Game Review - Zillions of Games by Jeff Mallett and Mark Lefler

Zillions of Games, Jeff Mallett and Mark Lefler, Zillions Development, 1998.

Courtesy of Zillions Development
Zillions of Games (henceforth Zillions) is a fascinating computer implementation of many abstract board games. Not only does the package provide over 290 popular games and puzzles, such as Chess, Checkers, Halma, Tafl, Alquerque, Reversi, etc., it also provides the means to create, implement, and play your own games and variants. In other words, it is more than just a game player, it is a game engine, a never-ending, expandable system for playing games. It is fascinating.

First of all, let me describe what you get. For $29.95 and $4 shipping, available online from Zillions Development, you get a CD-ROM for Windows-based computers that plays over 290 games and puzzles. There are 104 puzzles such as the 8 queens puzzle, many peg solitaire games, and the Towers of Hanoi. There are 58 chess-like games including famous chess brain teasers and international variants such as Chinese and Korean chess and Shogi. There are 46 X-in-a-Row games like Tic-Tac-Toe, Nine Men Morris and Go-Moku. And there are 102 other abstract board games such as Alquerque, Chinese Checkers, Halma, Reversi, and Tafl games such as Tablut and HnefaTafl.

Courtesy of Zillions Development
For those looking for a decent computer opponent, this game has it. From the web site I see the Zillions chess engine is rated at 1900. I am not so great at chess, and Zillions beats me everytime. At other games it is a mixed bag. I repeatedly beat the computer at Checkers and Chinese Checkers, games I haven't played in years, but I lose or draw consistenly at Tablut and Nine Men Morris. For the 100 or so variations that I have never played, I was the usual loser, that is until I got the hang of the game, and then I was able to play the computer until getting a draw. For me this is no matter. The program offers an excellent play via-internet option, which offers any gamer lots of worthy opponents and a minimal chat interface. The game works well through the internet and I saw no show-stopping bugs or lost connections.

What is most fascinating about Zillions is the fact that it is not just a game, it is a game toolbox, something that many abstract game players have been searching for for many years. Zillions is extensible, and new games such as Surakarta and Turkisk Draughts are added weekly to the Zillions free downloads page. For any one of the games, there is a corresponding "Zillions Rules File" or ZRF. Crack open the ASCII text file and you see a LISP-like language for describing the rules, the pieces, and the variants of the game. Non-technical people should not venture into these files, but many technically-competent people will find it easy to change the files to create new variants, change the color or graphics of the pieces, or change the sounds for various game events. Programmers, especially those who have programmed in LISP, will find it easy to create new games in the ZRF format. In fact, Jens Markmann has an excellent description of the ZRF language at his Art of Games web site. There should be no problem describing any of the abstract board games in say Sid Sackson's Gamut of Games or R.C. Bell's Board Games of Many Civilizations. I intend to wite a few and see how the game works.

Courtesy of Zillions Development
There is room for improvement in this package, mostly related to the user-interface for the game. For one, there are only one or two options for board sizes and components. On my computer screen (800 by 600 resolution) most board were either two small or too large. Perhaps the program should have some sort of image processing to provide an infinte range of size - perhaps some sort of "scale to fit window" sizing option. Also, the game piece graphics and sounds are coded directly into the Zillions Rule Files with no means to change on-the-fly from the interface. Perhaps a default can be coded into the file, but there should be some dialog box or means of selecting alternate sets. Take for example Chess. Like the physical world where one can find hundreds of sets or every concieveable material, everyone seems to have their favorite computer images as well. It would be a blessing if the program could manage swapping graphic file sets. The controls are very clunky. I found no simple control to say to the program "you go first." I also did not find adequate icons for "play again", "take back" or "switch sides" or "give me a hint." These controls are there, I just did not find the interface symbols to be easy to understand or remember.

Also, the ZRF file omits any notion of money or points scoring. Without money changing hands, it appears to limit this game engine from allowing Zillions implementations of Acquire, Monopoly or Yahtzee. Notably absent from the games list is Mancala and that family of related table games. Lastly, the game description, help, and strategies are too brief. These are coded directly into the ZRF files and appear in a simple dialog information box. I wish these were in seperable text files, perhaps in HTML format, so that the explanations could be longer and more easy to view. If I am being overly critical of a $30 game, I do not intend to be. Perhaps the open-endedness and the possibilites with this engine, just leave me salivating for more. Hopefully some of these improvements can be incorporated into future versions of the program.

Despite these weaknesses, I certainly feel I got my money's worth with this game. Already it has taught me new games and variants, and it provides me with a default opponent for gaming when no one else is around. I certainly have been enjoying exploring the games included with the package, but I will also revisit the web site and see what other games that people contribute. The basic game engine provides many avenues for exploration. I highly recommend this game.

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