IT'S NOT OFTEN you find a new strategy game - most are direct copies of old fashioned board games. Think! from Ariolasoft has the advantage of being designed for a computer, and although it would be possible to play without one, it would certainly be difficult.
Designers David Bishop, Don Hughes and Chris Palmer have produced a variant on the four-in-a-row group of games where you have to construct a line of four counters on a grid. Think! differs, however, by producing some radically new strategies for winning, by the addition of some novel rules.
There are only four rules in all. Counters can only be placed on the bottom row or right hand edge of the six-by-six board. When a counter is placed on the board, it pushes all the other counters on its column or row one space further along - the spaces shift too.
Counters can be pushed off the edge of the board and are then lost, and although the winner is the first to get a line of four, if he gives his opponent a line at the same time, he loses.
Simple, eh? It is indeed, but the problems start with visualising the state of the board a couple of moves ahead, when whole lines can shift. It's very easy to give the game away by overlooking a move.
You'll have gathered by now that I'm rather taken by the game, not least - perhaps - because I screwed a resignation out of designer David Bishop a few weeks ago. But the game would be nothing without the fine implementation by the programmers of Ramjam, Ariolasoft's in-house team.
The game can be played via joystick using an icon system which is very clear, and offers a wide number of options. There are seven levels of play, although after level five the response gets very slow.
You can opt for single, double, tutorial and problem mode. The tutorial mode scores according to the speed with which you find the best move, it's only really useful above level four, as it tends to suggest moves which can lead to perpetual stagnation. The problem mode comes with a library of 'mate in two' problems which should test your ability to spot some of the more subtle tactics in the game.
You can also redesign the colours of the pieces, switch the sound on and off, watch the computer checking out its best moves, get hints, replay old games and all the usual options associated with good Chess and Othello programs. Play is very fast for the first three levels, and fast enough on the next two - the computer can analyse its position much better than you, and plays a mean game at higher levels.
For strategy fans, Think! is well worth trying. While it's still hard to see whether the opening player has the advantage, some opening moves and strong positions have already been identified.
For example, a counter on F or 6 is usually a good opening move, worth playing early. Strong formations include a T-square - three in a row with one piece underneath the centre - or counters on 4,5,D and E simultaneously. Those will prove winning formations if you play wisely.
As well as those positions, try to build up forces around D4 and E5, which will later get shunted further afield to provide useful points for diagonal rows. As with games like chess, a direct assault is likely to fail compared to efforts to disguise your tactics and suddenly unlease several threats.
In the position shown, where blue must play and win in two moves, blue can threaten to win with counters on C, D, E, F, and 6, but only the counter on six generates enough threats to win immediately. The others rapidly lose the initiative to the red player.
That subtlety of tactics becomes overwhelming with a full board, particularly when it is only possible to survive by using the rule about not making a line for your opponent.
Full marks, then, to Ariolasoft and Co for a demanding, intriguing game. Let's have some letters about opening tactics from those of you who find Think! as much fun as I have.
Joystick: Kempston, Sinclair
The menu with icon-selection. You can even print out positions.
Blue to play and win within two moves...
... Blue plays a counter to 6 and now red has no move left. Blue threatens to play D but any red move to prevent that will give blue a new line of three to complete.