pieces in
2. The middle is the easiest way to get access to even more space far away from your starting zone
3. If you don’t go to the middle, your opponent will, and then your opponent will gain both of the advantages from 1. and 2.
Well, thats all for now. If you have suggestions for other places where the importance of space comes up for me to blog about, or any other suggestions in general, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!