One of the more interesting game projects to emerge in the past several years is Kris Burm's Gipf project. This is a series of interconnected games which allows players to resolve a situation in one game by playing a completely different game. This unusual and ingenious "metagame" project has now yielded three games, Gipf, Tamsk, and Zertz. Although each game is designed to stand-alone, and requires review on its own merits, the fuller context must also be kept in mind.
Here I'll review Zertz, addressing mainly its merits as a singular game, but commenting also on it's lineage. The Zertz gameboard consists of 37 circles, fitted together in a 7x4 configuration. Both players have access to a common pool of 5 white, 7 gray, and 9 black marbles. On your turn, you either place a marble on the board and remove one of the circles, or you capture one or more marbles through compulsory capture. Marbles can also be captured by isolating them after a circle is removed from the board. The object of the game is to capture either 2 marbles of each color, or 3 white, 4 gray, or 5 black marbles.
The originality of Zertz lies in it's elegant integration of compulsory capture, shrinking gameboard, and common pool of marbles. The relatively simple rules yield a difficult and unforgiving game in which one crucial mistake can mean the difference between a win or a loss. Indeed, Zertz is largely a game of tactical finesse. You have to figure out the best way to sacrifice marbles, setting up compulsory captures, in order to achieve your goal. Interestingly, one player can capture as many as 4 black, 3 gray, and one white marble (eight in total) and still lose to the player who has captured only 3 white marbles.
After a dozen or so plays, I was befuddled by Zertz , unable to figure out what to do, unable to see more than one or two moves ahead. It seemed that the opening moves were almost random, and that the best approach was to fill up the board until your opponent had no choice but to engage in a compulsory capture of your design. I consulted with Stephen Tavener, an advocate of the game and an astute reviewer of abstract games. Tavener explained that the opening moves were crucial and a series of well designed openings could lead to a quick victory. Indeed, the full merits of Zertz don't emerge until you play the tournament version which employs more marbles, and requires you to capture 3 of each, or 4 white, 5 gray, 6 black.
I was buoyed by my blindness, as Tavener helped me see beyond my initial impressions of the game. Indeed, there is a great deal of depth here and there are various approaches one might take to playing it. Like any game of this sort, the more you play it, the more familiar you become with its nuances and subtleties. Zertz is a rich and deep game, and it takes experience to understand it's unusual tactical pathways. Moreover, it is viscerally rewarding. Watching the gameboard fill up and then empty, observing the changing array of marbles, and setting up long jumps for your opponent so you can attain just one piece, make the game visually and aesthetically appealing. Hence it has all of the merits of a fine abstract game-simplicity, elegance, and depth. Plus it can be played in fifteen to thirty minutes.
If you enjoy original, tactical games, then I unreservedly recommend Zertz. Nevertheless, I have one caveat, however subjective. Although I appreciate it's merits, I still find the game difficult to understand. In and of itself, that should be a challenge. I am put off by Zertz's unforgiving quality. Perhaps I reveal too much of my own short-sightedness to say that I don't so much enjoy games in which I have lost before I even know what's happened. I'd rather play a more strategic game in which I can cover up mistakes, or at least have a long-range plan, or at least have a reasonable understanding of the game system.
One's view of Zertz must also be informed by where it stands in the Gipf project. "Meta" Gipf relies on pieces called potentials which have special powers. In order to determine whether you can use them you have to play the game to which the potential belongs. Eventually, when the Gipf project is completed (six games are envisioned), one could imagine using six different potentials, pieces with different powers linked to specific games. So depending on your skill at using a certain type of piece, you play Gipf so as to to direct the game to the connected game which you are most adept at. Tamsk, for example, rewards, players who thrive under time pressure. Zertz is the home of the compulsory capture. Perhaps when Burm is through with this project, each game will reflect a different cognitive gaming capacity, and the true Gipf master will be the person who can excel in a variety of abstract gaming genres.
With this in mind, I am compelled to work through my difficulty in understanding Zertz, so I am equipped to play any game in the series well. If this project intrigues you it is worth your while to pick up all three games in the series. If that is too ambitious, Zertz is worthwhile anyway. It's short, original, elegant and deep, and worthy of the attention of anyone who is interested in abstract games.
- Mitchell Thomashow