Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 20 mins
Setup Time: 2 mins
Value For Money: High
Having been sealed in safely at home recently I’ve been going through some of the less visited sections of the collection, also looking to some two player dedicated games to facilitate playing with my best beloved. It’s a funny thing, because I often hear people complain that there is a real lack of good two player games, but when I think back to the games of my youth a huge amount of what I recall are two player abstracts, all those games with vertical boards that seemed to dominate the designs of thirty or so years ago. I wonder if its just the case that most of the good two player game ideas have been done, or rather, that very few of them see full scale commercial release thanks to the greater appeal of a wider player count. Which is also an odd thing since Black Box could easily be put out as a print and play or even a sort of roll and write today. As it is it was published in 1977/78 with an updated hex-based version released in 2008 for the 30th anniversary. However, the game is made of sturdy components (no cardboard cards or counters) so perfectly good versions can still be found online.
Gameplay is something like a combination between mastermind and battleships. One player secretly marks out the position of atoms onto a grid, then the other player places markers representing beams of light being shot into the grid, the ‘black box’ of the title. If a beam hits an atom it is absorbed, being replaces by a black marker, if it near misses an atom it is bent at right angles, exiting the box and being marked at its exit point. The player placing beams tries to figure out the position of the atoms by these clues, scoring one point for each beam used, at the end of the game the player with the lowest score wins.
The game has a few things to recommend it, first of all it’s a really solid two player game. Its played to an equal number of rounds, with the last being triggered by one player’s score hitting 50. Generally this means three turns of placing and guessing for each player, which is just enough to go from vague guesswork on the first round to cunning tricks by the last. There is a real sense of bluff and counter bluff as players start to plan ahead for what their opponent’s beams will tell them. Another strength is that the game is one of a very limited field of truly inductive rather than deductive reasoning, with deductive reasoning only ever coming in when the atoms are in a very specific pattern of placement.
The atoms are represented by big ball bearings and the beams by simple but chunky plastic pawns and the whole board is solid plastic, forming the game box when a clear plastic shell is placed over the top. This means that the whole thing is very solid and long lasting, although the clear shell can crack its likely that most sets of Black Box will still be here when we’re all long gone, which is either a strength or a weakness depending on your point of view.
The rules are simple and the gameplay pretty much entirely abstract, although the nature of beams being bent is slightly counter intuitive (they bend away from their atom, but from the square before it, whilst having a slight ‘overshoot’ to allow for other atoms to interact in an interesting fashion) that will lead to some holding of the rules examples next to the board for the first few games to compare and visualize. Despite being abstract though, they give a real feeling for the idea of a physics-based puzzle that the game is reaching for. Like most people, I’ve never shot a laser into a box searching for a Higgs-Bosun or similar, but I like to imagine it’s sort of a much more complex version of this game.
If you’re short of 2-player games, or enjoy picking up abstract vintage gems, I recommend hitting the tabletop time machine and checking out Black Box. If you can get ahold of the rules and you’re willing to home-make I’d also bet that you could make a very passable version with a few sheets of paper and a pen.