Discs on a Plane
Abstract games are among the most difficult to design. A good one demands lean yet deep rules as well as varied viable tactical and strategic approaches. A great one has these qualities while also possessing arguably the most important one: moreishness. A game that keeps you coming back, that inspires a desire to master it, that leaves you excited to play more, is the best kind. Most designers would be lucky to make one game so strong, but Kris Burm is not just any designer. Kris Burm is a game design genius.
While he has done more, Burm’s most notable contribution to board gamedom is the renowned GIPF Project (I will not be capitalizing these names every time, sincere apologies in advance). Each entry is completely abstract, just pieces on a board between two players, usually discs. Each is also simultaneously completely unique, yet also built on the ever-growing foundation of the project. Standalone, yet intertwined. Basically what I’m saying is you can pick your favorites, which I’ve decided to do! I’ve played all the Gipf games with the exception of one (which will be explained when we get there), and I have opinions on all of ’em. I’m not going to explain all the rules in detail for each because those are readily available, but I will talk about interesting design tidbits and rank them at the end. Enough preamble!
The original! Arguably the simplest game of the set, and even more arguably the most elegant. Push a piece onto the board from the outside. Line up pieces. Capture pieces. Don’t lose your big pieces if you’re playing the full ruleset. Eventually someone can’t make a move, which means they lose. Couldn’t be easier. And I like it! But I don’t love it.
Gipf feels and plays like the first game of its project. Its ideas, its concepts, its feel, are all iterated on throughout the series to great effect. Not all of those ideas are in any other single box – there is no true “Gipf 2” – but it feels like it has been succeeded by multiple later entries.
My main hitch with Gipf is its pacing. Impactful moves generally require setup turns in advance, with multi-stage reactions to your opponent’s plays. A significant amount of planning is necessary as a result and while individual moves are quick, the overall duration of a full game often feels like it drags. The game length itself is not the issue; 30 minutes or so is perfectly reasonable and some other games in the project take as long, but the game’s arc is often flat and sluggish. Some abstracts speed up with experience and I make no claims at being a Gipf Grandmaster, but even when watching better players play it just kind of plods along.
There is truly nothing wrong with Gipf. It is good. Were it a game entirely on its own I would likely be a bit kinder to it. But it isn’t the greatest of its line, at least not for me, and it suffers for that comparison. Gipf represents potential and that potential was seized upon, just not by itself.
Ah, the substitute. Or if you’re feeling accusatory, the usurper! For those who don’t know, Tzaar was not the first to bear its number in the project. It originally belonged to Tamsk, a game played with sand timers that as a result earned a divisive reception. I don’t know every motivation behind replacing it beyond production woes regarding the consistency of the aforementioned timers, but I know that Tzaar currently stands where Tamsk once stood.
Tzaar itself is a game of constant conflict. The board rapidly dwindles from completely full to practically empty. Every turn requires a capture in a straight line, then a choice: another capture, or strengthening one of your pieces by sacrificing another. What this means is every turn kills two pieces, which is critical when the main win condition is eliminating all of an opponent’s pieces of one kind. As pieces can only capture others that are their height or smaller, tall pieces wield significant influence. The tides of battle wax and wane, but always at the cost of feeding more pieces into the gristmill.
This game is violence. Constant aggression, furious yet measured. Two pieces will die every turn, but which and when fundamentally shifts the board state and decision space. Cannibalizing your pieces to make them stronger is as essential as it is painful, with positioning being a vital part of your considerations lest you be left with a strong piece you can barely use. Playing Tzaar well feels devilish, ruthless. It’s also the shortest to play of the project at roughly 10 minutes (no matter what the box says), meaning rematches are frequent and vengeful.
I adore Tzaar. It’s nasty, brutish, and short, all things I value in an abstract. Although I haven’t played Tamsk as a result of its unavailability and therefore can’t compare the games, I can tell you that I am a proud and dedicated Tzaar loyalist. Long live the new 2, may it reign eternal!
Aha, the 3D discs! Can’t fool me Burm.
Zertz is a game of sacrifice. It plays like checkers, only the pieces don’t belong to any one player. Anything you capture is yours to keep, with certain combinations of captures winning you the game. Placing pieces shrinks the board, making things tighter and tighter, but the game’s big trick is that if a player can capture they must. Those forced captures still count towards winning though, which means the only way you’re going to get anything done is by gifting marbles to your opponent. As a rule I am a huge fan of games where you have to lose battles to win the war. So why is this my least favorite game in the project?
I’m ashamed to admit that part of the reason is the production. Zertz may be one of the most visually distinct of the line, but it’s also the most awkward to actually play as a direct result. Which pieces of the board you remove is a critical part of the game, but scooting circles isn’t nearly as simple to perform as removing tiles in a game like Hive. That combined with constant marble fondling means I find operating the game a smidge annoying in a series that otherwise has splendid production.
That’s small potatoes though. My main issue is that as much as I normally enjoy games of tactical sacrifice, the sacrifices in Zertz feel off. Part of making a sacrifice interesting, in my view, is it being accepted by the other player after evaluating the risks/costs. Mandatory captures take that element away, and the game is fundamentally built on and around that concept. As a result I find a lot of the game just feels like taking the opponents’ turn for them and vice versa. It’s a bit awkward, a bit uncomfortable. Of course I realize that multiple capture opportunities allow for choices within that forced capture, but when the optimal move is often to force specific captures so you can take what are essentially back to back turns I generally find concocting lines of play more frustrating than fun.
There are folks who adore Zertz. When I was working on getting plays in for this piece and mentioned I wasn’t a fan I received a comment from a former top player who did not find it nearly so unnatural. He expressed some fatigue with memorizing openings, as many abstracts force upon their players, but the respect for the design was still evident. I would never imply Zertz is poor – it just isn’t for me.
Uh oh. This will be the shortest entry.
Let me start by establishing that I am not smart enough for Dvonn. There is a real chance that it is the best Gipf game at a high level. And I like it, truly. But I don’t know if I have the mental faculties get there myself.
Moreso than any other Gipf project entry, Dvonn is opaque. Oh it’s still a pure abstract, don’t get me wrong, but every single play has more long term ripple effects than can possibly be calculated. Every piece manually seeded in setup, every move made, every capture taken, ev-er-y-thing counts in large amounts. It is a temporal mindfield, where any play you make could doom you in 10 minutes and you likely won’t even know what did it by the time it happens. Is it enjoyable? Certainly! Could people get good at it? Probably??? But I’ve witnessed some folks who’ve played close to or beyond triple digits of Dvonn and still come away as confused as I have, so I don’t think I’m alone.
The Dvonn-heads out there are geniuses. A different breed, ascendant. I am not one of their kind, and I am unworthy to speak on it further. Definitely like those lil donut pieces though.
Wait, those aren’t discs. What is this?
Truly three dimensional games are a rarity. Some appear to be, only to be perfectly playable on a flat plane. Punct is not one of those. Punct genuinely forces you to think in 3D and that’s a wonderfully twisty task.
I’ve seen it argued that Punct is the most rules-intensive and therefore most inelegant of the project, but I’m not sure I agree. Manipulating all pieces based on the placement of their “punct” (colored dot) is difficult to visualize at first but far from unintuitive. It also opens up fascinating lines of play as pivoting pieces during a move allows players to attack from completely different angles. The game makes it immensely challenging to see moves in advance because of the sheer quantity of moves available – piece variety, a large board, all potential shifts, etc, yet never impossible.
It’s also just a very aggressive beast, which helps get through learning games quickly. I don’t see how you’d ever play just one game of Punct in a sitting when someone can get zonked by an unseen line of play so easily. Your first plays will somewhat resemble Hex or Blokus Duo, with players racing to build paths while blocking to the best of their ability. Eventually things go vertical as each player gets more comfortable, and it only gets better from there.
Opacity and reactive play does not indicate a lack of elegance, far from it. Punct‘s board state considerations are unique. It has to be approached as a fundamentally different game from its peers because it is fundamentally different. A piece going from an established chunk of path on the board to moving, spinning, and bridging atop other pieces, locking those down in the process in a single motion? That’s wild stuff, the kind of thing that pokes parts of the brain oft left unused. Is it like the other Gipf titles? No, but the results speak for themselves. Very underrated, very enjoyable, Punct would stand tall outside of the project but loses nothing compared to its siblings.
It’s the popular kid! Just about everyone who knows the project loves Yinsh, and with good reason. It simultaneously feels completely distinct and oddly familiar. I want you to imagine Othello, mixed with Connect 4 (it’s 5 here but you can do it I believe in you), introduced to you at a park table by the coolest old dude smoking a pipe.
Play couldn’t be simpler. Your pieces are 5 rings. On your turn you put a disc down showing your color inside one of your rings, then pick up and move that ring along a line to set up future plays. Any discs your ring travels over flip over to the opposite color, no matter whose color they were showing before. If you ever make 5 in a row you remove those discs and cash them in for one of the three points you need to win, but you have to sacrifice one of your rings to do it!
That last element often contributes a bit of momentum to the other player, who now has one more vector of attack, but that doesn’t mean it feels like rubberbanding. Getting behind in Yinsh is rarely beneficial, unless of course you’ve baited your opponent into clearing an area that benefits you more to have open. But surely most players aren’t so devious…right?
Of course they are. This game has tactics within tactics, just as it has pieces within pieces. While it’s hard to make a long-term strategic plan it certainly isn’t impossible, and making strong reactive decisions that press the advantage without leaving holes in your defense is vital. Few games can make every move feel so impactful, with so many interesting moves to consider, while still being so gosh darn easy to play! It’s a wonder.
Were you expecting a twist here? There won’t be one! I like Yinsh plenty, just like everyone else. The game is just so wonderfully approachable but it loses nothing for that. There are few elements here you wouldn’t immediately recognize and understand when explained in a vacuum, but combined they create one of the most solid entries in the project. Yinsh feels the most like a modern classic, the kind of game that deserves wider success than just the hobby gaming market, and I’d love to see that happen.
The seventh entry in a six game line was always going to be an odd thing, and odd Lyngk is. It’s unmistakably a Burm design, and certainly Gipf-y, but it also feels notably distinct.
First, a complaint. I don’t love the color choices here and that’s got nothing to do with the game’s aesthetic presentation. To be clear I understand why these pieces look the way they do; this is intended to be the synthesis game that meshes all the project’s prior concepts into one, from snippets of their mechanisms down to their presentation and color schemes. Unfortunately this led to color choices that just don’t work for the colorblind. White/black/speckled is fine, red/green/blue is not. I won’t belabor this point as I’m not colorblind and was able to play it, but there are folks I’ve played abstract games with that can’t play Lyngk, and that’s a shame.
With that said the game here is compelling. Move pieces to stack them without ever repeating a color, score stacks as points once they get tall enough. The catch is that you initially don’t own pieces but can claim 2 colors as yours over the course of the game, meaning your opponent can’t move that color anymore. The standout mechanism for me is the titular Lyngk rule. It creates incentive to make odd captures in order to set up daisy chained multi-jumps along other pieces of your color, new angles of attack that no one piece can normally achieve. Reading the board is as a result a bit tricky. Your first games will likely feature fewer lyngks than later on, or only use ones that require a turn of setup immediately before. This will change with plays…or at least I suspect it will.
In an oddly appropriate bookend, much like Gipf I think Lyngk is good, but not great. I do like it, just not enough to put in the time to dig deep and see how much it changes with mastery. It’s a bit messy compared to the others, roughly equal to Punct in terms of rules load but not as interesting on the board for my tastes. There are folks with strong opinions on the project that rate Lyngk quite highly but I’ve seen vanishingly few who consider it their favorite, and I suspect I somewhat understand why.
IN CONCLUSION THESE ARE MY FAVORITES RANKED FROM TOP TO BOTTOM:
TZAAR (the single most brutal game about discs ever made)
YINSH (Othello for cool kids)
PUNCT (oof ow my brain but I love it)
DVONN (oof ow my brain except I don’t get it)
LYNGK (it’s almost a 2p train game, that’s cool)
GIPF (I mean it’s fine?)
ZERTZ (no thanks, marble checkers)
TAMSK (will sadly likely remain so because it’s way outta print but if anyone wants to let me play the sandtimer game please contact me on the site email please and thank you)