board games dark blues bemused by reds and greens

Imagine a two-player strategy game, a little like chess, in that the object is to capture the enemy king, a little like Go, in that the strategy is one of encircling rather than annihilating, a little like snooker or croquet in that any bad move is liable to be punished by your opponent, making a string of devastating replies without your having the chance to move, and a little like applied nematology, in that your pieces join together in worm-like structures that may either slither across the board or be chopped into pieces and scattered in all directions. Roll all of those into one and you have Fibonacci, a game devised eight years ago, but only now beginning to attract serious interest.

At the end of last month, the computer company Psion sponsored the first formal Fibonacci competition, a match between Oxford and Cambridge, which the Cambridge side won convincingly by 27 games to 5.

The rules are simple: the two sides, red and green, each have six "strike" pieces and six "support" pieces with which to lure the enemy "centre piece" into the open and surround it.

The action takes place on a hexagonal board, and the first to surround his opponent's centre piece with all six strike pieces is the winner.

Pieces in connected formations appear to glide together either to home in on the enemy centre piece or to ambush the opponent's strike pieces and fling them out of the way, to slow down the enemy's advance.

While they waited at the Cambridge Union for the Oxford side to arrive, the home side - all mathematicians - played some final practice games. Their state of unease was obvious when one game ended after about 10 seconds and seemed to blow a hole in the strategy they had been working on together for the past fortnight. "This is going to be a real pig if we discover a major flaw in our opening 20 minutes before the match," said one player.

They need not have worried. It soon became clear that the Oxford side was a long way behind in its analytical preparations. The Cambridge players received their Psion Series 3A computers as prizes, and were then all soundly thrashed at Fibonacci by Thomas Naylor, the game's originator.

After inventing it in 1987, naming it after a 13th-century Italian mathematician, and launching it to rave reviews in the specialist games press in 1990, he was happy to see it come through a serious test at the hands of the games players of Oxford and Cambridge.

The winning side, however, was more cautious in its assessment of the game. The players' enthusiasm for Fibonacci was clear, and its ability to absorb and challenge them was obvious - they had even improvised a vocabulary of technical terms for various strategic formations and tactical themes. Yet they were open-minded on the question of whether in-depth analysis was likely to produce a forced win for one side or the other. Strategy games may fail to survive, either because a definitive correct strategy is found, or because they are simply too difficult for humans ever to play really well. Yet it may take years to discover if either of those outcomes is likely.

Is Fibonacci a good game? "The jury's still out on that one," the Cambridge players agreed before the match had begun. By the end of it though, their collective opinion seemed considerably more positive.

Fibonacci is available from Hamley's or specialist games shops for pounds 19.99. Further info from Thomas Naylor on 0171-352 2911

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