## Forgotten classic

In 1966, Parker Brothers issued the excellent game Universe. The set I was given must have been made in 1968 or later, because the box featured publicity stills from the movie

Universe is for two to four players. The board consists of a central 10x10 region and four additional regions arrayed along each side, in a rotationally symmetric fashion:

*2001: A Space Odyssey*. One of the shots shows an astronaut apparently playing Universe against Hal. The game is a collector's item now, and sets are difficult to find on eBay.Universe is for two to four players. The board consists of a central 10x10 region and four additional regions arrayed along each side, in a rotationally symmetric fashion:

Each player has a set of pentominoes. If you have played Tetris, you know what a tetromino is. A pentomino is five squares connected flush, side to side. There are 12 types of pentominoes, not counting rotations or reflections:

The pieces do not actually have numbers imprinted on them, but I have added numbers here, for the purpose of establishing an unambiguous syntax for move notation. Each piece shape has its own distinct number. Pentomino 1 is the only piece that does not occupy different squares when rotated or flipped, so its location can be indicated with just one set of coordinates. All the other pieces use two sets of coordinates. The first set will correspond to the square indicated by 1, and the second set of coordinates will be the location of the square indicated by 2. See the next diagram for an example.

Each set is a distinct color: White, Yellow, Red, or Blue. (The following two-player positions will use Blue versus Red.) A four-player game uses the whole board. Three players use the central region plus any two outer regions. Two players use just the 10x10 region. The board is empty of pieces at the start. Blue moves first. Each move consists of placing one of your pieces on the board, aligned with the grid, on five previously vacant squares. Pieces remain where they are placed. You may not "fence off" any region of one to four vacant squares with your move. For example, in the following diagram, Red's piece is illegally placed, because it fences off two regions of one square each. (The notation for Blue's move here is 12-D3-C5, and Red's illegal move is 1-B2.)

Each set is a distinct color: White, Yellow, Red, or Blue. (The following two-player positions will use Blue versus Red.) A four-player game uses the whole board. Three players use the central region plus any two outer regions. Two players use just the 10x10 region. The board is empty of pieces at the start. Blue moves first. Each move consists of placing one of your pieces on the board, aligned with the grid, on five previously vacant squares. Pieces remain where they are placed. You may not "fence off" any region of one to four vacant squares with your move. For example, in the following diagram, Red's piece is illegally placed, because it fences off two regions of one square each. (The notation for Blue's move here is 12-D3-C5, and Red's illegal move is 1-B2.)

This means, if a region of 6 to 9 vacant squares is fenced off, it becomes a "dead zone" where no one may play. If you have no legal move on your turn, you lose. The winner is the last player to make a move. This is a very absorbing and pleasing game, and can usually be played in 20 minutes or less.

The pieces are fun to play with! There are several puzzles involving pentominoes, and this game gives you four complete sets, made of durable plastic! The board is framed in plastic, with a raised border around the perimeter. This helps protect the board, and helps to align pieces that touch the edge. Unfortunately, the board I got did not come out quite square. The pieces are made accurately, but if you try to fill all 200 squares, some pieces will always pop out somewhere. Perhaps this is why the rules prohibit fencing off regions of 1-4 squares. Besides speeding up the game, it tends to result in more empty space, so play is still possible even if the board is a bit warped. I suppose I could shave down the sides a little….

Ironically, although the opening is the most difficult phase of the game to understand, it is possible to throw away the game on the first move of a two-player game! That is, there is a first move, which not only loses, but loses so badly, that the second player has a very simple and unstoppable winning strategy. If the first move occupies either one or two of the four central squares, then in almost every case, the opponent can respond by making the rotationally symmetric move. I call this the "symmetric strategy." Once the central region is closed off, Blue will be unable to break symmetry. Red will be able to respond to each of Blue's moves this way, and will therefore be able to make the last move of the game. But there are a couple of exceptions to this. What first move can Blue make, which occupies either one or two of the four central squares, against which Red cannot win by using the symmetric strategy? Note that Blue's first move might very well be a losing move, but in order to win, Red will have to try another approach than the symmetric strategy.

Suppose the board were 10x9 instead of 10x10. Now there are just two central cells, instead of four. Blue makes a first move which occupies precisely one of the two central cells. Red responds with the symmetric strategy for as long as possible. If the symmetric strategy becomes impossible, Red makes the best possible sequence of moves. Even so, Blue is able to win the game. How could this happen?

The move tree in the opening is quite dense, but each move drastically reduces the number of legal moves remaining for each player. For example, if Blue makes the initial move 12-D3-C5 as shown in the previous diagram, Red's legal responses are reduced from 3960 to 2988, and Blue's choices go down from 3960 to 2632. As far as the first move is concerned, if you do not count symmetrically identical moves or moves that immediately lose, you need consider only 427.

There are natural criteria for evaluating early moves. For example, the asymmetric pieces 3, 4, 7, 12, and especially 6, can be placed on the board in many distinct ways, and are therefore more likely to be playable in the endgame. 12-D3-C5 is probably a bad first move; piece 12 should be saved for later. Piece 1 is a much better piece to "get rid of" early on; there are only 60 ways to play that piece (as opposed to 568 ways for piece 6), and it is probably the most difficult piece for your opponent to try to fence off a region of that shape.

The most important goal to aim for is to fence off a move only you can make, and which your opponent cannot block. Such a region is usually 5 squares in size, but could also be a portion of a larger region (10 squares or more.) Once you get this reserve move, if you can prevent your opponent from doing the same to you, a win is assured. Naturally, you would want to keep that move in reserve until the end. A reasonable secondary objective in the opening would be to reduce the opponent's responses as much as possible, while reducing your own future choices as little as possible.◾️

Here is a puzzle, to introduce you to tactics. The regions are labeled to help clarify the solution.

The pieces are fun to play with! There are several puzzles involving pentominoes, and this game gives you four complete sets, made of durable plastic! The board is framed in plastic, with a raised border around the perimeter. This helps protect the board, and helps to align pieces that touch the edge. Unfortunately, the board I got did not come out quite square. The pieces are made accurately, but if you try to fill all 200 squares, some pieces will always pop out somewhere. Perhaps this is why the rules prohibit fencing off regions of 1-4 squares. Besides speeding up the game, it tends to result in more empty space, so play is still possible even if the board is a bit warped. I suppose I could shave down the sides a little….

Ironically, although the opening is the most difficult phase of the game to understand, it is possible to throw away the game on the first move of a two-player game! That is, there is a first move, which not only loses, but loses so badly, that the second player has a very simple and unstoppable winning strategy. If the first move occupies either one or two of the four central squares, then in almost every case, the opponent can respond by making the rotationally symmetric move. I call this the "symmetric strategy." Once the central region is closed off, Blue will be unable to break symmetry. Red will be able to respond to each of Blue's moves this way, and will therefore be able to make the last move of the game. But there are a couple of exceptions to this. What first move can Blue make, which occupies either one or two of the four central squares, against which Red cannot win by using the symmetric strategy? Note that Blue's first move might very well be a losing move, but in order to win, Red will have to try another approach than the symmetric strategy.

Suppose the board were 10x9 instead of 10x10. Now there are just two central cells, instead of four. Blue makes a first move which occupies precisely one of the two central cells. Red responds with the symmetric strategy for as long as possible. If the symmetric strategy becomes impossible, Red makes the best possible sequence of moves. Even so, Blue is able to win the game. How could this happen?

The move tree in the opening is quite dense, but each move drastically reduces the number of legal moves remaining for each player. For example, if Blue makes the initial move 12-D3-C5 as shown in the previous diagram, Red's legal responses are reduced from 3960 to 2988, and Blue's choices go down from 3960 to 2632. As far as the first move is concerned, if you do not count symmetrically identical moves or moves that immediately lose, you need consider only 427.

There are natural criteria for evaluating early moves. For example, the asymmetric pieces 3, 4, 7, 12, and especially 6, can be placed on the board in many distinct ways, and are therefore more likely to be playable in the endgame. 12-D3-C5 is probably a bad first move; piece 12 should be saved for later. Piece 1 is a much better piece to "get rid of" early on; there are only 60 ways to play that piece (as opposed to 568 ways for piece 6), and it is probably the most difficult piece for your opponent to try to fence off a region of that shape.

The most important goal to aim for is to fence off a move only you can make, and which your opponent cannot block. Such a region is usually 5 squares in size, but could also be a portion of a larger region (10 squares or more.) Once you get this reserve move, if you can prevent your opponent from doing the same to you, a win is assured. Naturally, you would want to keep that move in reserve until the end. A reasonable secondary objective in the opening would be to reduce the opponent's responses as much as possible, while reducing your own future choices as little as possible.◾️

Here is a puzzle, to introduce you to tactics. The regions are labeled to help clarify the solution.

*David Bush is an expert Twixt player, who contributed articles on Twixt to*AG2

*,*AG4

*,*AG7

*, and*AG8

*.*Universe is playable on boardspace.net

*. The Universe article was originally submitted for*AG17

*in 2003, and we are glad finally to bring it to readers. ~ Ed.*