What Is The Board Game Go?

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Founded more than 2,500 years ago during the Warring States period in China, the board game Go is thought to be the oldest continuously played board game still in use today. 

Play this game just one time and I guarantee you’ll see why this game is so long-lived. Like all timeless masterpieces, Go is simple in its mechanics and easy-to-learn yet complex in its strategies. Like they used to say about the board game Othello, Go is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

As a father of two growing children, I’m always looking for new board games that I can share with my kids on family game night. I’m looking for games that teens can enjoy but that adults can enjoy as well. Go is the perfect example of my ideal game.

In this article, I’m going to:

  • Break down the board game Go, including how old is Go, rules, and basic strategy
  • Discuss the advent of AI playing go
  • How to play Go online.

Ready gamers? Let’s get started.

The History of Go

To understand the origins of Go, one must understand a little bit about Chinese history. Go, as I mentioned above, was developed just before the onset of the Warring States period of Chinese history. In this era, seven small kingdoms were feuding with one another over who had the right to rule the Chinese people. 

In this extremely chaotic time, there was also something of a miniature renaissance amongst Chinese thought and social development. The board game Go reflects both the land-obsessed and war-obsessed nature of its original inventors, as well as the sophisticated Chinese thought that was being so eloquently expressed at the time in the teachings of, for example, Mencius.

By the 3rd century BCE, the record reflects a wide player base for Go and an elevated cultural status that accompanied players of Go (something akin, we might imagine, to the esteem given chess players). In the Analects of Confucius (a book of sayings attributed to Confucius), we see a mention of Go. Eventually, the playing of Go came to be considered one of the “four cultivated arts” of Chinese civilization: calligraphy, playing the guqin, painting, and playing Go.

Chinese Scholars playing Go

Eventually, Go spread to Korea and Japan, and it was found in a 2016 study that around 46 million people worldwide know how to play Go. 

What Is Go?

So, what is Go? Go is a turn-based abstract strategy game in which players compete to surround more territory than their opponents by placing their pieces (called “stones”) on the 19×19 square grid.

Go is available as a board game you can play with your family, or it can be played online on various websites with people from around the world. It is a two-player game that helps develop strategic thinking and spatial awareness skills.

Game Go Mid Play

How To Play Go

The standard board size for a regulation game of Go is a 19×19 grid of intersecting lines. For younger players or newbies, I suggest using a smaller board. Go boards can also come in 13×13 or 9×9 grids. 

The game is played with two players who sit on opposite sides of the board and hold stones of different colors — typically black and white.

Object: The object of the game is to surround more territory than your opponent.

Beyond this simple objective, four basic rules guide gameplay. 

Rule 1: Beginning the game. Black typically begins a game of Go. The player with the black stones, to begin play, will place their black stone anywhere at an intersection on the board. After the player with the black stones plays, the player with the white stones then places one of their stones at a different intersection. The stones that are placed will not be moved during the duration of gameplay unless they are captured (see rule 2)

Rule 2: Capturing stones. The empty intersections that are adjacent to a placed stone are called “liberties.” A stone in the middle of the board, for example, has four liberties, a stone on the side has three, and a stone in the corner has only two. If all the liberties adjacent to a stone are filled by the opponent’s stones, that stone is said to be captured and is removed from gameplay. 

Go Liberties

By Scsc, CC BY-SA 3.0

Adjacent stones of the same color share their liberties, and therefore must be captured as a group.

A group of stones that is under threat of capture (i.e., there is only one liberty left) is said to be an atari. You may place your stones to capture an atari, but players are not allowed to place their stones in a way that would sacrifice their stones without any benefit to themselves.

Rule 3: The rule of (no) eternity. Unlike in chess, where replication of previous moves is one way to force a draw, in Go, this is disallowed. Players may not play in such a way that a previous board position is replicated.

In practice, what does this look like? Imagine you have a grid of 

Rule 4: Ending the game and scoring. Towards the end of the game, a player may pass if they feel they have no more worthwhile moves to play. If both players pass in succession, the game is over, and scoring begins. 

Before scoring begins, remove any dead stones — that is, stones that do not contribute to a string of intersections surrounded by the stones of a given color. Players count the number of intersections that are surrounded by a string of connected, same-color stones. An area can be counted as “territory” if every liberty in the territory can only touch one color. If the liberties in one contiguous area can touch multiple colors, this territory is disputed and therefore doesn’t contribute to either players’ score.

After counting up your points from your territory, you must then subtract the number of stones captured by your opponent from your score. 

The resulting net score of both players is compared, and the player with the higher score prevails. 

Special rule: Komi. After the scores are tallied, the white player is given a point boost called Komi because they begin the game at a disadvantage (having to go second). Komi varies from match to match based on the players’ abilities. In an even matchup, Komi is an award of 6.5 points to the white player’s final score (the 0.5 points serve to break ties).

In less even matchups, players determine Komi ahead of time. It may just be .5 points, for example, if the white player is better than the black player. 

Final rule: Life and Death. Taking the implications of rule 1 and rule 2, we have the idea of dead stones and alive stones. A player’s territory is said to be “alive” when the player can make at least two “eyes,” that is, intersections, from their territory. While this is something best learned in practice, you can see the complicated mechanics of this idea in this video.

Computers Playing Go

Like chess computers (famously AlphaZero) whose abilities to learn chess via neural networks, the computers playing Go today are much stronger than the best human players.

In 2017, AlphaGo Zero taught itself Go in three days, playing 4.9 million games against itself and developing knowledge about Go that it has taken humans 2,500 years to develop. Even beyond that, AlphaGo Zero has developed strategies and techniques that still mystify the top players even today.

Computer Go intelligence was cemented in the history books in 2017 when AlphaGo beat the two-year Go reigning champion, Ke Jie, in three out of three games.

Playing Go Online

There are plenty of ways to play Go online, as there is a worldwide community of Go players interested in passing this game on to the next generation. At Online-Go.com, you can create an account and play with people across the world while simultaneously learning how to play the game firsthand from the computer.

PlayOK also offers the ability to play Go online. There are several other platforms that you can check out with a simple Google search and I recommend you do.

What is the Board Game Go?

Board Game Go

In this article, I’ve discussed the board game Go in all its detail, from its history to its gameplay to its modern iterations via the interwebs. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Go is a game that is quick to learn but will take a lifetime to master. I love playing this game with my kids — what’s especially exciting is seeing them get better and better. The day when I first got beaten by my daughter was such a satisfying day as a father; I can tell you that. 

If you want to get started playing Go, now is a perfect time. You can find a Go set online for relatively cheap. Buying this set is like buying your first chessboard: endless possibilities (and no expansion packs necessary!). Enjoy!