Arimaa/Introduction to Tactics
In Arimaa, a tactic is usually a one- or two-turn plan which can be calculated precisely. Since there are up to four steps per turn, plans which aim farther than two turns ahead are usually impossible to calculate exactly, and therefore generally belong to the realm of strategy. This is in contrast to chess, where positions can be precisely calculated more than two turns ahead.
The most basic tactics to master are those that bring a friendly rabbit to goal or capture an enemy piece within four steps. If a player can't achieve victory or capture in a single turn, the opponent may bring in reinforcements which change the situation dramatically. Such contingencies require strategic rather than tactical planning.
Most simply, a rabbit may be able to reach goal within one turn, even if the path appears blocked by a trap square and/or opposing pieces. At left, the gold rabbit on b5 can step to victory via b6, c6, c7, and c8. The rabbit is safe on the trap due to the gold dog on c5, and is never frozen because it is always next to a friendly piece on the way to goal. The rabbit will theoretically be frozen once it reaches c8, but Gold will have won regardless.
Pulling away an opposing piece may allow a blocked rabbit to advance. At left, if the gold cat on h7 moves to h6 while pulling the silver rabbit from g7 to h7, the gold rabbit on g6 can then reach the goal in the turn's final two steps. The gold camel on f6 is lost when the rabbit advances, but reaching the goal is worth any sacrifice. Many beginners seem to prefer pushing over pulling, but note that a push is ineffectual in this case. If the gold cat pushes the silver rabbit, the cat will itself be in the way of the friendly rabbit, which won't then have time to reach the goal in the same turn.
Near the goal line, a rabbit which is frozen but not blocked is a constant threat. Silver to move could push the gold horse on b3 to c3 with the silver camel moving from b4 to b3. This would unfreeze the silver rabbit on b2, which could then step to victory via a2 and a1. Occasionally a blocked and frozen rabbit may be unblocked and unfrozen at the same time. Silver to move could pull the gold rabbit from g2 to g3 with the silver elephant sliding from g3 to f3, unfreezing the silver rabbit on f2, which could then step to the vacated g2 and then to g1, winning the game. The silver elephant would be lost as soon as the silver rabbit stepped away, but since Silver wins immediately, the elephant loss is of no consequence. With the silver rabbit beginning the turn blocked in all directions and also frozen, this one-turn goal is very easy to overlook.
A non-elephant piece acting as its side's sole defender of a trap is itself vulnerable. With Gold to move in the position at right, the gold elephant can step from d5 to c5, then to b5, and then push the b6 dog into the c6 trap. Since there is no other silver piece next to the trap, this captures the silver dog, in one turn.
Sometimes one may need to push aside an obstructing piece to get at a vulnerable piece. With Gold to move, the g6 camel could push the silver cat on g7 to h7; now on g7, the gold camel can push the silver horse on f7 to f6, capturing it in a turn where one friendly piece pushed two different enemy pieces.
A piece on a trap square with only one adjacent friendly piece is extremely vulnerable. Silver to move could capture the gold horse on c3 by stepping the silver elephant from d4 to c4, then b4, and then dislodging the gold dog on b3.
A piece which is two squares away from an undefended trap could be captured in four steps, if a stronger enemy piece is next to it. If it is Gold's turn, the g3 dog can capture the g2 cat. The dog could end the capture on any of three squares: f4 (after two pulls via f3), f2 (after two pushes via g2 or two pulls via f3) or g3 (via g4, with a pull followed by a push). The latter maneuver, where a piece returns to its initial square after moving an opposing piece two squares, is known as a flip.
The simplest capture defense is to station an elephant next to a trap square. Since nothing can dislodge an elephant, nothing can be captured in that trap until the elephant voluntarily moves away. At left, no gold pieces can be captured in the northwest trap as long as the gold elephant remains on c5. If all stronger enemy pieces are tied up elsewhere, a single piece such as a horse may defend a trap alone, but must beware of a changing situation which liberates any stronger opposing piece to move nearer and threaten it.
The next simplest capture defense, mutual protection, is to station two or more pieces next to a trap. This allows weaker pieces with numerical superiority to defend against one, and sometimes two strong attackers. However, mutual protection cannot defend against three attackers because they can surround three sides of a trap. At left, Silver has defended the c6 trap with a dog on b6 and a rabbit on c7. If Gold pushes the dog away, there will not be enough steps left to capture the rabbit. Gold to move can at most set up the threat of a capture for the following turn, which gives Silver time to defend.
Sometimes one may wish to defend a trap without bringing a second piece adjacent to it. In this case one can obstruct the path of the attacking piece with friendly pieces. The gold camel on g6 can't capture the vulnerable silver horse on f7, because the silver cat on g7 is in the way, and the silver rabbits on h7 and g8 prevent the cat from being pushed. Gold could pull the cat to g6, but that would only make it a second defender of the northeast trap. The silver pieces on f7, g7, h7 and g8 form a phalanx blocking the gold camel.
One counter-intuitive way to block an enemy's path is to station a friendly piece on a trap square in front of another friendly piece. The silver elephant could push the gold cat to d3, but that would temporarily give the c3 trap two gold defenders, making it impossible for Silver to capture anything in the final two steps. This only works because there is nothing else to immediately threaten the c2 dog; if it were dislodged with the cat still on c3, the cat would be lost.
In the southeast, Silver is threatening to capture the e3 horse by stepping the g3 camel into the trap, where it is safe due to the silver dog on f2, then returning while pulling the horse. Gold can defend by pulling the f2 dog to e2 (with the horse returning to e3) and then occupying f2 with the f1 dog, after which the gold horse and dog mutually protect the trap. This four-step maneuver is called a pull and replace.
A last resort capture defense is scattering, i.e. retreating threatened pieces away from a trap to the edges and corners of the board. Scattering usually only delays captures, because the weak pieces can be frozen and eventually pulled into the trap which has been stripped of its defense. Furthermore, scattering away from a home trap may leave a hole through which an opposing rabbit can march to the goal. On the other hand, delaying captures may buy time to make progress elsewhere on the board. This defensive technique is most often useful late in the game when defenders are few (which makes mutual protection less feasible) and goal threats are imminent (which leaves less time to hunt down fleeing pieces).
More capture patterns
After one has learned the basic ways of defending a trap square, one may be lured into a false sense of security by an illusion of defense. At right, Silver has two pieces next to the northwest trap, but since both pieces can be dislodged, Gold has a one-turn capture. First the gold elephant on b5 can push the silver dog from b6 to c6, and then the newly unfrozen gold cat on b7 can push the silver rabbit from c7 to c8, capturing the dog. Alternatively Gold can capture the rabbit by pushing or pulling the dog away from b6, then pushing the rabbit from c7 into c6. This situation, where a one-turn capture is possible despite the presence of two defenders adjacent to the trap, is known as false protection. It is only possible if there are two attackers, one adjacent to each defender.
Around the northeast trap, the silver camel cannot push the gold dog into the trap, since the horse is in the way. However, Silver can play a split capture: the camel pushes the dog to g6, then the horse pulls the dog into the trap.
In the southwest corner, Gold has calculated that even if the silver elephant pushes the gold rabbit from b4 to a4, the gold horse on b3 is safe from a push. This is correct but insufficient, because the silver elephant may still pull the gold horse from b3 to b4, capturing the gold camel on c3.
The situation around the southeast trap demonstrates that an enemy piece in a trap square provides less protection than a friendly one. The f3 dog may voluntarily step east or west, leaving three steps for the f4 horse to enter the trap square and pull the gold dog from f2 to f3, capturing it. If instead a gold piece were on f3, Silver wouldn't have a one-turn capture, since pushing or pulling that gold piece would place it on e3, g3, or f4, temporarily giving the trap two gold defenders.
The fork threatens a single frozen piece with capture in two different traps. It is the most basic of the two-turn tactics: on the first turn an enemy piece is threatened, and on the second turn it is captured unless the enemy can defend both traps. In the diagram at left, from this game, Gold has threatened to capture the silver dog in either c3 or f3. Silver to move would need one step to defend the c3 trap with the elephant, and three steps to defend the f3 trap with the cat. Unfortunately for Silver, the gold rabbit on e4 is threatening to reach goal next turn, so Silver must spend at least one step defending the goal, and the silver dog is lost.
Forks resulting in immediate material gain are more common later in the game when fewer defenders are available, but even if both relevant traps can be defended, holding a hostage near one or two traps can be an effective strategy to commit enemy pieces to defensive positions.
The fence is a less common two-turn capture tactic. A piece is brought next to a trap, and hemmed in on two sides. The piece may be unfrozen from a third side, but then its only direction of retreat would be into the trap. In the diagram at right, from this game, Gold has fenced the silver horse next to the c3 trap. Silver is to move, but can't prevent the capture of the horse. The silver elephant could indeed unfreeze the fenced horse by moving to c5 (incidentally capturing the gold rabbit in c6), but the unfrozen silver horse can't then escape, as its only available move would be suicide. Furthermore, the gold pieces prevent the silver elephant from reaching d3, c2, or b3 in four steps, and no other silver piece is close enough to defend the c3 trap.
Limitations of tactics
When one's opponent understands these tactics, there are not many ways to achieve immediate material gain. Until one side can gain a long-term advantage, most threats can be neutralized. In this game, shown at left, Silver has just flipped the gold camel from e3 to e5, and is threatening to capture it in f6. Besides defending the camel immediately, Gold must take care not to allow it to be forked between c6 and f6. The b5 horse could also be threatened in the near future. Despite these tactical ideas in the position, the game ended without a single capture. Although this is unusual, captures in Arimaa are much less common than in chess.
After becoming acquainted with the most basic Arimaa tactics, you should turn your attention to long-term strategy, which will better enable you to get into positions where tactics are of use.