Through the Desert vs Go
Through the Desert has been compared to Go in many threads on Board Game Geek. This comparison is made because both games have an area enclosure scoring mechanic. This comparison is a bad one.
Don't get me wrong. I like both games...quite a bit. I am not insulted by the fact that a new game is being compared to an ancient one. I am not insecure about the chromatic deficiencies of Go. I am perfectly able to appreciate both games for what they are. This is not an attempt to claim one game is better than the other.
My beef with the comparison is that people who are trying to get information on one game may dismiss it because they did not like the other, when in fact, the game play bears little resemblance. It's almost like comparing Checkers to Maharaja because they both have point to point movement. Very misleading.
To properly analyze this, I need to break down the two games, so that only the area enclosure aspects are left. So I will be ignoring the palm tree, oasis, and longest caravan aspects of Through the Desert, since they have no overlap with Go. Also, Through the Desert has a hex board while Go has a square board. For simplicity sake, let's put them both on a square board and concentrate purely on the tactical aspects of a single area being enclosed. I'll use captures of the lower right corner of a Go board. Note that Through the Desert uses the spaces themselves, and that Go uses the intersections. For the purposes of this discussion, this is irrelevent. The dot shown here is a convenience on a standard Go board for placing handicap stones in games between players of different strengths. It has no significance.
The first and most important difference is where you can play pieces. In Go, you can play on almost any empty space. In Through the Desert, you can only extend an existing caravan. Realistically, the number of reasonable choices at any given moment might not be too different (maybe 30 for Go and 10 for Through the Desert). But for the purposes of basic area enclosure, the tactics are extremely dissimilar. Take the following position:
In Through the Desert, if it was White's turn, he could try to hedge in Black as much as possible, maybe resulting in this sequence. It's just a race to the edge--each player playing 2 camels at a time, trying to cut off the other as much as possible. The same kind of thing could happen on the other end of the "wall". And when Black is all closed off, he's got his prize.
In Go, since you can play anywhere, you might play at 1 or 2 to attempt to gain some control of the corner. You are able to choose locations where you can create strategic influence or tactical results. I won't get into the possible responses here. The point is that Black may not get any territory in the corner. He may attempt to go to the left, go up into the center of the board, or simply abondon the stones for now. In this situation, Black may now not feel very safe. This is because, in Go, stones can "die" and be removed from play...
This is the other big difference between the games. What areas are safely yours? In Through the Desert, once an area is completely closed off, it is safe. The points are yours. In Go, an enclosure is only as good as its shape. If the opponent can create another enclosure inside yours, they can steal some of your space, or even kill you. That is: completely surrounded (no empty space on any orthogonal side except the edge of the board) stones or groups of stones are removed from the board and count as points for the captor.
Black has 5 points of space, but if it is White's turn, a stone at 1 kills all the Black stones netting White 16 points (10 spaces, including those under the Black stones, and 6 prisoners). This concept is known as "Life & Death". The stones remain on the board unless captured outright. If you do not play Go, but are interested enough as to why 1 kills Black, I can show you outside of this discussion. I hope you are curious.
This does not mean that every enclosed space in Go becomes a complex nit-picking endeavor. As you gain experience in the game, you become more able to recognize absolutely safe areas, areas that will be safe if you respond correctly to the opponent, areas that are "up for grabs", and areas that are doomed. Each kind of area has its place in the game. In fact, areas that are doomed can save other areas on the other side of the board in certain cirumstances. Curious yet?
Here's another interesting situation in Go. Black seems to have a few points in the corner and a couple future prisoners. But look carefully. If Black plays at 1, White captures all the Black stones by playing at 2. If White plays at 1, Black captures the three White stones at 3. Neither player can capture the other, so this section of the board is a seki--a draw.
These are just 2 of the many tactical situations in Go. As these kinds of local situations approach each other on the board, many complex interactions result. Skilled players are able to play stones that affect multiple areas many spaces away. In Through the Desert, the complexity of the game never increases over time; it's always a numerical and group-think exercize of the same depth (I'm not saying it's easy).
These two games are night and day. I have only touched on the differences. You should try them both. If you do not like one of them, do not let this stop you from trying the other. I put a bit more emphasis on Go, because I believe it is less accessible (not something that many board gamers would be exposed to, not played at game conventions, not talked about on BGG, etc.), and that some people probably tend to dismiss it like they do Chess. Both Go and Through the Desert can be played for free online, so there's no reason to make assumptions. Play them!
Let me try to sum up my feelings of both these great games...
Through the Desert: Light to medium weight abstract for 2-5 players. Bring it out to play with friends during a session of general gaming. The thinking during the game is mostly numerical: touching palm trees, playing on oasis chips, making sure you have one or more longest caravans, enclosing portions of the board. If I take 5 here, he will get that 3, and she will get that 11-point section...
Go: Heavy abstract for 2 players. Can be played and enjoyed by casual gamers like any other good game. If you want to play at any reasonable level of skill, Go becomes a "way of life" kind of game like Chess, or Bridge, or Advanced Squad Leader. The thinking during the game is more intuitive than numeric. If I try to solidify my corner, he will get huge influence on the other side. If I approach on the left, he will have to run out into the center...
Screen captures are from the SGF editor of the CGoban program, the internet client for KGS Go Server.