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Classifying an Abstract Game

While working on the rulebook for Fugue, I had an idea to include a short informative passage about abstract games.

It would have the heading “Abstract Strategy?” and give a small overview of what an abstract game is, while at the same time firmly positioning Fugue into the Hall of Abstract Games (assuming that’s a thing).

Why would I do this?

Well, for one thing, Fugue has been referred to by many reviewers and players as an abstract game (here is its boardgame geek page). And since Fugue is somewhat of a gateway gamer-game, I thought it might be helpful to show where Fugue and games like it fit into the hobby. Maybe this would prepare newer players for the experience of abstract games when they were expecting an experience closer to something else.


There was at least one problem, though. While there are certainly elements of the abstract in Fugue, by the strictest definition of the genre, Fugue is not an abstract game. I was warned that by labeling the game as such in the rulebook, it might at worst provoke a harsh response from purists, and at best, wouldn’t be necessary anyway.

In one portion of my overview I wrote:

“Abstract games are their own family of tabletop games and have many of these characteristics: straightforward rules, no luck, lots of interaction among players, and perfect information – which means you can see all of the pieces during play (as opposed to a game like poker where players keep cards secret).”

Note that I said many of these characteristics.

For contrast, here is what Boardgame Geek (BGG) has to say.

Abstract Strategy games are often (but not always):

  • theme-less (without storyline)
  • built on simple and/or straightforward design and mechanics
  • perfect information games
  • games that promote one player overtaking their opponent(s)
  • little to no elements of luck, chance, or random occurrence

(note that it says often but not always)


Would you consider Mahjong an abstract game when it has imperfect information?

In Fugue’s previous incarnation, I submitted it to BGG as an abstract game. Due to the fact that Fugue (at that time) had players drawing cards from a deck, it could not be classified as abstract. Fugue has since replaced the card deck with a bag of tiles. Tiles are drawn at random from this bag. There is a small amount of luck in the beginning of a new round when all of the tiles are in the bag, but it becomes apparent soon after what tiles will be available (the cards worked in the same way). In my opinion, this amounts to the “little element of luck” from the previous definition, though I suppose the tile-drawing could be thought of as imperfect information as well, even though all the tiles are seen in the play area before anything can be done with them. Perhaps I don’t understand what constitutes perfect information in this context, and Fugue would have been categorized as an abstract if I could have explained the mechanics better.

I currently have Fugue under consideration as an abstract game over at BGG again, but it’s been a few days, and I’m not sure what will happen. Fugue does have a theme, so that alone may disqualify it, but if you really want to split-hairs, Chess, what I would argue as being the most famous abstract game of all time, also has a theme of battling medieval warriors (and so does Hive, for that matter, though with insects, not medieval warriors). So I doubt the theme would disqualify it.


That time you realize chess has a theme.

Regardless, if Fugue is not abstract, how would one define a game like it? A game that is missing all but maybe one element of the pure abstract experience? Would you call it a semi-abstract? A puzzle-game? Simply a tile-game? I’m not sure, and as a result of this, Fugue is proving difficult to market. I think the abstract audience would love Fugue, but how can I get it to them if I can’t confidently call it an abstract?

I guess this leads to the issue of how does one determine what type of game they have? During development, none of us particularly thought of Fugue as a set-collecting game. Sure, there were “sets” and you were kind of collecting them I guess, but when I think of a “set-collecting” game I think of something like Onirim or even Pandemic, where the core idea is to gather things and complete sets of them to achieve the final victory. However, it’s been pretty unanimous among reviewers that a set-collecting game is what Fugue is. Perhaps it’s a matter of being too close to something to see the obvious. (As an aside, Life & Legend is considered a set-collecting game, which also came as a surprise.)

When all is said and done, categorizing games can be tricky. For those of you who have played Fugue, I would ask what type of game you consider it to be? What type of gamer do you think would like it? What type wouldn’t? And if you happen to be over on Boardgame Geek, please consider subscribing to Fugue!

Thanks for reading!

Adam Glass

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