One of the concepts I like about Hive is that capture does not exist. Once a tile is placed on the field, it remains in play until the end of the game. The equivalent of the capture in Hive, if we can call it so, is the pin. Taking advAntage of the One Hive rule, a bug can be pinned by another (friendly or enemy) bug that blocks its movement until another connection between the pinning piece and the rest of the hive is achieved. This is a fundamental element of the game and one of those which give complexity and enjoyability. Since pieces are never eliminated from the game, many times there is a chance that pinned pieces will be then able to move again. Even when the position seems particularly ‘frozen’ in a specific shape, often an unbalance of 1-2 bugs can be sufficient to force other pieces to move, ‘unlocking’ somehow the position. It is therefore importAnt, not only to pin your opponent pieces when possible, but to pin the right ones and in the right way.
Since the ‘board’ does not exist by itself but grows as the game goes on, the two ‘swarms’ are very close to each other since the very first moves. Many pieces of both players can be pinned on a quite early stage. Pinning your opponent’s pieces achieves two goals: 1) increases your mobility, the capacity of your pieces to move, reducing your opponent’s one; 2) increases your chances to bring new pieces into the game, that is, creates new available placement points. Sometimes, inexperienced players find themselves in the worst possible scenario (the so-called ‘shutout’) where they are not able to move any piece and at the same time they cannot even place a new one as they do not have accessible placement points. In such cases one has to pass and the opponent will be able to keep playing until a move is again available. Needless to say, this situation is rather unpleasAnt and must be prevented at all costs.
In order to do this, it’s crucial to know how to deal with the moving/placing dilemma. When is the right time to place a new bug or move one already on the field? How many pieces should I bring on the field before I start moving any of them? I will show here some examples that will help to understand how to think in these situations. Here I will always consider the game with all the expansions (Mosquito, Ladybug and Pillbug), so called Hive-PLM, for two reasons: 1) it is, in my opinion, the most strategically complex and balanced version, 2) it’s the game currently played in the official online World Championship on Boardspace.net. The same concepts shown below are of course applicable to the base set but you always need to keep in mind that the lack of the expansion pieces remove several strategic (either offensive or defensive) options.
In the opening, fast pieces (Ants or Mosquito moving like Ants) should be placed as soon as possible as they are the most powerful and flexible pieces. White, as first player, will likely be able to place an Ant first without being stopped. How does black react to keep his/her mobility high and at the same time defend against white’s attack? The concepts here do not apply only to black of course but I find useful to reason in terms of reaction to the opponent’s moves. There are some main approach one can follow and the most appropriate one depends on many factors (Queen safety, pieces availability, hive shape, etc).
Option zero: if you already have a free bug able to pin your opponent’s Ant, consider doing it. Normally, weaker is the pieces used to pin and more powerful that pin is. For instance, pinning an Ant or the Queen with a Spider generally gives a good advAntage (see Figure 1).
If you still don’t have a piece in play able to do that, you probably need to place a new piece on the field. Apart from this, the main ideas are the following:
Place a defensive bug (normally in the proximity of your Queen). The most flexible one is the Mosquito, which allows to have an extra Ant immediately, but it could easily become a Pillbug too. Figure 2 shows one of the most common opening variations at every skills level. Black is ready to react to white attack placing a Mosquito next to his/her Ladybug. If white attacks the black Queen straight away, black can respond by placing an Ant so to have effectively two free Ants ready to defend, especially against a double Beetle attack. As a general rule, react to an attack to your Queen
increasing your mobility; that is, take advAntage of the tempo spent by your opponent to attack your Queen in order to put in play more Ants/Mosquitoes. This will be necessary to contrast the incoming attack. Another interesting alternative is to use the Mosquito as a ladybug to ‘cap off’ the enemy piece. This prevent white to place a dangerous Beetle too close to your Queen, Figure 3. This does not increase your mobility as much as in the previous case but cut some attacking ideas by white based on the white Ant. Later, white can place a second Ant ready to attack again. Here, white is also threatening to choke the enemy Queen, that is prevent the chance to place a black Pillbug to help.
Therefore, black decides to place the black Pillbug immediately. Black has two defensive pieces next his/her Queen and will bring more pieces in play soon.
Going back to the beginning of the variation, instead of attacking straight away, white can decide to increase his/her strength on the board by placing a new piece (Figure 4).
Again, one of the best moves is probably to place an Ant too to be ready to defend. In this case, both players are aiming to achieve Hive control, before attacking the enemy Queens. Alternatively, a Pillbug placed next to the Mosquito also keeps the position solid. The Pillbug+Mosquito combo is a very useful defensive scheme as black can make use of the Mosquito to rescue the Queen in dangerous situations as it was a Pillbug.
A second possible reaction is to place a major piece (Ant/Mosquito/Beetle) as a ‘sacrifice’. Especially when an Ant is played in response to an Ant, there is tension on the field. Each Ant can pin the enemy one, as in Figure 5. If white accepts to pin the opponent’s Ant, black will be able to place a second free Ant immediately afterwards.
This trick allows to have a free Ant, at the cost of another Ant. Now it’s white in the same situation black was two moves ago. Should white in turn sacrifice an Ant as well? This alternating situation creates the so called Ant game. Both players try to keep under control the opponent’s Ants before putting other pieces in play. For instance, many strong players would place a Beetle (one of the strongest and most valuable pieces) only when all the opponent’s Ants have been neutralized (or at least their movement would provoke other weaknesses).
It’s importAnt to understand when to sacrifice and when other ideas can be used instead. Going a few moves on in the game, white has sacrificed an Ant him/herself in order to place a Mosquito. Now, if black sacrifices an Ant again as in Figure 6, white can pin the Ant at the same time cutting most of black placement points. In particular he/she will not be able to play a Pillbug next to the Queen. The only spot would be the one denoted by the green circle. However, this creates a ring that allows the only white pin piece to get free, with a big advAntage for white (Figure 7)
Instead, black should switch to the strategy discussed above, that is place a defensive bug (the Pillbug!) next to the Queen before it’s too late (Figure 8). White has better mobility here, but black is safe with his/her Pillbug in place and a gate created by the previous pin (red cross in the picture) which prevents one of the spaces next to the Queen to be easily filled.
A third idea that is possible in some cases is to create a counterthreat using a minor piece (Spider or Grasshopper) and then keep going with counterthreats or switch to one of the ideas seen before. This idea works well when there is a second ‘hidden’ threat as well. For instance, in Figure 9, black places a Spider threatening to pin the white Ant. This threat can be easily stopped of course. However, if white pins the Spider, black will bring in place an Ant. This latter will be possibly pinned by the white Ant, however, compared to the immediate Ant sacrifice, black has gained one extra piece in play (the Spider) as the white Ant would have moved twice! If white ignores the threat, black can keep increasing his/her strength and the Spider will be a useful defensive or offensive piece depending on the way the game unfolds. The Spider is also in the best spot where to attack the white Queen easily. Be aware that this strategy can be somehow riskier when you don’t have enough pieces developed as your counterattack will likely be slower.
In some cases, these counterthreats can be easily blocked, a typical way is to place a Pillbug to limit the Spider’s movement as in Figure 10. White plays a move that is anyway useful and the black Spider is not as effective this time.
All the ideas presented here have to be mixed in the right way depending on the situation. The goal is to keep as much control of the hive as possible. This is importAnt either if you are attacking, as you wAnt as enough bugs to support the offense, or if you are defending, as you can do it efficiently only when your bugs (especially Ants!) are free to move. At the same time, always keep an eye on the safety of both Queens. In particular, place your Pillbug, the main defensive piece, before you run out of placement points near your Queen!
By Francesco Salerno
References and Resources
- The game notation is explained here: https://www.boardspace.net/english/about_hive_notation.html. BoardSpace.net is also the website where the online Hive Championship is played.
- An off-line tool to review the games played on BoardSpace.net and BoardGameArena is available on https://www.boardspace.net/hive/hive-viewer.shtml.
- ‘Play Hive like a Champion, 2nd’ by Randy Ingersoll contains all the strategical ideas you found in this article and much more! Available in pdf and hardcopy.
- The diagrams shown here have been made by using this great online tool: http://entomology.appspot.com/.
- https://boardgamearena.com/ is a very good place where to start playing turn-based games (sort of correspondence games).