Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Bin ‘Fa

Designed by: Ken Hodkinson
Released by:  Kenterprises
2 – 6 Players, 45 minutes – 1 1/2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser


EDTOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Moves Magazine 

When I first received this game a few months ago, I promptly read the rules and studied the components.  However, from this initial reading, I wasn’t terribly excited, so the game languished in my game closet for several months as newer, more enticing games were arriving daily.  However, I new I eventually had to get the game to the table for a few playings and it was well past time for me to give it a try. 

The game, which is designed by Ken Hodkinson and comes packaged in a sturdy tube, bills itself as “The Game of Oriental Strategy and Conquest” and is playable with from two to six players.  The company that releases it is Kenterprises, and as far as I can tell, this is their only release to date.  It appears this may be the designer’s own company and exists solely for the release and promotion of his game.  Further, according to the dates on the board, the game was copyrighted in both 1977 and 1998, so it appears to have been around for 25 years.     

First, the game is purely abstract.  Although the rules and literature attempt to convey the idea that the game is rich in Oriental skill and flavor, there is not a hint of Far East mystique here beyond the Samurai warrior depicted on the tube.  So, if abstract games tend to send shivers down your spine and give you the cold shakes, then I don’t think Bin ‘Fa will change your opinion very much. 

To be sure, there is a wealth of hefty wooden pieces included in the package.  First, there are twelve thick, 1 ¼ inch diameter wooden discs in six different colors, along with a stocky wooden pawn in each of the colors that is moved along the board’s supply track.  Add to this a forest of flat wooden discs that serve as supply markers, triangular mountain pieces, three vortex pieces, two dice, the rulebook and an assortment of promotional literature — including a review by Mitch Thomashaw — and you, indeed, have an impressive spread of components. 

But what about the board?  Out of necessity, the board is made of an upholstery vinyl, which rolls easily to fit inside of the tube packaging.  Painted on the board is a large hexagonal grid, divided into six triangular sections.  These sections are further divided into small triangular spaces which regulate movement during the game.  A supply track encircles the entire hexagon pattern, with various colored circles that match the colors of the game pieces comprising the track.  Sadly, the paint used on the board isn’t very durable, as it is already flaking off in numerous places.  I’m not sure whether this is just my copy or whether it is a universal problem. 

The rules are separated into four sections, each adding an additional element or elements to the game system.  I am going to describe using all four sections as that is the way most gamers will likely prefer to play as it adds more strategy and decision making to the proceedings. 

Each player sets his pieces in his home triangle, which is identified by the colored circles on the supply track.  Each player’s home territory is denoted by three identically colored circles on the track, which appear immediately below their home triangle.  Players are free to arrange their twelve pieces anywhere within their home triangle, including stacking them to form multi-level stacks.  Indeed, placing just one piece alone in a space can be dangerous, as these pieces are easy to capture.  Multi-level stacks are much more difficult to eliminate, as they must be completely surrounded by opposing stacks.  Players then place their pawn on the supply track beneath their home triangle.  Each player then rolls two dice and receives the corresponding number of supply markers from the bank. 

When using the advanced rules, prior to placing one’s pieces on the board, nine black triangular pieces and three white vortex pieces are placed by the players onto the board.  The black pieces create mountains and are impassable, while the white pieces create vortexes, allowing players to “hyper-jump” from one section of the board to another.  Funny, I don’t recall wormholes existing in the Orient.  Oh, well! 

The objective of the game is to eliminate all of your opponents’ pieces from the board.  Pieces are eliminated primarily by surrounding them.  The edges of the board and the mountains also serve as boundaries, so pieces located along the edge of the mountains or the board are more easily surrounded.  

On a player’s turn, he has the option of either moving his pieces on the board, or attempting to gain additional supply tokens.  This decision must be made prior to rolling the dice.  Let’s examine movement first. 

Movement.  To move, a player must pay one supply token to the bank and then roll two dice.  The player MUST then move a stack of pieces a distance equal to the difference between the two numbers rolled.  For example, if Keith rolled a 5 and a 2, he then MUST move one stack of pieces three spaces.  He is free, however, to move that stack back and forth between two spaces so as to “kill” movement points he would rather not use.  Pieces may not move onto spaces occupied by opponents’ pieces, but are free to move over or land on pieces of their own color.  

A player may continue moving in this fashion, paying a supply token before rolling the dice, until he rolls doubles.  Unlike many American games wherein rolling doubles entitles you to an extra turn, rolling doubles when moving in this game causes the player’s turn to end.  The rules claim that this continuous rolling of dice and movement of pieces simulates a “cavalry charge”.  Okay … 

If a player’s roll would allow one of his stacks to land on an opponent’s piece that is alone on a space, the player places his pieces on top of the lone piece and now controls it.  The owner of the newly captured piece will be unable to move that piece again until the dominating player frees the piece by removing all of his pieces from the top of it.  That’s not likely to occur unless, in doing so, the dominating player can completely surround that piece and thereby eliminate it.  So, for all practical purposes, that single piece is now lost. 

As my good friend Derk Solko points out in his review on the Boardgame Geek website, due to the layout and formation of the triangular shaped board, it is quite possible to arrange strong and even impenetrable defensive formations.  The rules deal with this situation by allowing for a “dislodging” move.  Before rolling the dice for movement, if a player has a stack of pieces adjacent to an opponent’s stack of pieces, he may declare that he is attempting to dislodge that stack from its current location.  The requirement, though, is that the moving player’s stack must contain more pieces (be larger) that the opponent’s stack.  The two dice are rolled and if a “6” is rolled on either die, the opponent must move his stack back on space.  The moving player then immediately occupies the abandoned space.  This maneuver can cause a break-through and facilitate further movements and, hopefully, the surrounding and elimination of opponent’s pieces.  Further, the player must still move the stack a number of spaces equal to the difference between the two numbers rolled.  If he fails to roll a “6” the dislodgement attempt has failed, but the player is NOT required to move the stack as per the normal movement rules.  However, the player is free to attempt further dislodgements or movements, provided he pays a supply token to the bank and has not rolled doubles.  Did I mention that there is a LOT of dice rolling in this game? 

As mentioned, the goal of the game is to eliminate opponent’s pieces.  This is done by surrounding an opponent’s piece or stack of pieces with pieces of opposing colors.  Each stack in the surrounding stacks must contain at least two pieces.  This can be accomplished with all pieces of your own color, or in concert with pieces from your fellow players.  So, even when not playing in partnership, this allows players to act together to bring down an obvious leader or a player in a position of strength.  Eliminated pieces are removed from play.  If a player finds himself with three or fewer pieces remaining on the board, he is eliminated from the game and the player causing his elimination receives any supply tokens he possesses. 

Due to the triangular shape of the grid, movement on the board can be tricky and paths are easily blocked.  This forces players to attempt frequent dislodgements and to utilize the vortex spaces in order to gain maneuverability.  Still, as pieces bunch together, this can easily bog down the game and, frankly, grows quite frustrating.  Players find themselves rolling and rolling the dice, hoping for the right number or numbers to appear. Yes, there are things players can do to improve the odds of rolling numbers that are useful to them, but one cannot escape the fact that dice-rolling is a central component of the game and luck plays a large factor.  The constant series of dice rolling does grow wearisome. 

Before moving onto the Supply mechanism, let me explain the vortexes.  A player moves his pieces onto a vortex, then immediately transfers them another unoccupied vortex space.  Any movement remaining on the dice must be used by another stack.  On the player’s next roll of the dice, he MUST move the pieces out of the vortex.  However, if he rolls doubles, then those pieces are eliminated, lost in a strange, unexplainable time warp.  So, although using vortexes can allow a player to suddenly emerge behind enemy lines or increase his mobility and options, it is not without risk.  

Further, pieces can be dislodged into a vortex space, causing them to be eliminated.  So, be very careful when placing pieces on a space adjacent to a vortex. 

Supply.  As mentioned, in order to attempt to move a stack, players must pay a supply token.  Thus, players are wise to take turns attempting to increase their supply of tokens.  Before rolling dice, the player can declare that he is attempting to gain new supply tokens as opposed to moving his pieces.  

As with movement, the player rolls both dice, but moves his token in a clock-wise fashion on the supply track a distance equal to EITHER the number rolled on either of the dice, or an amount equal to the TOTAL on both dice.  The idea here is to roll a number that will allow your pawn to be moved to a space of your own color.  In that case, you get to take a number of supply tokens from the bank equal to the number you used to get you to that space.  Or, if you have pieces located in an opponent’s home territory, you can also grab supply tokens by landing on a color that matches that opponent’s pieces.  If you manage to land on one of your opponent’s three home circles, then you actually take the supply pieces earned FROM that player.  Ouch! 

Again, there’s lots of dice rolling and luck involved here.  To be sure, there are things you can do to increase your odds — namely, try to get your pieces on the board into as many of your opponent’s home areas as possible.  This will certainly increase your odds of earning supply tokens.  However, it may well also spread out your pieces on the board too thinly, making them easier to eliminate.  So, there are some choices to be made here.  However, it still requires players to get lucky with the dice and there can be a mounting sense of frustration if all you are earning is one or two supply tokens while your opponents get lucky and earn 6, 8 or even 12.  Further, unlike movement on the board, a player may only roll once on the supply track per turn, unless he is lucky enough to roll doubles, which grants the player an additional roll on the track.  Again — lots of dice rolling with a healthy dose of luck thrown into the mix. 

I have mentioned — once or twice — that there are lots of dice rolling and a sizable dose of luck involved in the game.  There is.  However, the game is also filled with choices and decisions.  Indeed, it may well be that good strategy should prevail in the majority of the games.  I say should — there is no guaranty that this will be the case.  Indeed, I have the distinct feeling that getting the right rolls at a few critical times will be the ultimate determining factor in many, if not most Bin ‘Fa games.  That just doesn’t sit to well with me in a game that makes bold comparisons to Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War

In the games I have played, none of them were particularly impressed by the game and actually found the constant rolling of the dice and the back-and-forth movement of the pieces to be redundant and wearisome.  When informed that the game was originally released back in the 1970′, one player commented that it probably should have remained there. 

The game certainly bears some characteristics of the classic game Go, but with a much healthier dose of luck injected.  I have also heard that it is somewhat based on Avalon Hill’s game Hexagony.  Although I own that title, I have never played, so cannot verify the accuracy of these comparisons.  So, in a throw-back to my earlier statement concerning the abstractness of the game, if you tend to enjoy games such as Go or perhaps Hexagony, then Bin ‘Fa is certainly deserving of your attention.  Even then, however, the abundance of dice rolling may prove to be a turn-off.


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