Review: Go

BGG Rank #97 – 2/10/2017

This week we’re taking a trip back in the past, to look at what is easily the oldest game in the current BGG Top 100. Go is believed to have been invented by a Chinese emperor (or a member of the royal court) more than 4,000 years ago. But as I’ve noted in my recent Ranking of Ancient GamesGo has far more depth and complexity than other games of its era. Let’s take a look at what makes Go a true classic.

Learning Go

Having never previously played Go, I enlisted the help of my friend Matthew, who has been playing Go for over 15 years. Not continuously– but nonetheless, I knew he would be a good teacher.

I often find that the best way to learn something is to teach it, so I’m going to take a shot at providing my explanation of the game. Here goes:

Go is a game of area control, in which players seek to gain power over vacant territories and suffocate their opponents’ forces. You can think of it as a battle between two armies that suffer from severe claustrophobia, jockeying for position to reserve the most breathing room.

Captured pieces are ‘held prisoner’ and will factor into endgame scoring.

Players take turns placing stones of their color on the grid, traditionally a 19×19 square (though Go can be played on smaller boards as well). Two or more adjacent stones of the same color are considered to be a string. To survive, a string (or a solitary stone) needs a breath (an empty space) in at least one adjacent space. If a player cuts off an opponent’s last breath, those suffocated pieces are removed from the board and kept as prisoners that count towards the final score.

While these armies are awfully fearful of tight spaces, they’re not suicidal. Players are forbidden to perform a move that would cut off the last breath of their own pieces. The one exception to this is when the played piece also cuts off an opponent’s last breath, in which case the move is legal, the opponent’s pieces are taken prisoner, and the played piece suddenly has some new breathing room to enjoy.

The game ends when both players decide that it is over, or when no more legal moves can be made (though typically the former occurs rather than the latter). Players count how many vacant spaces are controlled by their surrounding forces, subtracting points for any of their pieces that were taken prisoner. The player with the higher score is declared the victor.

A couple of technicalities to be aware of– First, there’s a “no tag-backs” rule where a player cannot play a stone in the space it was just removed from on the prior turn. Secondly, there can be some situations where an empty space is not controlled by either party– such a space is not counted towards either player’s score.

And that’s everything you need to know. Congratulations, you’re now ready to get badly beaten by a more experienced Go player!

Stones arranged to show the final score. (13×13 grid)

A Humbling Experience

One very cool thing about Go is the way that it teaches balance. Since points are scored based off of empty spaces, each stone you play reduces your possible score. Yet, at the same time, you must play some stones to control territories and beat your opponent. Because of this, there’s a lot of ambiguity in Go. In the same way that a karate master can use an attacker’s momentum against him, a Go player can be easily manipulated by a master who has discerned their plan, even if it is a good plan. This also helps explain why it took so long for a computer to defeat a Go master. A measure of intuition is necessary — Go can’t simply be solved with “If A, then B” logic.

As someone who tends to win more often than not at games, playing Matthew in Go was definitely a grounding experience. Matthew is very good at most games, so there’s no shame in losing to him, but this was a bloodbath. After explaining the rules to me, he prepared a novice-sized 13×13 grid for our match. As part of the preparation, he gave me a starting advantage of NINE STONES, as well as first move. I honestly thought that I stood a chance, especially with such a hefty starting advantage. Silly me. Matthew also provided tips as we played, and on more than one occasion he let me take back a bone-headed move after explaining why it would lead to my utter destruction. Despite all this, he still beat me with several points to spare.


By all accounts, losing badly just comes with the learning process in Go. It’s not a game that you can master right away, or even in a short period of time. Or probably ever.

Some people may see that as a bad thing, but I’ve got to have respect for a game that can lure you in with simple rules and then knock you flat on your back with a shocking level of depth. I absolutely want to play Matthew again in Go, after I get a chance to practice a little bit. I have no delusions that I’ll be able to beat him, but I hope to fare slightly better than in our first battle, and to avoid any blatant errors. I’ll report back to let you know how that goes.

In conclusion, if you like a good mental challenge and don’t mind losing (or even better- you like losing), I’d recommend checking out Go. There’s a reason it’s been capturing people’s imaginations for 4 millenia, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this review! If you’d like to purchase Go and you use one of my Amazon links, a portion of the proceeds will help support this blog. There’s the basic version and a version with drawers to store the stones. Thanks for reading!

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