iPhone Reversi Games: A Bunch of Losers

If you have an iPhone or an iPod touch, and you like playing Othello (or Reversi, as it is also called), you'll be happy to know that this strategy board game is available in the App Store. Actually, by my last count, there are more than a dozen versions of the game available for downloading.

Unfortunately, none of these apps are worth their cost. And I say this knowing that several of the versions cost nothing at all. To be fair, I didn't assess all the different Reversi games in the App Store; rather, I selected 4 that appeared to be representative. Perhaps I overlooked some gem. But I doubt it. 

Why am I so critical? Because these apps generally don't know the first (or second or third) thing about the "correct" winning strategy behind the game. The computer opponents built-in to these games are typically clueless as to what constitutes a good move.

The correct Othello strategy remains largely unknown to most human players as well — which probably explains why these games don't get the amount of criticism they deserve. [No, the strategy is not simply "get corner squares" or "flip the most pieces"; rather, it begins with "mobility optimization."]

Knowing the correct strategy won't guarantee you a win, especially against an equally knowledgeable opponent. But failure to know it, guarantees that you will lose against anyone who does. And that's exactly what happens to these computer opponents when I play against them.

On a recent MacNotables podcast, I briefly discussed my background as an Othello player, including my winning the U.S. National Othello Championship in 1984 (yes, there is a national and a world championship for this game!). Knowing this, you may discount my assertions, thinking to yourself: "Of course, Ted can easily beat these programs, he used to be a national champion. But that's not relevant for my level of play."

Not so. Almost anyone can easily beat all of these iPhone apps, after as little as a few hours of instruction. Trust me, you don't need to be even close to a champion to defeat these games, even at their supposed "hardest" levels. Here, in more detail, is what I found:

Black and White. This game gets off on the wrong foot before the first move: It doesn't allow you to choose a color. You must go first, playing Black. Most tournament players prefer White, making this restriction even more irritating. At its hardest settings, its game play, while not entirely terrible, was still not worth any praise. Playing quickly rather than pondering my choices (to give the programs a better chance of winning), this game still gave up a decisive corner on move 22, despite having several better moves. From here, I easily went on to a 52-12 win.

Morocco. If anything, Morocco played even worse than Black and White. I again played Black (although at least I now had a choice). The computer opponent made a fatal error by move 12! Although it made a few valiant recovery efforts in the midgame, I still won 51-13 without breaking a sweat.

Reversi (from Big Bang Board Games). This game made an error on its very first move (according to commonly accepted opening strategy). Not surprisingly, it went on to play at the absolute worst level of any of the four apps I tested, making one terrible move after another. It was forced to concede a decisive corner by move 24. I trounced it 58-3. At times, it seemed as if I would have won even I selected moves at random. Big Bang Board Games should be embarrassed for even releasing this game to the public.

Reversi (from KissTheMachine). I saved the best app for last. With me again going first, and playing at its "Master" level, this game showed at least a minimal knowledge of how to get through the opening with a chance to win. It eventually made a few errors in the midgame, allowing me to establish a clear path to victory. However, it surprised me by gaining strength as we moved into the endgame. Sticking with my casual play mode, Reversi was able to come back enough to lose by a relatively close 35-29 margin. Given this, I gave it a second chance. On the rematch, I managed to get myself in a bit of danger, due to some careless play. I eventually won 48-16, but the opponent earned some respect.

The situation is not much better if you shift from the iPhone to the Mac. However, if you want to see what a truly superb Reversi game looks and plays like, download Cassio. If you feel up to the challenge, set it at its lowest "Championship" level (there's no need to go higher). If you win even once, you have a decent chance of becoming the next World Champion. The game is that good. Be warned: While this game is very strong from start to finish, it plays perfectly in the endgame. This means that if you don't have a guaranteed win by somewhere around move 40, you have zero chance of victory. Even with a guaranteed win, you can still lose if you don't play perfectly yourself. This app shows no mercy.

Note: If all of this discussion about Othello strategy has piqued your curiosity regarding the secrets of winning Othello, there are several good sources of information. You can start with my own Othello: Brief & Basic, now available as a free PDF.