Push Fight is the best board game you’ve never heard of
“I have a whole box of board games, you should come down to play after your kids go to sleep,” Jerry told me. We were enjoying a weekend off work at one of the yearly Penny Arcade retreats, and after the children were sleeping comfortably we would sneak down to the comfortable chairs and large tables of the hotel. Jerry Holkins (aka Tycho from Penny Arcade) is energized by new games and mechanics, and his first instinct seems to be to share that enthusiasm as rapidly and as broadly as possible. The more people that know about the game, the more potential opponents there are, and throughout the weekend he taught me how to play game after game while explaining what made each one special. The next day he asked what games grabbed me. “Push Fight,” I said, without having to think about it. I had ordered my own board the moment I had a free moment and an internet connection. He later told me the game just kind of “showed up” at the Penny Arcade offices, and that's how the addiction started. I'm going to put the end of this article at the beginning and state that you should buy a board as well. It's only $25, and it's going to get stuck in your mind like a bur on a coat.
This is how it works
The game consists of a single board and two sets of five pieces. The pieces with the cubes on top can both move and push other pieces, and the pieces with the spheres on top can only move. You're allowed to move up to two pieces each turn, and once those moves are complete, you must “push” one piece. After you've pushed that piece, or a line of pieces, you place the red “anchor” on top of your piece, which means that it can't be moved in the next round. This is to keep players from simply pushing each other back and forth. The board changes rapidly due to the movement rules: You can move up to two pieces as many spaces as you'd like, as long as the spaces are contiguous. You can't move over other pieces, nor can you move diagonally. As long as you have a clear path to another space on the board, you can move there. You win by pushing one of your opponent's pieces off the board. It's one of those magical games that takes a moment or two to learn, but much longer to play well. The sphere-topped pieces can't push other pieces, so they can be bullied around the board. The anchor allows you lock one of your pieces in place every round. You can close off portions of the board using your pieces, or trap an opponent's piece in the corner with proper planning. “I’ve invented a lot of games in my life. Some were good, some were bad, and some were horrible,” Brett Picotte, the game's creator, told me over the phone. “I had this idea for moves and pushes, and the first thing I did was design the board. I don’t know how I came up with that board exactly, but it happened fast. That design just came right out of me.” Picotte is an interesting guy: He rejected the idea of a life behind a desk after earning an accounting degree and a CPA license. He later became a stock broker, a banker, a liquor truck driver, and he ran a school for martial arts. He also invented “Bubba,” a dummy used to train students in Jiu Jitsu. Bubba was used by members of the legendary Gracie family to train their students in Jiu Jitsu, and Picotte later licensed the design after he had trouble keeping up with demand. Through all this, over more than 20 years, he was playing and developing Push Fight. “I’m amazed by all the different situations that I see. I still haven’t mastered the game,” he said. He explained his new obsession, which he called the “weak corner trap.” The section of the board that looks like two pieces are missing is called the weak corner, and he has been working on ways to push pieces into that corner to take them out, while also learning how to avoid the same technique from others. “The unique thing about this game is that you can play it solo. You make the best move each time for each team, and you still get surprised often. The game varies so much for each turn that it doesn’t get boring,” Picotte explained. “I can play with people I know, but I also keep a game going all the time. I got a game going right now that I’ve been playing for several days without a win for either side.” The game is a popular Christmas present for people around his town, and Picotte often invites customers to pick up their boards and pieces directly from him to avoid the $8 shipping charge, and he'll sit down and teach them to play before they leave. One chess enthusiast was frustrated both by Picotte allowing him to win, and then by his inability to beat the inventor of the game fairly.
Tips for new players
I asked Picotte for some pointers for first-time players. “The first, of course, is to not leave a piece on the edge. It’s amazing how many people will leave one on the edge without thinking about it. And then the other player starts moving and you think “Oh God, What did I do?” That’s the first one.” I can vouch for this, as the first few games I played were lost due to my own bone headed moves placing pieces on the corners. You have to treat the edges without rails as toxic; if you're standing on one of them you're usually a move away from losing. “The second one is to keep the round pieces in a safe area. The safest area is the middle four spaces, not next to the side rails, but the center four,” Picotte explained. “If you can keep pushing them to that area until you see an opening, that will get you ahead. Take care of your round-top pieces, and don’t let them get too far on end or the other, and don’t let them get separated. Take care of them.” It's interesting to watch new players learn the game. The rules are basic, but once new players begin to see the board and the possibilities of movement and pushing, and then grasp the vulnerabilities of their weaker pieces their brows furrow and they often lean forward. There is a definite “a-ha!” moment with new players wrapping their heads around the advanced strategy; games can be over in as little as three minutes, but can stretch well beyond that. With so much movement and change possible in each turn the feel of the board can shift rapidly. The game has become a favorite way to spend time at the Penny Arcade offices; Dabe Alan, the Penny Arcade Report's photographer, visited the home office to take some pictures of the board. During that visit his learned the game, and ordered his own board the moment he returned home. Push Fight has devoted fans, but so far it hasn't broken through to a wider audience. “It’s not well known, no one knows about it really, except for some local people and my Facebook friends,” Picotte said. “We’re hoping to change that.” Indeed.