Saturday, August 16, 2008

BC Advanced Strategies: Connect Four

This Saturday’s feature is a BC Advanced Strategy segment. The game of choice for this week is Connect Four. Most of you have probably played this game in some form or another and probably played it when you were really young. It’s a simple game, as your goal is to just get four-in-a-row. You don’t even need the actual Hasbro game to play it; you can easily make the 6x7 board using pencil and paper.

This game has no luck factor, so there is a wealth of strategy involved with this game. In fact, in 1988, mathematician James D. Allen solved Connect Four. He showed, that with perfect play, the player who goes first can always win. We won’t be looking into that strategy today (it’s a little complicated) and if you do run into someone who knows how to do the perfect play, you probably don’t want to play against them anyway.

Here are some simpler, general strategies you can use against your friends in Connect Four:
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1. Surround and conquer. If your opponent is building in the center, try and cover his outs by building on top of him. Just be careful that when you are building on top however, so that you don’t let your competitor build horizontal three-in-a-row in the process. I prefer staying on the offensive myself though, so if you see an opportunity to make a three-in-a row go for it.

2. Always look for force wins. When you see a lot of one color being placed in one area, look for possibilities on how to make (or stop) your opponent from forcing a win. Often times you’ll see someone making a three-in-a-row diagonal directly attached to a three-in-a-row horizontal, which would make that person win in two vertically adjacent spots. This is a great strategy as it forces you to block one win, only to lose on the next turn. Think ahead on every turn and see if you can capitalize on or stop this from happening.

3. Forced moves can give you better position. Building three-in-a-row upwards will rarely go past your competitor’s eye and they will have no choice but to block it, unless they want to lose. They effectively waste a turn blocking your three-in-a-row and now you have three of your color all stacked together, which can be easily built next to, and now have multiple ways to branch out. You opponent will have a tough time blocking off all your routes as a result, giving you good position.

4. Try to kill off columns if you’re in a bad position. Especially when your going second in a match, you may feel like you’re always playing reactionary defense to what your friend is doing. To make things simpler, try getting a three-in-a-row that would lead to a win in the 2nd or 6th columns. You’ll cut the board down in size and possibly mess up your opponents plans. If they are trying to stop you from killing off a column, they’re probably wasting moves themselves, so change your strategy and build on top of them to gain control.

5. When your opponent is thinking, count the spots left on the board. Near the end-game, there should be few enough spots where you count who is going to go where when you are forced to place in those dead columns. Count the spots silently and see if you are going to block yourself or give your competitor an easy win. If the situation doesn’t look for you, try to build a three-in-a-row in another spot and hope that your opponent doesn’t notice an easy win for you. On the other hand, if you count spots and see that you are going to win, force a stalemate up to that point. Play defense and cover up anything that could give your competitor another three-in-a-row.

6. Always start in the middle. If you’re going first, start in the middle. It’s always the best play and it will give you the most outs. If you’re going second, you should either play right on top of the center for balance or on either of the two columns from the center for defense. Playing directly next to the center will give your opponent a chance to build either a two-in-a-row diagonal, or a two-in-a-row horizontal. It looks nicer, but it gives you less of an advantage.

I used to play Connect Four all the time with my older brother and he was always really good at this game. It felt really good when I first beat him, as Connect Four was one of the first board games in which I started to really think strategically. Now, I share with you the strategies I go through when playing this fun little game.

And on a side note, I’ve been hearing from my friends that they don’t want to play these board games (that I’ve shown in the advanced strategies segment) with me anymore. That’s not fair people! I play strategically but, it can still be fun! Besides, now that you know how I think, you can use my own strategies against me. So… bring it!

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