All About the Board Game Go: History & Gameplay

Updated August 11, 2021

If you're a fan of games like Risk or Chess, you'll highly enjoy digging in to the board game Go. With ancient origins and an easy set of rules to learn, Go is great for people ages 5-95. So, if you've run out of puzzles to put together and need something else to occupy your time away from social media, try learning how to play the game of Go.

Ancient Origins of Go

Believed to have originated in Ancient China between 2,500 - 4,000 years ago, Go was a tabletop strategy game which developed out of two simple materials: a 19x19 grid and 361 color-coded stones. There are many references to the game across the historical record with it appearing in various texts from around Southeast Asia. Whether or not there were official trade negotiations between countries within the region, the cultural practice of Go transcended boundaries, and it became a vital part of Japanese and Chinese definitions of manhood by the 16th century. In fact, it was in unified Japan that four schools of Go were established, helping to keep the practice alive.

Go Enters the 20th Century

Go's popularity waxed and waned across Southeast Asia for several centuries, with it even being outlawed in China for a time during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s-1970s because of its connections to the bourgeois. However, it was during the mid-20th century that Go became an international competitive activity, with tournaments being held against masters of the sport. These championships are still held today, many of which come with impressive cash prizes and international acclaim.

How to Play Go

Fundamentally, Go appears to be a very easy game to play, as it requires only a few materials and has a specific goal in mind. To start a game of Go, you'll need:

  • 19x19 grided board
  • 181 black stones
  • 180 white stones

The Rules of Go

To begin a game, two players sit on opposite ends of the board, with the weaker player taking the black stones and the stronger player taking the white stones. This is because the black player has one extra stone to make the first move of the game. If you're just starting out and want to play against a seasoned player, then you can be given a handicap of up to nine stones, which you can play at the beginning of the game to even out the odds between your differing levels of expertise.

The purpose of Go is to acquire the most amount of territory on the board, and this is completed by placing stones onto any unoccupied intersection of the lines on the board. Once placed, a stone cannot be moved unless it's been captured by the opposing player. Capturing stones and creating strings are vital aspects of competing in a game of Go.

Creating Strings

When a stone is placed on one of the intersections of the board, there are four cardinal intersections (above, below, to the left and right) which are referred to as a stone's liberties. When you place the same-colored stones in one or more of their liberties, you create a string, and strings are more difficult to remove from the board as they require a greater number of opposing player's stones to capture them.

Capturing Pieces

To secure your opponent's stones, you surround their lone stones or string of stones completely in your stones. More specifically, you have to occupy all of an enemy string or lone stone's liberties with your stones in order to capture those pieces and claim them for yourself. You cannot sacrifice your stones by placing a new stone in a position where it would have no liberties, unless this final stone would occupy the liberties of one or more enemy stones, allowing you to capture those stone[s] for yourself.

Strings which have two or more eyes (boxed-in intersections within a string that resemble the two-face of a die) are safe from capture and permanently fixed to the board.

Passing Stones

Think of passing stones like switching out letters in Scrabble. If you think that you have no other possible moves, ie. capturing an enemy's stone/string, adding to/creating a new string, or placing a stone on the board that would have some liberties, then you pass a single one of your remaining stones to your opponent.

Once you have to pass two consecutive stones, the game is completed and tallying commences.

Tallying Points and Winning the Game

To calculate which player has won a game of Go, you tally up the number of captured pieces that you've acquired over the course of the game as well as the number of empty intersections, included edges, within your territories. The person with the highest tally and largest number of points wins the game.

Chinese family playing the game of go

Strategy Tips for New Players

As a strategy-based game, newcomers might find Go to be a bit difficult to get the hang of on the first go-around. However, the more games that you play, the better competitor you'll become; but, to get you started, you can follow a few basic strategic tips.

  • Don't scatter your stones - Try to keep your stones relatively grouped. It might be tempting to start placing stones everywhere on the board to potentially hold a lot of territory, but it'll be difficult to maintain those stones in the long run.
  • Keep your number of groups small - It's best to keep the number of groups you have on the smaller side as the more groups you have, the harder they are to defend.
  • Build forts - Instead of creating strings that encompass one or two intersections, try to create walls of string that encompass a lot of intersections, aka forts.
  • Play outside your forts first - To avoid having to pass stones too early, try to continue playing stones outside of your fort.

Professional Go Associations

You can find national Go associations around the world, and many of them offer easy membership if that's something you might be interested in. For instance, the American Go Association lets members belong to a national ranking system and play in official local and national tournaments at low rates. If you're thinking about pursuing Go even semi-professionally, it's a great idea to get connected with local or national Go associations since these are places where you can network with a variety of players, find the Go community in your area, and build your history with the game.

GO Tournament

It's Time to 'Go' and Play

Feel connected to the ancient past by challenging your own strategic capabilities with a game of Go. Whether you play online against a simulation or in a professional tournament, you can enjoy stretching the bounds of your mental fortitude with this historic board game. At the very least, you can add it to your roster of board games to break out during family game night.

All About the Board Game Go: History & Gameplay