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Each of the two sides corresponds to one player; they are referred to here as light and dark after the sides of Othello pieces, but "heads" and "tails" would identify them equally well, so long as each marker has sufficiently distinctive sides.

Reversi did not have a defined starting position. Othello's rules, however, state that the game begins with four markers placed in a square in the middle of the grid, two facing light-up, two pieces with the dark side up. The dark player makes the first move.

Dark must place a piece with the dark side up on the board, in such a position that there exists at least one straight (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) occupied line between the new piece and another dark piece, with one or more contiguous light pieces between them. In the below situation, dark has the following options indicated by transparent pieces:

After placing the piece, dark turns over (flips, captures) all light pieces lying on a straight line between the new piece and any anchoring dark pieces. All reversed pieces now show the dark side, and dark can use them in later moves—unless light has reversed them back in the meantime. In other words, a valid move is one where at least one piece is reversed.

If dark decided to put a piece in the topmost location (all choices are strategically equivalent at this time), one piece gets turned over, so that the board appears thus:

Now light plays. This player operates under the same rules, with the roles reversed: light lays down a light piece, causing a dark piece to flip. Possibilities at this time appear thus (indicated by transparent pieces):

Players take alternate turns. If one player cannot make a valid move, play passes back to the other player. When neither player can move, the game ends. This occurs when the grid has filled up or when neither player can legally place a piece in any of the remaining squares. This means the game ends before the grid is completely filled. This possibility may occur because one player has no pieces remaining on the board in his or her color. In over-the-board play this is generally scored as if the board was full (64-0).

The player with the most pieces on the board at the end of the game wins. An exception to this is that if a clock is employed then if one player defaults on time that player's opponent wins regardless the board configuration, with varying methods to determine the official score where one is required.

In common practice over the internet, opponents agree upon a time-control of, typically, from 1 to 30 minutes per game per player. Standard time control in the World Championship is 30 minutes, and this or something close to it is common in over-the-board (as opposed to internet) tournament play generally. In time-defaulted games, where disk differential is used for tiebreaks in tournaments or for rating purposes, one common over-the-board procedure for the winner of defaulted contests to complete both sides' moves with the greater of the result thereby or one disk difference in his or her favor being the recorded score.

Significant variants of the game, such as where the starting position differs from standard or the objective is to have the fewest pieces one's color at the end, are sometimes—but rarely—played.