Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Strategy for Two

By Ward Batty

With Chess and Go, does the world really need more abstract strategy games for two? Clearly the answer is yes, as this has been a popular category of games for centuries. Some of my favorites are part of what is known as Project GIPF by designer Kris Burm and published in North America by Rio Grande Games.

Project GIPF is a series of two-player abstract strategy games. They are stand-alone games, but the designer has also created what he calls "potentials" which are optional add-ons that can increase the possibilities and increase the complexities of the games. The games in the series are Gipf, Tamsk, Zertz, Dvonn, Yinsh and Punct. All of these games are interesting and worthwhile, but I'm going to focus on three of my favorites.

Zertz is played on a board that is made of washer-like discs. They are arranged into a large hexagon shape. There are 5 white, 7 grey and 9 black marbles available for play. The rules are simple. On your turn, if you can capture a marble, you must. Just like in checkers, marbles can jump over another marble to capture; multiple marbles may be captured if possible, just like checkers. If you can't capture a marble, the turn consists of adding a marble and removing one of the discs that lie along the outside edge of the board. So the board changes as the game progresses. You can capture a group of marbles by removing the disc that isolates them from the rest of the board. The object is to capture 3 white, 4 grey or 5 black marbles, or 2 marbles of each color.

The game rarely goes the same way twice because of the deteriorating board, varied winning conditions and the ability to capture multiple pieces in different ways. The rule where you set up your play by forcing your opponent to make a capture is a great one. Zertz is the game I've played the most and it always rewards with a great play experience.

Dvonn takes an old game mechanic and improves on it. This time the pieces are just flat discs, 23 black, 23 white and 3 that are colored like pepperoni. No one who has seen it has ever disagreed with this description. Players are moving pieces or stacks of pieces in an attempt to end up with stacks with their own color on top. The player whose piece is on top of the stack controls its movement. Stacks may be moved as many spaces as the number of pieces in that stack. Any time a group or stack of pieces become separated from one of the three pepperoni pieces they are removed from the game. The goal is to have control of the most pieces at the end of the game.

Yinsh has a familiar goal, get five pieces of your color in a row. However, the manner in which this is accomplished is unique. Each turn, a player moves one of the rings they have on the board. Every time a marker is moved the player places a marker in the space the ring originated. These markers are white on one side and black on the other. If you pass the ring over other markers, they are flipped and so the marker color will change. If in doing this player gets five markers in a row of their color, they remove those markers and a ring. The goal is to be the first player to collect three rings. Of course, removing the rings limits the player's available choices, so the game gets trickier as it progresses. The relatively straightforward goal of Yinsh makes it the most accessible game in the series, in my opinion.

There's not a bad game in the bunch, but these three are my favorites. The GIPF series is one of the more impressive accomplishments in recent boardgame design. To learn more about these games, visit the GIPF site at

These games should be available locally at a specialty game shop. Even if the shop doesn't have the game in stock, many are happy to special-order them. Your local store is a great place to learn more about these great games. Online, I'd suggest going to Google, click on Froogle and search for the game by name.

Ward Batty is a long-time game-player who has been with the same weekly game group for over twenty years. "I understood there was a pension." is his excuse. He writes a monthly column on the business of board games for Comics & Game Retailer magazine and has written articles and reviews for The Games Journal, Scrye, Knucklebones and Games International.

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