Old Buzz: GIPF Project

Usually on this blog, I talk about new games that I’m excited about.  I don’t talk about old games very often, unless I’m reviewing them.  But what about the old games I haven’t played?  So, today, I’ll be talking about the six games in the GIPF project, which were all published between 1997 and 2007.  This is a series of 2-player abstract games that were designed by Kris Burm, somewhat related by a series of potentials (expansion pieces – I’ll get more into those at the end).  As of this posting, I have only played one of the six in person – ZÈRTZ – but have played all six on Boardspace.net, which is a great site for learning all kinds of obscure abstract games (as well as a few other notable titles like Euphoria and Tammany Hall).  So, with that knowledge, here we go.

image by BGG user LordT
image by BGG user LordT

GIPF is the first game of the series, and was obviously the project’s namesake.  It was published in 1997, and is a game about creating four in a row.  The game is played on a hexagonal grid of intersecting lines.  Each side has five dots, and these dots are the entry spaces for your pieces.  Each player has 18 pieces in reserve.  The first player begins the game by adding a GIPF piece to one of the dots.  A GIPF piece is simply two pieces stacked on top of each other, like a King in Checkers.  Once you’ve placed it, you push it in one space so that it sits on an intersection.  Your opponent then does the same with their own GIPF piece.

Play then proceeds with players alternating turns, each adding one piece to a dot then pushing it onto the board.  You can continue to place GIPF pieces for as long as you like, but as soon as you start introducing single pieces, you may never ever again place another GIPF piece.  It’s recommended that you use 3-4 GIPF pieces in a game.

As you add pieces to the board, you will be pushing other pieces out of the way and into different positions.  Any piece can move all other pieces in a line unless one piece is hitting the opposite edge.  This is the only way to move pieces – once on the board, you don’t touch them again until it’s time to remove them.  If you create four in a row with your pieces, you must remove all single pieces in the line, and may choose whether or not to remove any GIPF pieces.  If you do remove a GIPF piece, it splits and becomes single pieces because, as I said, you can’t place any more GIPF piece after the first few.

Additionally, you may remove any and all pieces that are an extension of your line.  If you look at the cover image, you see that Black has created four in a row with a white GIPF piece at the end.  Black may now capture that GIPF piece.  If you end up removing any of your own pieces in this way, they go back into your reserve, but captured opposing pieces are not returned to their owner.  If your opponent cannot place another piece because he’s out, or if all of their GIPF pieces are removed from the board, you win.

GIPF is a really deep game.  You have to think in a ton of directions at once, and because your opponent can move your pieces just as easily as you can, you have to try to think several moves ahead.  It’s also got a serious hand management aspect as you really have to keep an idea on your stash – playing online really proved to me that those pieces disappear quickly if you’re not careful.  This is a really good one.

image by BGG user Purple
image by BGG user Purple

ZÈRTZ was released in 1999, and, as I mentioned, is the only one I’ve played face-to-face.  The game comes with 37 rings that are used to build a hexagonal board.  There are also 6 white marbles, 8 gray marbles, and 10 black marbles.  On your turn, you may either place a marble on the board or capture a marble.  To place a marble, choose any of them (there are no player pieces), and put it on top of one of the rings.  When you do this, you must remove one of the empty rings from the edge of the board.  This results in a shrinking board.  To capture a marble, jump a marble over an adjacent marble.  There must be an empty ring on the other side to do this.  If there is a legal jump on the board, you must take it – you may not instead place a new marble.  You may be able to perform multiple jumps in one move.  The winner is the first person to capture 4 white marbles, 5 gray marbles, 6 black marbles, or 3 marbles of each color.

This game is a lot like Checkers, but so much more interesting and so much deeper.  One of the most striking things about it is that no one has their own pieces, you can both place and move any piece.  That in itself is a lot to get your head around – I’m always placing a piece, forgetting that my opponent can now use it however they wish.  The other fascinating thing here is that the board disappears as you play.  This forces confrontations.  You’re constantly having to look several moves in the future, trying to set up a small jump for your opponent that will result in a big jump for you.  It’s a really good game, and one that makes my head hurt.

image by BGG user zombie god
image by BGG user zombiegod

DVONN was released in 2001, and is a game all about stacking pieces.  It’s played on an elongated hexagonal board that can fit 49 pieces.  Pieces in this game are flat white discs that kind of look like Life Savers – 23 white, 23 black, and 3 red DVONN pieces.  To set up the game, players alternate putting pieces on the board.  The white player begins by placing a DVONN piece, then the black player places one, then the white player places the last one.  The black player begins laying down one of their pieces, and players alternate from there.  Once all spaces are filled, the game begins.

On your turn, you move one of your single pieces or stacks.  The color of the top disc indicates who owns a stack, and the height of the stack indicates how far it may move.  A single piece therefore can move only one space, while a stack of three can move three spaces.  The color of the discs in the stack don’t matter at all.  You can even make a DVONN piece a part of the stack.  Movement can cross gaps, but cannot land on them.  If, through moving, a connection to any of the DVONN pieces is broken, all pieces that are no longer connected to a DVONN piece are removed from the board.  If one player can no longer make a legal move, the other player continues until they can no longer make a legal move.  The player then stack all stacks they control, and the player who has the tallest stack is the winner.

This game differs from the first two games in the series in that the game technically begins with all the pieces on the board.  Setup is a part of the game as players alternate placement, but a lot of it (at least for me the complete newbie) is just random placement.  It’s once you get to the play that the game becomes interesting.  It plays pretty quickly, and you have to again keep your eye down the road to see what your opponent might do and how you can make them suffer for it.  The stacking is interesting, and I like that your final score compares the height of your stacks.  That’s always a fun way to score.

image by BGG user samoan_jo
image by BGG user samoan_jo

YINSH was released in 2003, and is the highest rated of all the GIPF Project games on BGG.  The game comes with ten rings (5 black and 5 white), and 51 markers that are black on one side and white on the other.  In the beginning, players take turns placing their five rings on the board, which is a series of diagonally intersecting lines.  Once this is complete, the game begins.  On your turn, put a marker of your color inside one of your rings, then move that ring as far as you wish in a straight line.  If you cross over any pieces, you flip them over.  You may cross gaps like this, but you may not cross other rings.  When you have a complete line of five markers in a row that are all your color, you remove them.  You then remove one of your rings from the board, thus weakening yourself.  The first player to collect three rings is the winner.

As I think ZÈRTZ is kind of a riff on Checkers, I think YINSH really owes a lot to Reversi/Othello.  It has the same sort of jumping over pieces to flip them to a new color mechanism in play.  However, here you’re trying to make five in a row rather than fill the board.  It forces you to bend your mind in unnatural directions as you try to wrap your head around the possibilities.  Scoring your rings is the point of the game, but it also is a detriment to you as you now have fewer pieces to work with, which makes for a very interesting dynamic.

image by BGG user Haffner
image by BGG user Haffner

PÜNCT came out in 2005, and was originally billed as the final game for the GIPF Project.  Oddly enough, it came out two years after the premiere of MTV’s Punk’d, but I don’t think the two are related.  The board in this game is in a hexagon shape, though all the spaces are holes.  Each player gets 18 pieces that have three dots, one of which is the PÜNCT (main dot).  They are in triangle, straight, and angled shapes.  You also get a single dot, known as your PÜNCT piece.

Players take turns either placing a piece or moving a piece.  You may place anywhere on the board, though not in the central hex (the basic game allows you to do this after the first turn).  Each piece will take up three spaces on the board.  To move, use your single PÜNCT piece to mark where the PÜNCT dot was on the piece you’re moving.  You may move your piece in a straight line in any direction from that spot.  In other words, the PÜNCT must be on the same line, but the piece can be oriented any way you wish from there.  The single PÜNCT is then removed.  You may move your piece on top of another piece when moving.  Your PÜNCT must be on top of one of your pieces, but the other two dots could be on another piece – they just can’t be over air, unless you create a bridge.  Pieces on the bottom cannot be moved.

The winner of this game is the first person to connect two sides of the board with their pieces.  Or, if that doesn’t happen, the player who controls the most of the central hex is declared the winner.

This game requires much more spatial reasoning than any of the others.  You not only have to think about how you can get to the other side, but how you need to set yourself up to block your opponent as well.  It’s definitely a brain burner, and I’m not sure I like it as much as the others.  I see it is the lowest ranked of the games in the series, so I guess I’m not alone.  It just doesn’t feel like it fits with the other games very well.  Still, a definite intellectual exercise.

image by BGG user ArtEmiSa64
image by BGG user ArtEmiSa64

TZAAR was released in 2007 as the actual final game in the GIPF project, replacing TAMSK (which is the next game I’ll be talking about).  The board is a hexagonal grid of intersecting lines, though with a hole in the middle.  Each player gets 30 pieces – 6 Tzaars (with two rings), 9 Tzaaras (with one ring), and 15 Totts (solid pieces).  The pieces are set out on the board so that there is one piece on each intersection of lines – this can be done randomly or accordingly to a preset layout.

You get two moves per turn (with the exception of the very first turn, which is only one move).  For your first move, you must capture a piece.  Pick up one piece and move it on top of an adjacent opposing piece, or an opposing piece in a straight line from your position (only crossing empty spaces).  There is no difference between Tzaars, Tzaaras, and Totts – any piece can capture any piece.  For the second move, you can either capture a piece or make one of your pieces stronger.  Move one of your pieces (or stacks) in a straight line to land on top of another of your pieces.  This makes your piece taller, and can now only be captured by a piece that is of the same height or taller.  You can choose to pass your second move, but you always MUST make that first capture.

The game can end in two ways.  If you have succeeded in capturing all pieces of one type, you win.  Also, if you have created a situation where your opponent cannot make their first move forced capture, you also win.

This game has some wonky rules, but once you get your head around it, it’s not too difficult.  It basically boils down to wanting to eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces of one type, and you have to be careful that you don’t weaken yourself in the meantime.  Everytime you create a stack, you take the pieces on the bottom out of play, meaning that they count against you.  So you’re making yourself weaker as you make your pieces stronger.  It’s a cool dynamic, and it works pretty well.  I also have to mention that this is the only game of the GIPF project I’ve been able to win on Boardspace.net.

image by BGG user Fawkes
image by BGG user Fawkes

TAMSK is the red-headed stepchild of the series.  The game came out in 1998, and was the second game in the series.  However, it never really clicked, and it was dumped in favor of TZAAR.  The game comes with a plastic hexagonal board, 6 3-minute sand timers (three red and three black), a 15-second neutral timer, 64 rings, and 2 ring holders.  Each player starts with 32 rings, and there’s a 3-minute timer in each corner of the board.  On your turn, you move a timer to an adjacent space, flipping it over as it moves.  You then drop a ring over the timer.  Spaces on the board can only have 1-4 rings, depending on the height of the space, and you may not move your timer to a space that has the maximum number of rings.  If a timer runs out before you move it, it is lost.  It remains on the board, you just can’t move it anymore.  The 15-second timer can be used to force your opponent to hurry up and make their move.  When no more moves can be made, the game is over, and the player with the fewest rings remaining is the winner.

I have not played this game – there’s no online implementation.  It would probably be tough to pull off.  However, I think it’s a really cool concept to have timers as game pieces, which adds some serious time pressure to the proceedings.  It’s not a tough game to understand, but probably pretty stressful as you try to keep your eyes on all the timers, and sometimes you may be forced to make a suboptimal move just because a timer is about to die.  This sounds like a very cool game, but I can definitely see why it was removed from the GIPF series – it’s absolutely NOTHING like the other games, in look or feel.

image by BGG user zefquaavius
image by BGG user zefquaavius

Before I wrap up, I want to talk a little bit about the potentials.  These are pieces released over three expansions between 2001 and 2006 that are to be used in a game of GIPF and connect the six games.  You need to agree before a game of GIPF begins which potentials will be used.  A potential is introduced in the a game of GIPF stacked on top of a regular piece.  They aren’t GIPF pieces, but are referred to as loaded pieces.  So you have to introduce you GIPF pieces to the board, then your loaded pieces, then your regular pieces.  Loaded pieces can stay on the board like a GIPF piece when a row of four is removed unless the entire row is loaded and/or GIPF pieces.  The picture above shows the GIPF pieces, then TAMSK, ZÈRTZ, DVONN, PÜNCT, and YINSH potentials.  There’s no TZAAR potential, you’re just meant to use the TAMSK potential as the TZAAR potential.  Here are the abilities:

  • TAMSK (6 per player, set #1): When a loaded piece is pushed into the center spot of the board, you get an extra move.  Remove the TAMSK potential and push it onto the board as an extra single piece.  It no longer has its power.
  • ZÈRTZ (6 per player, set #2): You can use this to jump over other pieces.  It jumps from the top of its basic piece over an adjacent piece or pieces to the first vacant spot.  This counts as a move, and can be used to capture a row, though the potential is now considered a single piece and must be removed from the captured row.
  • DVONN (6 per player, set #2): You can use this to jump onto an opponent’s piece.  It can jump onto a single piece, a piece loaded with a DVONN potential, or one of your pieces that your opponent has jumped on with their DVONN piece.  This can only be done once, but now the stack counts as yours.  If your DVONN piece must later be removed, pieces below it stay on the board.
  • PÜNCT (6 per player, set #3): You can use this to jump onto an opponent’s PÜNCT potential, or a PÜNCT potential on top of one of yours, or on top of an opposing GIPF piece.  Using it against an opposing PÜNCT piece neutralizes it, but again, the pieces underneath stay if your potential is removed.  When you jump on a GIPF piece, you remove your PÜNCT piece and either place a single piece on top of it or a GIPF piece.  In either case, it is now yours until the your pieces are removed.
  • YINSH (6 per player, set #3): Take the YINSH piece off the loaded piece and move it as far down a line as you want.  You can’t jump with a YINSH piece.

So you can use any of these you want.  You can also further link the games.  When you want to use a potential, an opponent can challenge you to the associated game.  For example, if you try to use the PÜNCT potential to create a new GIPF piece, your opponent says, “Let’s go play PÜNCT.”  Then, if you win or tie, you can use the potential.  If your opponent wins, you lose the potential.  That’s probably a really long way to play the game, but there it is.

OK, so here’s some overall thoughts about the GIPF series, and what I think sets it apart other than the incomprehensible titles.

  • The series gets high marks for being unique.  None of the games in the series feels anything like any of the others.  They all have their own personality, and don’t feel derivative.  Even the ones that I feel are riffs on other games succeed in creating their own experience that is all their own.
  • These games are gorgeous.  The covers are really nice, but the games themselves are marvels of minimal game design.  The boards are very simple, and the pieces are well constructed.  I don’t use the word elegance very often, but I think these games really embody it, both in component design and clarity of rules.
  • Speaking of clarity of rules, these games are all fairly simple to pick up.  The clunkiest rule set, I’d say, is probably PÜNCT, just because there are so many little things to keep track of.  But still, it’s not that tough to pick up, and that ease of learning may make people think these games are easy.  They’re not – these are high strategy game.
  • If I had to point to one design feature that I’d say was common to all the games, I’d probably say that they all involve some form of weakening yourself for the good of the game.  With GIPF, you have to remove your pieces whenever you create four in a row.  In ZÈRTZ, you have to set up a jump for your opponent in order to set up a good jump for yourself.  With DVONN, you have to create stacks, but the higher a stack is, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to move it.  In YINSH, when you score, you remove one of your five rings from the board.  For PÜNCT, in order to build a higher level, you have to stack on top of your own piece as well as an opponent you’re trying to neutralize.  And in TZAAR, you neutralize another piece in order to make one piece stronger.  It makes for some tense decisions in all of them.

So there’s my overview.  Hopefully, you’re inspired to check these games out.  Head over to Boardspace.net and try them out, or better yet, find someone who has them and play along!  And if you have played these, let me know what you think.  Thanks for reading!

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