The Creation of Arimaa

It was a cold winter day on January 15th 1999. I was watching the kids while my wife went to get the groceries. Aamir was only four and a half years old at the time, but I was trying to teach him how to play Chess. I soon realized that playing a game with the full set of Chess pieces was not yet a possibility, so I started with just the Pawns and King and planned to introduce the other pieces one at a time later. While playing these games with just Pawns and King I realized that even with pieces that had such simple movements there can still be some very interesting games. This brought back some thoughts and memories from 1997 when Garry Kasparov, the world Chess champion was defeated by Deep Blue, a Chess playing computer built by IBM. For some reason after watching that match I really felt sorry for Garry Kasparov because I thought that in a way he was not able to show the depth of his real intelligence over a game of Chess. I felt that Garry had just been out calculated, not really out smarted. I had this feeling that using just the board and pieces of a standard Chess set, it should be possible to make a game which would require the kind of real intelligence that humans possess and computers have not even begun to acquire. This game could become the new challenge since Chess had now been dominated by computers. However, my initial attempts to create such a game lead to extreamly complicated games and I had too many other things to do, so the idea quickly sank to the bottom of the stack.

Even simple rules can lead to interesting games

But on this winter day while playing simple versions of Chess with Aamir, I realized what I needed to make the game; why hadn't I thought of it before; it seemed so obvious now. The pieces should have very simple movements, but the players should be able to move more than one piece in each turn. That would allow the number of possible moves in each turn to increase exponentially to the point where computers could not handle it anymore, but humans could still easily play it because of the simple moves. Now I just had to come up with a goal, decide how many pieces could be moved in each turn and a few other formalities and the game would be ready. I figured it should only take about a day or two and it was Friday night with the whole weekend ahead of me. Let's do it.

"Hey Aamir, lets invent a new game" I said interrupting his chain of thought for his next move. He gave me an excited look and said "A new game, like Chess?". "Yea, what should we call it?" I asked while trying to think what Aamir sounds like backwards. "How about Rimaa?" I proposed. "Arimaa?" he asked. Thinking that sounds even better, I replied, "Yea, that sounds good, we'll call it Arimaa." (pronounced Ah-REE-ma). So the first thing we did was pick a name for a game that didn't even exist. But that didn't bother us. The game would be ready by Monday and we had already picked the name. All we had to do now was figure out the rules.

We spent that weekend trying out different rules and playing games to test them. Pretty soon all my relatives were helping to test the game. On Monday we were still testing and trying different rules. In fact the whole week went by and we were still testing. Pretty soon a month had gone by and I started to realize that this was not going to be as easy as I thought. It's easy to come up with a set of rules, but how those rules will actually play out is not easy to tell. Will there be loop holes in the rules? Will the goal be too easy or too difficult to achieve? Can someone purposely play it in such a way that the other person can't win? You have to actually play a lot of games to find out. Making even simple changes to the rules can have a big impact on the resulting game, so every time you change the rules you have to start over with the testing. Then there is the "interesting" factor. Is the game actually interesting to play? Well you've got to play it to find out. This amounts to a lot of game playing and after a while it starts to feel like work. Do I really want to do this? I was starting to have second thoughts.

To make matters worse, I came across so many horror stories on the Internet of other game designers spending years and losing fortunes trying to invent a game. There is no way I'm going to do that; I've got kids to feed. So I would give up on the game, frustrated that it is just not quite right and I'm not going to waste anymore time on it. But then one day, maybe in the middle of the night, out of nowhere, I would get an idea of a new rule that could make the game perfect. I would get all excited again to try out the new rule. By now it had gotten to the point that before I told anyone about a new rule I would try it out first by playing complete games against myself. If you ever tried playing a game like Chess against yourself you know it's not the funnest thing in the world; it's mentally exausting. But in the middle of the night I would get up to start testing out the new rule. If it looked promising I would test it out with others. This occurred on and off for about a year. But every time there would be something or other that bothered me about the game and I would not feel satisfied with it. I finally decided to "scrap it" in January of 2000 when other things in my life needed more attention. I thought I was through with it for good.

In September of 2001, while cleaning out the hard disk on my computer I came across some Arimaa rule files. I started thinking about the rules again with a fresh new approach. I could see that the game was almost there and this time I was sure I could finish it. I reduced the rules to just the most essential ones and began testing it. I hit another snag, it was possible for someone to play a defensive game and keep the opponent from winning. I had to reintroduce the pulling rule, but it was not enough. After much debate I decided to allow an exception rule that the Pawns could not move backwards. This solved the problem. By now the game was using all the Chess pieces except 4 Pawns and the Queen and was pretty well balanced. I was ready to release it. But since I wanted to maximize the number of possible moves in each turn, I decided to add the 4 Pawns and Queen so that the complete set of Chess pieces were used. To my surprise it kept the game balanced and didn't introduce any new problems. I was happy with the rules. But before releasing the game I wanted to give a different theme to the pieces so that it would be easy for people who don't play Chess to easily tell which piece is stronger. The kids helped me with this and we decided on using familiar animals that are well known internationally. By the middle of November 2001 Arimaa was finally finished. I decided to delay the release of the game until April 18th, 2002 which is when Aamir turns eight. But the web site didn't get finished in time; it took a lot longer to develop then I thought it would.

Finally it was released on November 20, 2002. The one thing I learned from all this is that developing a game is not easy and if you ever decide to "scrap it" be sure to remove all traces of the game, otherwise it will come back to get you.

About Omar and Aamir

Copyright © 1999-present All Rights Reserved. Contact author for permission.