The Gipf Project is a prodigious gaming system of six conceptually related, but discrete abstract games. The games are linked by several ingenious "meta" rules that allow you to experiment with and explore the relationships between the games, reflecting structural coherence and remarkable flexibility. This Project is absolutely unique to abstract gaming and represents an extraordinary milestone in the evolution of games.
As the Project is not yet complete (five of the six games are available), this essay, like the Project itself, is an emerging progress report. We don't yet understand the full breadth of the Gipf Project, but we have enough games and a reasonable level of experience to offer some initial impressions. Like the games themselves, which are studies in emergent properties (more on that later), this essay is a work in progress, to be revised and completed with the publication of the final game.
Originally, I intended to write a review of Yinsh. While playing Yinsh, it became clear that I couldn't adequately review it without returning to the earlier games in the Project, especially Gipf. At the end of this essay, I'll focus on Yinsh. But I'd like to start by commenting in more depth on the entire Project as it considerably enhanced my appreciation for Yinsh, although as Kris Burm, the designer stresses, any of the games can be happily played on their own. This is true, but my guess is that most aficionados of this series play at least several of the games, and their knowledge of multiple games enhances their enjoyment of the individual games. As there is no comprehensive review of the entire Project, but many reviews of the individual games, I thought it would best serve the abstract gaming community and all players of any or all games in the Gipf Project, if I addressed the series as a whole.
I'll start by briefly describing my initially ambivalent relationship with the Gipf Project, as I think my experiences and first impressions may be of interest. When I first acquired Gipf, I only played it several times, never moving beyond the basic game. I thought the game was interesting, but it didn't really grab me, mainly because despite the easy rules, I found Gipf very difficult to conceptually grasp. I knew it was an elegant design. I was intrigued by the depth of the game as well as by the promising "meta" system, but I simply wasn't attracted to playing it. I placed it on the shelf as a game worthy of attention at some future time.
Next up was Tamsk. Again, an interesting design, but I found it a bit nerve-wracking. Zertz followed. I played it enough so I could write a responsible review for The Games Journal, and I complimented its original and elegant design, but I found the game difficult to understand and ultimately too unforgiving for my tastes. I knew that these were all interesting games, but they didn't hook me. Then along came Dvonn. I found Dvonn immediately appealing and engaging, perhaps because of all the games in the Gipf Project, it entails the most familiar game playing concepts. Dvonn has many of the characteristics of all the Gipf games (much more on this soon), with structures that are more traditional (making towers and gaining territory).
Yinsh completely blew me away. I was swept up by the dynamic landscapes—the meshing of alignment, reversals and territory. Like all the games in the series, it also offered a beautiful visual array, resembling warm and cold fronts on a weather map, with each move presenting a new and vivid challenge. Prompted by the designer's notes, I began to see Gipf in Yinsh, and I felt that Yinsh sufficiently prepared me to try Gipf again. I did so and soon realized that Gipf was the conceptual key to the entire series. I became hooked on Gipf, and indeed, revisited Tamsk, Zertz, and Dvonn. And so here we are. The moral of this sketch is that some outstanding games present themselves to us only when we are ready to receive them!
I conceive the Gipf Project as a whole, with each of the games serving as centers. Although all of the games reference each other, Gipf is the node in the network. All the games ultimately move through Gipf. Consider each game a playing field in a more complex arena, or perhaps as a habitat in an ecosystem. Gipf contains the whole field, serving perhaps as the creator, or source of the origin myth. You may think this is too far-flung, but the beauty of Gipf, is that it serves as an abstract game-playing narrative. This narrative reflects two levels, the picturesque shifting landscapes of players and boards interacting together in the Gipf network, and the cognitive skills required to play each of the games well.
You may wonder how an abstract game can be picturesque. To my game-playing aesthetic, there is no more vivid visual entertainment than watching a game of Go as an emergent system. Picture the black and white stones as microorganisms, cellular automata, weather systems, populations—whatever your imagination conjures. Gipf entails a similar aesthetic of utter simplicity and Zen-like beauty. The stark and imaginative box covers promote such imagery. Gipf resembles the origins of continents, Tamsk is a desert, Zertz a polar ocean, Dvonn a volcanic landscape, and Yinsh a weather front crossing an open ocean. I am reminded of the eight basic archetypes of the I Ching, the ultimate game playing/wisdom system. I am not suggesting that the Gipf Project is an ancient wisdom tradition, but rather that the abstract landscapes promote a compelling and striking imagery that intriguingly resembles the game play. Yes, Gipf can be imagined as continents and oceans forming shape on a young earth. Tamsk's shifting sands convey the passage of time. Zertz is about islands, sacrifice, and isolation. Dvonn's towers resemble the all-powerful, but ultimately limited vision of Mordor (the real action takes place on the ground). And Yinsh is a tempest of weather fronts sweeping through a landscape. This is more than just an environmental studies professor's fantasy. Each game demands qualities of attention that resemble its shifting, abstract landscape. That is, there are cognitive skills and perceptual abilities that correspond to the gaming landscape.
These cognitive challenges are the essence of the Gipf Project's significance and will ultimately determine its place in board game history. Although each game presents unique cognitive demands, there are clearly some principles of "meta-cognition" that permeate the Gipf Project. Here are just a few to think about.
Balance is the overriding conceptual theme in each of the games. With Gipf and Yinsh every capture you make requires that you also remove your own pieces. With Dvonn, every capture limits your mobility. Zertz requires that you give up a ball to gain a different one. You must make sacrifices to gain an advantage. There are limits to your strength. If your advantage is too great, it diminishes your prospects. Hence every move you make is intended as a means to simultaneously balance the game while you gain a relative advantage. In the Gipf Project, the more your respect your opponent's strength, indeed, the more you build his or her strength, the more you gain as well. You improve your ability in each of the games as you come to recognize how to achieve balance. Games that teach about balance and limits are inherently ecological.
Improvisation is reflected in the rapidly shifting landscapes and circumstances of each game. It's difficult to see more than a few moves ahead, because each move can unleash a chain of unforeseeable events. This is particularly true in Gipf and Yinsh. As a musician, this intrigues me, because good improvisational music demands the ability to react to a changing musical circumstance. Yet your skill in doing so is enhanced when you understand the patterns and structures of chord progressions and song forms. Similarly, in Gipf and Yinsh, and to some extent in the other games, too, you come to recognize configurations and arrangements of pieces that are elusively familiar. You've seen something like it before, but you're not exactly sure where. As you gain familiarity with the game, these patterns become increasingly clear, yet the dynamic changes challenge you to apply them in new ways.
Hence each game is an experiment in Order and Chaos. Every match presents a landscape of seemingly random changes. Yet true to chaos theory, the appearance of non-linearity does not necessarily imply a lack of coherent structures. Your cognitive challenge in playing with the Gipf Project is to make sense out of order and chaos long enough to accomplish something. There is an intrinsic entropic flow that you, dear game-player, must turn into some coherent tactical or strategic advantage. "Find the order in the chaos," the designer's aphorism for Yinsh, serves as guidance for the entire Project.
All three of these qualities (balanced, improvisation, and chaos) are most directly reflected in Gipf and Yinsh, and in the entire strategic concept of the Gipf Project. Tamsk is much more familiar territorial game in which the element of chaos is introduced via time management (the hourglass is running over!). Zertz is a highly tactical, plan ahead game of compulsory capture. Chaos is found in the unpredictably moving chains of islands and rings. Dvonn is a familiar game of connection and territory. However, the seeding of the board results in a different game-playing position each time, and you must always assess the means and manner of how you choose to coagulate.
The most original aspect of the Gipf Project is the relationship between the games. The designer offers two related, but discrete methods for connecting the games. With Gipf as the home landscape, you can play with potentials from each of the other games. You select the type and number of these potentials. Each game's potential reflects its seminal gaming characteristic, so a Zertz piece jumps, a Dvonn piece can form a tower, and a Tamsk piece when moved to the center allows you to go again. Similarly, you can use the potentials as a means of posing a challenge. You must play the referenced game to determine whether the potential can be used.
I plead inexperience at this juncture as I do not feel I have played the various games enough to take the plunge into the meta-games. I think I'm almost ready to give it a try and of course I am obligated to do so before I write the final version of this essay. The meta-narrative implications are obvious, as ambitious players switch landscapes to determine the use of potentials. Also, this is where the deepest and most original strategic implications reside. As you gain strength in any particular game, so you are more adept at using the potentials. Similar to a game of Magic: The Gathering where you build your deck, the use of potentials allows you to select the types of pieces you are most adept with. You do this both to enhance your game-playing strengths, and to defend yourself against your opponent. The ultimate Gipf player will develop competence, if not excellence, in all of these arenas. Hence you must learn to play each game well to succeed at the most complex version of Tournament Gipf.
With this in mind, all fans of the Gipf Project are very curious as to what Game Six will look like. Gipf and Yinsh, self-referential as they are, appropriately begin and end the series, or at least serve as a recursive, wrap-around gaming structure. There is a very demanding cognitive challenge here. Can Kris Burm design a sixth game that reflects the basic principles of the Gipf Project, yet summon a new gaming landscape, and a different array of gaming skills? For example, might a sixth game be about nodes and networks and making scoring connections across a shifting landscape? Or might it entail the use of color? Or might it involve geometric shapes and patterns? Like any good long-term Project, we anxiously await the final installment in this game-playing epic. And we pay Kris Burm the highest compliment by suggesting that we have grand expectations that we are sure he will meet!
Before we're all completely exhausted, I'd like to offer some comments about Yinsh. In brief, each player has five rings that are alternately placed on a triangular lattice of 86 points. The players share a copious pool of two sided black and white pieces that fit inside the rings. After the initial placement of the rings, on your move you place a circular piece inside your ring, with your color facing up. You then move the ring across the board, passing over other pieces and flipping their orientation as you pass over them. When you achieve five in a row, you take one of your rings off the board and place it in your scoring column. Hence each point places you at a disadvantage. Taking a ring off the board diminishes your mobility. Three points wins.
In my view, Yinsh is by far the most accessible and dynamic of the games. The sweeping changes, the incredible reversals of game circumstance, and the mobility of the pieces, present a game that is just a joy to play. Like Gipf (and the others) it is an absolute brain-burner, but the glorious visual appeal is so much fun that you don't care. There is a compelling lightness about the game, delivered through the irony and frivolity of the dramatic reversals. For sheer fun, this is my favorite in the series. I have given up trying to evaluate the relative depth of the Gipf Project games. They are all deep! This one is no different. With experience, you gain an appreciation for subtle tactical relationships. You learn how to set up several threats simultaneously. You learn that by studying defensive approaches you have a much better sense of how to go on the offensive. Yinsh is a wildly flamboyant offensive game, but subtle defensive moves will thwart the overly ambitious player. You learn humility as you realize that the more you gain familiarity with the game, the deeper it gets. If you already enjoy the other Gipf Project games, then by all means get this one, too, although I am sure you don't need my recommendation. If you are new to the series and wondering where to start, I recommend you give Yinsh a try first.
The Gipf Project is a twenty-first century approach to abstract games, deriving the best of traditional games of alignment, capture, territory, and reversals, and delivering them in original and challenging ways, reflecting an ecological, emergent systems worldview. We anxiously await the last game in the series and we look forward to years of learning about the vast potential inherent in this brilliant and original abstract game-playing system.
- Mitchell Thomashow