Arimaa Review

Arimaa board game in play - its like Chess

A while back, I did a top ten abstract board games list. One of the comments spoke incredibly highly of an abstract that I hadn't tried yet - Arimaa.  So, of course, I hunted down a copy and tried it out!

In Arimaa, the goal of the game is to get one of your rabbits onto your opponent's edge of the board.  To start the game, you have an elephant, camel, two horses, two dogs, two cats, and eight rabbits (listed in order of power).  Each player can set these pieces up however they choose along the two rows closest to them.  Then, on each turn, players can make up to four total moves.  A move is always orthogonal (not diagonal), and these moves can be split up among as many pieces as you would like.  There are two special moves (that require two movement points) - you can push or pull an opponent's piece.  To do either of these moves, your piece must be stronger than your opponent's.  To push, you simply move your opponent into any unoccupied space adjacent to their current position and place your piece where they just vacated.  To pull, you move your piece to an adjacent vacant space and move their piece to the spot you just vacated.  These moves are especially important, as there are four black hole spaces on the board - if you push your opponent onto one of them, then they lose that piece.  Two more special rules - rabbits cannot move backwards, and a piece adjacent to an opponent's stronger piece is "frozen" and cannot move (unless the piece is also adjacent to a friendly piece).  Players alternate turns of four moves until one rabbit has crossed the finish line!  Or, until one person has made so much rabbit stew that their opponent no longer has any rabbits to attempt to win with.

closeup of elephant in Arimaa
Elephant getting ready to cause havoc
The first thing that I think is interesting about Arimaa is the elephant piece.  This is somewhat like the King in Chess - but at the same time, the complete opposite.  In Arimaa, the elephant is your most important piece (hence like the King), but your opponent cannot capture it (thus the complete opposite).  Your elephant is the strongest piece on the board, and so how you choose to use it will alter the game significantly.  Do you use it offensively or defensively?  You can use it offensively to attempt to slaughter as many of their pieces as possible, forcing them to simply run away with whichever piece they want to keep.  Alternatively, you can use it defensively to help guard a path for your rabbit to sprint across the board.  Since any piece that is adjacent to an opponent's stronger piece is frozen, you can set up your elephant so that it will freeze your opponent if they try to attack your rabbit.  (Of course, they can still attack it with their elephant, but you can counter that by putting your elephant in their way - they will be forced to use several moves to go around your piece, since your elephant is the only piece that they cannot push.)

The next element of Arimaa that I enjoyed was the black hole spaces.  I really thought that this was a nice way of capturing pieces.  Again, I will compare this to Chess, as Arimaa naturally gets that comparison (you play it on the same sized board, and with the same number and breakdown of pieces - in fact, you can use an Arimaa set as a Chess set if you prefer).  In Chess, you simply have to land on an opponent's piece to capture them.  I like that in Arimaa, it requires a bit more effort.  The push or pull requires two movement points each.  Plus, if the target is not adjacent to the black hole to begin with, it may require two push/pull maneuvers to capture a piece.  However, even with that extra effort, it still does not necessarily cost your entire turn to capture a single piece - you may be able to push a piece into the black hole, and then still have two movement points remaining that you can use elsewhere.  I really liked how the capturing worked here.  Another reason that this worked so well is that the black hole spaces are positioned on the board so that a piece is never very far away from one.  So, if you're not paying attention, you can lose a piece on almost any turn.

different Arimaa playing pieces
Pieces in order of power
My third pro for Arimaa is the mechanic that stronger pieces freeze weaker pieces.  Just as much as capturing your opponent's pieces, freezing them is an equally important component to master.  Yet, having a piece frozen isn't all bad, as you can unfreeze them with any of your other pieces - a lowly rabbit can unfreeze a piece that is adjacent to an opponent's elephant.  (I'm not really sure how this works thematically (granted, abstract games don't have theme) - are they planning to attack the elephant together?  That reminds me of some of the handicap matches that Andre the Giant used to fight.  Andre always won.)  This ability to unfreeze is especially important when trying to get your rabbit across the finish line.  Many times a player will leave their cat pieces behind (mainly because they're not very strong and would get slaughtered if they charged ahead), and these pieces can be positioned to freeze a rabbit that is attempting to cross.  It's easy enough to get around this by moving another piece along with your rabbit.  However, unfreezing the rabbit requires you to move the escorting piece as well, which costs extra movement points.  And, if you run out of movement at the wrong time, their cat might throw your rabbit into a black hole and force you to start over with another one.  Overall - freezing is really a beautiful mechanic in this game that adds a lot of depth to strategy.

My fourth pro for Arimaa is that I like the freedom that the game allows.  I like that you can setup your pieces however you want, and that you can split your movement points up among different pieces.  However, possibly due to this freedom, I must share my sole con for the game: players that are prone to think for long periods of time can make the game drag.  This is true in a lot of abstract strategy games (since the entire game is visible in front of you, if you can outthink your opponent, there is nothing that can stop you).  However, I have discovered that the more a game resembles chess, the longer that players will sit around and think.  And, Arimaa resembles Chess a lot (in looks, not in gameplay).  So, this is just something that you should be aware of - if your opponent likes to sit and think, then be prepared to have quite a bit of down time.

Overall, I give Arimaa a 9.0/10.  I really enjoyed the game, and I think that it is a beautiful example of an abstract strategy.  The motto of the game is "intuitively simple… intellectually challenging", and I would have to agree with this.  I would highly recommend that anyone that enjoys abstract strategy games try out Arimaa.

If Arimaa sound interesting, you might also want to check out Ploy, Gipf, and Brandubh.


  1. Yep, it is a very good game indeed!

    One minor note: you wrote:
    "In Arimaa, the elephant is your most important piece (hence like the King), but your opponent cannot capture it"

    Technically, your opponent CAN capture your elephant (should you leave it on a trap protected by a piece the opponent can push/pull away); it is just unusual (and often the result of an error on your part, though in very rare cases it is useful to intentionally sacrifice your elephant).

  2. Fair enough - I think that my point was more that your opponent can't force your elephant onto a trap.

  3. This is the best Arimaa review as it describes many things even the inventor didn't mention.

    Though I wish there is a rule to capture the unstopable Elephant like surrounding it with enemy pieces. It's logical that way

  4. jhoravi: If an elephant is sufficiently surrounded by enemy pieces (so that it has no empty adjacent spaces, and all pieces adjacent to the elephant also have no empty adjacent spaces), then it will indeed be unable to move (unable to push or pull). This sort of swarming mass occasionally happens in real games.

    1. I learned a lot about the game recently and its quite playable. Though I wish it has a KING to trap or defend to add more life. Maybe the inventor avoids the Computers tactical superiority of mating a king and favored the rabbit promotion route which challenges the machines short horizon.

      BTW I like the Black Trap squares you named Black Holes on the reviewed product. I hate the standard pink one in their website which feels like a broken bathroom tile.