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GAME CLASSICS: FOCUS

[Once again, it’s time to revisit great games that are, alas, no longer with us. In the past installments of our Game Classics series, we have featured an incredible assortment of brilliant designs: Astron, Bantu, Broker, Can’t Stop, Daytona 500, Holiday, Kimbo, Mr. President, Ploy, Rich Uncle, Square Mile, Stock Market Game (by Gabriel), Summit, Troque/Troke and Wildcatter. This time around, we focus our attention on a brilliant game where pieces not only move back and forth across the board but UP!, aptly titled Focus.]

FOCUS/DOMINATION (Western Publishing, 1965, Daekor Designs, 1979, Spears 1979, Parker Europe, 1980, Milton Bradley, 1982, Franckh/Kosmos, 1994, 2 or 4 players, ages 12 and up, 30-40 minutes; out of print)

 

Give your average gamer some checkers and a checkerboard and you’ll probably get a game of checkers. Give those implements to a genius like Sid Sackson and you get Focus, a game so unique in concept and execution that it won Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) honors back in 1981!

focuswest

1965 Western edition

Focus was first unveiled in, of all places, the October 1963 issue of the venerable science magazine, Scientific American, in a column by Martin Gardner. It was soon followed by a Western Games release in 1965. It was later incorporated in Sid’s classic book, A Gamut of Games (1969), for those players who wished to create their own copy.

The board of the game is actually a standard checkerboard of 8×8 dimensions with the nearest and farthest rows of squares on each side missing four or two squares (as seen on the box at left). In the two player game, each player receives 18 checkers (red and green in the Western set) which are placed in alternating pairs to occupy the inside areas of the board. (The nearest rows of four spaces along the perimeter are left unoccupied.)

Whereas in checkers, you move a piece diagonally across the board, in Focus, pieces do NOT move diagonally. They move across, forwards, backwards and UP! Pieces may move ON TOP of other pieces and from that simple change, a host of strategic considerations erupt.

A move involves moving a pile of pieces as many spaces as there are pieces in the pile. At the beginning of the game, all stacks are only 1 piece high so your first move can only be one space. But once the first moves are done, movement possibilities rapidly increase.

As pieces move onto spaces occupied by other pieces, those other pieces are captured. But the piece landed on is NOT captured in the traditional way of being removed from the board. Instead, that piece remains UNDERNEATH the capturing piece, creating a pile of pieces. The color of the piece ON TOP of a stack determines which player controls that stack. Stacks can move up to the number of spaces that there are pieces in a stack. So, for example, if you have a stack of five pieces, your stack may move five spaces. But there’s more.

To increase the options, stacks may be split! For example, a player who controls a stack of five but wishes to move three spaces may simply move the top three pieces of the stack. The rest of the stack remains where it is. (If the result is that the remaining stack is topped by a different color, then your OPPONENT now controls that stack!)

No stack may exceed a height of five pieces. If you make a move that results in a stack exceeding that limit, pieces in excess of five are REMOVED from the BOTTOM of the stack. Removed pieces belonging to your opponent are removed from play! Those belonging to you go into your “reserves” and may be brought back into the action simply by moving them onto ANY space on the board, free or occupied, instead of moving a stack. As you might suspect, placement of reserves is a powerful move.

When a player has no stacks under his control and no reserves to deploy, the game ends and his opponent is credited with the win!

focuspb

Parker Europe edition

The game also came with rules for a four player version, played in partnership, with a similar board set-up and virtually identical rules. (The only real differences are that captured pieces of a partner get returned to the partner as reserves and, if unable to move, that player simply misses his turn so long as his partner can still make a move.)

When the game was first presented, it was brought to Sid’s attention that the game could “freeze” through imitation. Since the initial game set-up is symmetrical, if the second player imitates the moves of the first player, the game would end in a draw. To remedy that problem, Sid proposed two “advanced” rules: A) if such a situation occurs, then the SECOND player is considered the loser or B) before the game starts but after set-up, each player switches the position of one of his pieces with his opponent but the second player may not do a switch that restores the symmetry. This minor tweak fixed the problem.

I discovered Focus with the Daekor edition. The novel concepts of the game resulted in the playing of many enjoyable sessions. (The problem with the Daekor edition was that the initial run was done WITHOUT Sid’s permission. Ironically, the edition still credited the author – as “Sid Saxon”! Fortunately, permission was later obtained and later printings have a “by Sid Sackson” sticker pasted over the misspelled name. At the same time, in England, Spears came out with a Focus set to be followed later with a Parker Brothers edition available in Europe.

domination

Focus, renamed Domination, by Milton Bradley

Franckh/Kosmos Focus with its SdJ sticker

Focus remained in print for a number of years. The Western edition (pictured first above) actually used a checkerboard (minus the peripheral squares) and checkers with ridges to aid stacking. The Daekor Design edition (above, top right) used rounded, plastic pieces which stacked beautifully and a molded plastic board with side pockets to hold them giving the game a different (and attractive) look. Back in America, after winning Game of the Year honors, Milton Bradley came out with a set which looked very much like the Daekor edition – but without the pockets to hold the pieces! They also changed the name of the game to something they must have felt was more saleable: Domination. A TV ad to promte the game soon followed. (A rarity for this type of game to be sure.) The TV ad involved a drill sergeant type rallying the troops to “Dominate!“Dominate!”Dominate!” the enemy. A valiant effort to be sure but if you saw the ad, you didn’t have a clue as to what the game was about. Unfortunately, the game soon passed from the Milton Bradley line and vanished from American game shelves. In Europe, Franckh/Kosmos kept this gem alive for several years with the game finally entering the realm of out of print only a handful of years ago.

Focus has undergone a number of editions (I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them escaped the scope of this feature) over the last few decades. It remains a classic example of what a talented designer can do with the basic tools of the trade and a remarkable flair. In the panorama of classic Sid Sackson designs, Focus remains a true jewel. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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