Shobu Review, A two player abstract board game that feels like it must be an older classic

Shobu is an awesome two player abstract strategy game.

My wife and I are always on the lookout for small footprint, strategic, two player games to play while we are out enjoying a coffee, some drinks or having a romantic date night.

Shobu is an abstract strategy game that many people have recommended to us and we finally brought home a copy from Origins Game Fair earlier this year. Read on to see if it hit the spot for us.

Disclosure: Thank you to Smirk & Dagger/Smirk & Laughter games for letting us grab a review copy of Shobu at Origins. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon associate we earn from qualifying purchases. 

So, what is Shobu?

Shobu is a two-player-only board game designed by Jamie Sajdak, and Manolis Vranas that was published by Smirk & Dagger Games, under their Smirk & Laughter imprint, in 2019. 

This vaguely chess-like game is quick to learn with a suggested age of eight plus. Playtime is listed as 15 to 30 minutes but we’ve seen games go longer when you have a couple of equally matched players who spend a lot of time planning out their moves. 

Shobu is a grid-based, slide-and-push style, abstract strategy game. It features two dark wood boards and two light wood boards, with four dark coloured stones and four light coloured stones placed on each board. One player’s pieces are the dark stones, while the other’s are the light stones. Each turn players will take a passive move, moving one of their stones on their half of the table, and then they take a matching aggressive move on a board of the opposite colour. Aggressive moves can push stones and the goal is to push all of your opponent’s stones off of one of the four boards.

One of the things that sticks out about this game is the components, which you can get a good look at in our Shobu Unboxing Video on YouTube.

What you are going to see there are four wooden boards, two light and two dark, with a four-by-four grid carved into one side of each of them. The game also includes a large silk knotted rope, seventeen stones in two colours: light and dark, and a rulebook that is a single two-sided folded sheet. There’s also a cardboard box insert that does a fairly good job of keeping the stones and boards separate.

A look inside the box for Shobu

While the Shobu box includes seventeen stones only sixteen are required to play. I appreciate that Smirk & Laughter included an extra in case we lose a stone. The rules here are particularly good with plenty of examples, showing photos of the game being played with graphical overlays highlighting legal and illegal moves, etc.

One thing I do think is worth noting here is that yes, you could easily make your own copy of Shobu. You could play with sheets of paper and coins, or go down to the beach and draw the boards into the sand and use shells and rocks.

That said, I don’t mind paying for a game I could make myself even if it’s just to compensate the creators, and in this case, the components are quite nice and well worth the cost.

How do you play Shobu?

Setting up for a game of Shobu a chess-like abstract strategy game

You start a game of Shobu by setting out the boards, grouped so each player has a light and a dark board in front of them with a matching set on the opponent’s side. Place the silk rope between the two sides and then place four rocks from each player on each board so that the rocks are on the rows closest to them. 

Whoever is playing black goes first. Each turn players make two moves, a passive move and an aggressive move and they have to be made in that order.

For your passive move, you can pick any of your pieces on your side of the table (a.k.a. your side of the rope) and move it one or two squares in any direction, orthogonally or diagonally. You cannot move through any other piece when doing this. 

The summary of play for Shobu from the back of the rulebook

Next, you make a matching aggressive move. This means moving another of your pieces, but moving it the same number of spaces and in the same direction as the passive move you just did. This move can take place on either side of the table (a.k.a either side of the rope) but must be on an opposite coloured board from your passive move. Your aggressive move can push other stones out of the way as long as they aren’t in turn blocked by another piece. Any piece pushed off of any board is removed from the game. 

Now, keep doing this until one of you manages to knock all of your opponent’s pieces off of one of the boards. Note, you just need to clear your opponent’s pieces from one board, not all four.

That’s it. That’s all there is to playing Shobu.

It sounds simple, and mechanically it is, but trust me when I say it’s not nearly as easy to clear a board as you might think. 

Shobu is exactly what we want from an abstract strategy game

Playing Shobu with my podcast partner Sean.

Shobu gives me what I want from an abstract strategy game, it’s simple to learn but difficult to master. While learning what moves you can make is easy, knowing how to make use of those moves in order to win is the real key.

This is one of those games with a progression to its play. It starts off pretty simple, with a wide number of viable moves and it’s pretty easy to knock off a few of the opponent’s pieces. Early and even mid-game has some give and take and often feels like no one really has a strong advantage but then the game changes.

Suddenly someone is down to only one or two pieces on a board and the gameplay switches up. It starts to be about preventing your own pieces from being pushed rather than pushing the opponent’s pieces. This is where the game starts to feel more like a very tactical game of chess, and that part of Shobu is what I really dig.  

We first tried Shobu at Origins 2023

I also like the physical look, and potentially even more so, the tactile nature of the game. I like the touch and feel of the stones, they are nice and smoothly tumbled and make a nice satisfying thump when they fall off the board when pushed over an edge.

The components here are one of those quality-of-life improvements we were talking about recently on our podcast. This game could have easily had a fold-out board and cardboard counters, but instead, it features real wood boards, stones, and a rope.

Smirk & Laugher has a quote up on their online store’s page for Shobu that I really like, “SHOBU evokes the feeling of GO or CHESS but provides its own unique challenge. It feels immediately familiar and yet is wholly distinct and engaging.“

This game of Shobu is nearing the end

While I agree with the first part, and this is most definitely what I would call a Chess-like game, it is the second part of that statement, about Shobu feeling immediately familiar, that felt very true to me. Shobu feels like a game that’s been around for decades if not centuries and not something that only came out four years ago. 

The only real issue I can see with Shobu is that it’s a very pure two-player abstract strategy game. The publisher, Smirk & Dagger, is well known for their highly thematic games and even they thought Shobu would be more elegant without a theme.

There is also zero randomness in this game. You have perfect information from turn one. This lack of randomness, and of theme, will likely turn off some gamers and gaming groups. This is also not one of the light and silly party games that Smirk & Laughter is best known for.

My daughter enjoys beating me in Shobu

The game definitely has its fans though. Shobu, while it hasn’t won, has been nominated for some pretty big awards, including The Origins Award for Best Game in 2020, the 2020 American Tabletop Games Best Strategy Game, the 2019 Golden Geek Best Two-Player Board Game and the 2019 Board Game Quest Awards Best Two-Player Game. 

If you enjoy two-player, perfect information, abstract games, you should pick up Shobu. You will love its easy-to-learn mechanics and difficult-to-master strategies. 

If you aren’t an abstract strategy fan, and mostly dig games for their themes or love a lot of randomness, Shobu isn’t going to be your cup of tea. I suggest giving this one a pass. While it’s a really good abstract game, it’s still an abstract game and if you don’t enjoy that style, I can’t see Shobu winning you over. 

Shobu has been on my wishlist since I first heard about it in 2019 and I’m so happy it lived up to the hype. Not every game I’ve been wanting for four years does.

Right now I’m loving this abstract strategy game and will be packing it for a couple of days out of town this coming weekend. I’m even leaving The Duke behind in favour of Shobu, as I don’t feel I need two chess-like games. Long time fans will understand how much I adore The Duke, and how much of a statement it is for me to have Shobu take its place in my luggage.

What’s a game you’ve wanted for a long time, finally got a copy, and then found it to be just as good or better than you had hoped? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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2 Responses

    1. Hey Thomas,

      First time I’ve heard of that one. I love the look of those tiles! I’ve never seen this game anywhere though. Not at Origins, not at a store or even online. I’ll be keeping an eye open though.

      Moe T

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