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How to play Go: rules, setup and scoring explained

Slowly build your frontiers and dominate the board on Go.

An image of a Go board
Image credit: Yellow Mountain Imports

Go is a two-player board game in which players test their strategic thinking as they compete for dominance. Learning how to play Go is easy thanks to its approachable gameplay, with players placing stones on the board to set the boundaries of their territory as well as preventing your opponent from doing so. At the same time, the game’s simplicity sets the stage for exciting and complex matches.

This classic game has existed for thousands of years and it has a system that places players in different tiers depending on their expertise and strength in the game. Even so, Go is an extremely friendly game for beginners, since each match can be adapted to better accommodate players.

How to play Go

While Go is a millenary game that has stayed basically the same, as time has passed and other cultures have learned how to play it, some versions of the game approach certain rules differently. The rules we cover here are the ones explained by the British Go Association.

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Player count, game length and overview

Go should be played by two players facing each other in matches that can last at least 20 minutes. Go is a strategy game in which players’ goal is to take control of areas on the board, and capture their opponent’s pieces by surrounding them with their own. This is a simple game to learn, but it can become very complex and intense.

How to setup Go

When it comes to preparing everything you need to play Go, there are a few details you must check first.

The size of the board you’re going to use depends on two factors: how long you would like the match to last and the level of expertise of the players. You can find 19-by-19, 13-by-13 and nine-by-nine Go boards and, the bigger they are, the more complex and long the matches can become.

Although the rules covered in this article are all you need to know to play in any of these three boards, we advise you to begin with the nine by nine board if you’re still learning how to play the game. Once you are familiar with all the rules and have played some matches, you can look for the 13-by-13 or 19-by-19 boards.

With the board set, now you need to choose between the white and black pieces, which are called stones. In Go, there are rules which we will go through in the next section that affect each colour differently. Because of that, it’s important to think about which you’re choosing. For now, all you need to know is that black stones always start playing.

Having the board and the stones set, it’s time to play Go.

An image of a Go board
In Go, players need to surround and capture pieces of the opposing colour. Image: The Generic Store.

How to play Go

In practical terms, Go is quite simple, because, during a match, players take turns and each of them can only place one stone per turn. The goal of placing these stones is to form territories. As you do so, you might also capture your opponent’s stones which are taken as prisoners. Even though we can summarise a match of Go like this, there are a few key rules and concepts that are important to resolve situations that come up during a match.

Normally, the board begins empty, but in case there is a considerable gap of skill between the players, they can start playing using the handicap system.

The weaker player begins with the black stones and can place up to nine stones on the board. The number of stones depends on the difference in players’ strengths. To check the position these black stones must be placed, you can check diagram 15 made by the British Go Association.

To compensate for this situation, the white stones begin with a few points in their score called komi. A komi is worth seven and a half points.

In case players decide only one handicap stone is going to be placed, then the white stones receive no komi.

On a Go board, stones must be placed at the intersection of lines which are called liberties. A stone must occupy a location where there is at least one liberty vacant. After you have placed a stone, it can’t be moved. As the game progresses, you can place your stones close together to start forming your territory. Whenever the same colour stones are horizontally or vertically adjacent, they are considered solidly connected stones and become a string. When multiple strings are close together, they are called a group.

Strings and groups are important concepts to understanding the capturing rules.

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Capturing Stones

When trying to occupy larger territory on the board, you might eventually need to capture your opponent’s stones. Whether we are talking about isolated stones or strings, to capture them you must place your stones in every liberty around their stone/s. Once you have done that, all the opponent’s stones must be removed from the board and kept with you.

When dealing with the process of capturing stones, there are a few subsequent rules you must keep in mind.

If a player has a group of stones with a singular vacant liberty in the middle of it, the opposing player can’t place a stone there because there aren't unoccupied liberties around it. So, this empty space is called an Eye.

Whenever two or more Eyes are formed, they prevent the opposing player from capturing that string or group of stones. Hence, these are considered either a live string or a live group.

On the other hand, dead string or a dead stone happens when they can’t form two eyes and are surrounded by the opponent’s stones in such a manner that it’s impossible to avoid being captured.

When a dead string or a dead group is formed, their stones don’t need to be removed immediately from the board. They become hopeless strings and hopeless groups. The stones are removed when the game ends.

In case players find themselves in a situation where placing a stone might end up allowing the other player to capture their string/group and vice versa, either because of lacking vacant liberties or two Eyes, then you have a Seki. This situation led by an impasse is left untouched until the end of the game.

The Ko rule in Go

Another important rule in Go is the Ko rule, which states that a player can’t capture a stone that was used to capture their own if it will return the game to its previous condition. For instance, as a match progresses, a situation might come up where player one, after capturing one stone, creates a scenario where player two can capture the same stone player one used to capture player two’s stone, by putting a new stone in the same liberty their previous, and now captured, stone was. In cases like this, the second player is forbidden to recapture the stone before they make a play somewhere else on the board.

An image of a Go board
There are varying sizes of Go board that players can play on. Image: The Generic Store.

In other words, if a player’s move establishes a capture/recapture situation, then the Ko rule is used. Once this scenario is settled, the second player must place a stone elsewhere on the board in order to try to force their opponent to respond to their move. This is called Ko Threat. After that, player one can either go defend their other stones or place a stone in the liberty where player two was going to occupy, preventing the capture/recapture scenario.

Final scoring and ending the game

To finish a match of Go, players must go through a short process. After a player decides there aren’t any more plays to be made, instead of placing a new stone on the board, they can hand it to their opponent as a prisoner. A match ends when a player does that twice consecutively.

The player who has more points wins the game. Each empty space in their territory and each prisoner is worth one point. To determine the final score of the match, players must count:

  • The number of vacant liberties inside their territories.
  • The number of prisoners they have.
  • The number of stones in a hopeless string which is considered prisoners.
  • Komi in case it was applied.
  • Stones locked in Seki are not considered in the final score of any player.

Keen to pick-up a few other traditional board games? Check-out our guides on how to play checkers and how to play chess.

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