- Designer: Kris Burm
- Publisher: Huch! & Friends; Don & Co.; Schmidt Spiele; Rio Grande
- Players: 2
- Ages: 9 and Up
- Time: 30-60 Minutes
- Times Played: > 10
Note: We’re focusing on reprints, re-themes, re-releases, etc. this month. Since GIPF was recently reprinted, this entry is part of that series. I’ve included updates on the reprint below.
GIPF is the first game in the GIPF Project, an award-winning series of six (arguably seven) abstract games by Belgian designer Kris Burm. Burm first published the game as an independent in 1997, but a few months after its initial release, he came to a partnership with a German publisher. The game and its successors in the GIPF Project have been released worldwide by a few publishers in the nineteen years since. Even after all this time, GIPF still stands as one of the most revered abstract titles in our hobby.
The entire series went out of print a few years ago, but HUCH & Friends has began republishing the games with a fresh look, starting with GIPF and YINSH. That endeavor will culminate in the release of a new GIPF Project title next year. I interviewed Mr. Burm for the most recent edition of Counter Magazine as part of my series on the history of the winners of the International Gamers Awards, and he gave me some great details about the origin of GIPF.
What follows is my history of GIPF, plus a short review with thoughts from all of the Opinionated Gamers.
The History of GIPF
Kris Burm started publishing games in the early 1990s, the vast majority of which were abstract games. He started work on GIPF in the mid-1990s, and by 1996, he had decided to publish it as part of a series of six games.
He described the game’s origin a “coincidence,” explaining: “Initially it was a vertical game, a kind of four in a row. It was played in a hexagonal frame that needed to be turned at certain points, but I couldn’t find a mechanical solution to make the pieces fall in a new predictable position. I forgot about the game until I realized that the game could also be played horizontally on the table. The only thing I needed to adjust was that, instead of dropping pieces from the top side, they could be pushed into the game from all 6 sides.”
He started calling the game “GIPF,” a word he derived from the German word “gipfel,” or the summit of a mountain. Burm himself was a mountain climber, so he liked the name, and it stuck. Several publishers advised he change the name, but he had been working with that title so long he opted to keep it, and that decision impacted later titles in the series. “I couldn’t take distance from it any more. So it stayed GIPF. And the moment I definitively settled for it, I already had in mind that the names of the games that were going to follow were all going to have a kind of dissonant sound. Maybe other names would have been wiser from the commercial point of view, but I’m quite sure that, at the present, the names have become an important aspect of the cult around the series.”
Several publishers turned him down, so he published the game himself in 1997. A few months after its initial release, he came to a partnership with German Publisher Schmidt Spiele. The game was a critical success, garnering a 1998 recommendation from the Spiel des Jahres jury.
At GIPF’s publication, he already had the next game in the series, TAMSK, in final form, and he had started developing the third game, ZÈRTZ. TAMSK was published by Schmidt in 1998, and ZÈRTZ in 1999. Burm started developing DVONN to be the fourth game, and the basic version was complete in the first half of 2001. Unfortunately, Schmidt had decided to abandon the project after ZÈRTZ. Burm instead chose to publish the games himself — starting with DVONN — through his company Don & Co.. Schmidt Spiele agreed to distribute the games in German-speaking countries. However, when Burm showed them DVONN, they thought it was too similar to GIPF and requested that Burm rework the design. He declined, and he and the publisher parted ways, causing DVONN to be released later than planned.
The exit of Schmidt Spiele from the scene led to initial difficulty in marketing the game, and a funny story. As Burm explained, “When Schmidt Spiele and I went separate ways, they had the contacts and the channels to spread the news that they stopped carrying project GIPF, but I didn’t have the means to let them know to the same extent that I was going to proceed with the series as an independent.” DVONN was eventually released at Essen, and a few months later at the Nuremburg Toy Fair, Burm rented a booth to market the game. “The first couple of days it happened a number of times that someone stopped at my booth, looked at my stuff, and next addressed . . . me with the message that project GIPF didn’t exist any more. I explained that I, being the designer, had put the series back on the rails with my own company and that I was determined to go on until the project was completed, but some of them simply wouldn’t believe what I was saying. Even the presentation of DVONN, a novelty that had never been a Schmidt Spiele game, didn’t seem to be a valid argument.” Burm said he found the situation bizarre and a bit demoralizing, explaining “apparently the message that Schmidt Spiele had send out almost a year earlier was still more credible than my word at that very moment.”
Despite the challenge, the GIPF Project went on to be a hallmark of the abstract strategy game scene. DVONN won the 2-player Gamers’ Choice Award in 2002, also earning a nomination from the Spiel des Jahres jury and Games Magazine’s Game of the Year. The next two games in the series, YINSH and PÜNCT, both received IGA nominations, and YINSH received a recommendation from the Spiel des Jahres jury. TZAAR replaced TAMSK in the series in 2007, and that title also earned an IGA nomination and Spiel des Jahres recommendation, as well as Games Magazine’s Game of the Year. All of the games in the series won awards as Abstract Game of the Year. YINSH and TZAAR rank 2nd and 3rd, respectively, among abstract games on BGG.
As for GIPF, it is still revered in the hobby. As of this writing, GIPF ranks as the 17th best abstract on BGG, and the 597th game overall, both admirable successes for a game nearly 20 years old. It spawned a miniature version, called GIPF mini, as well as three expansion sets. These sets contain “potentials,” which include extra pieces that can be used to introduce new gameplay elements and link the other games in the GIPF series.
If you’re curious to try the game, Dave Dyer, webmaster at boardspace.net, has the game available to play for free online, either against live opponents or against bots. The bots make decent opponents, especially for beginners.
How to play GIPF…
GIPF has basic, standard, and tournament rules. I recommend starting with the basic rules, so that is what I will focus on here.
Each player receives 15 basic pieces, and the board is placed at the middle of the table between the two players. As shown below, the board has 24 dots along the edge of the board, along with 37 spots on which the game is played (these are the intersections at the central part of the board). The dots show how a piece can be moved into play, but they aren’t themselves part of the play area. The game starts with the players having 3 pieces each on the dots at the six points of the hexagon, alternating colors.
The goal is to capture your opponent’s pieces so eventually he has no pieces left to bring into play. If a player is ever in such a position (i.e. they can’t play), they lose.
On a player’s turn, he takes a piece from his reserve and puts it on any of the 24 dots, then moves it along the line (or one of the lines) connecting that dot to a space in the play area. As he does so, he “pushes” any pieces in that line of pieces that he needs to. Players can’t push pieces out of the play area, so sometimes it isn’t possible to place a piece in a particular way.
As soon as four pieces of the same color are lined up, they are taken from the board and put back into the reserve. Any other pieces that form a direct extension of them are also taken, with a player’s own color going back to their reserve, but with those of the opposite color being captured. This is compulsory: a player must take the pieces from the board if a line of four is formed.
As stated above, the game ends when one of the players cannot move because his reserve has been exhausted, likely from some combination of him having lost pieces to capture and him having several pieces on the board.
Details on the Reprint
As I mentioned above, Huch! & Friends is reprinting the games, giving each a facelift. My copy of GIPF is an old beat up first edition, so I was excited to get my hands on new copy. For those of you that are curious about the reprints, here’s what I learned when my new copy arrived:
- The pieces are the same size as before. This was important to me, as it means the sets of potentials I have will still work.
- The new board looks nice (picture below). There is an attractive blue border around the play area that makes the game a bit more attractive.
- It comes with a nice cloth bag for the pieces, and the box insert is better.
- Despite all of these nice changes, the box size is annoyingly larger. It is roughly the same size as a standard Ticket to Ride box. That means it takes up more room than the old GIPF series boxes.
My thoughts on the game…
GIPF, like all of the games in the series that bears its name, is easy to learn but deeply strategic. A typical rules explanation in GIPF takes less than two or three minutes, yet there are numerous viable strategies to achieve victory, and you likely could spend a lifetime trying to master the game, especially if you start adding in the potentials.
There’s more here than meets the eye, and I find GIPF fascinating. Like the abstracts of old — Chess, Checkers, Go, etc. — GIPF demands planning several moves in advance. But unlike at least some of those ancient games, there’s more subtlety here: it is so easy for any given opponent’s piece to escape that you typically have to maintain flexibility and set up traps patiently, acknowledging that they might not work out this time. The center of the game board is important, a detail it took me a few games to realize.
But GIPF isn’t only about placing pieces: it is also about managing your reserve. Often the difference between winning and losing is what I call “the countdown,” the moment in the game when you (or your opponent) has one more piece on the board than they needed to. A single move has far-reaching implications, and it takes several games to become good at GIPF. I generally see the winner not as the person that made the best moves (or managed their reserve effectively), but as the person who made the fewest mistakes.
In the groups I’ve played with, gameplay tends to be reasonably fast, and we finish the game in half an hour or so. That said, like with any abstract strategy game, gameplay will ultimately depend on the players: this is the sort of game where you could ponder each move for several minutes. This is probably the second or third longest game in the GIPF series, coming in after YINSH and PÜNCT.
I love the game, and it has a permanent spot on my game shelf, along with the rest of Project GIPF. I love the tension in the game, and I like seeing how simple rules can unfold into complex strategies. In my experience abstract titles stay relevant long after their themed counterparts, and I hope I’ll be playing GIPF for decades to come.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers . . .
Lorna: The game play is not as intuitive as some of the others later in the series. The tricky part to this one is remembering to capture your own pieces from time to time so you don’t run out and lose.
Mitchell: The GIPF series is a brilliant and groundbreaking approach to abstract games. The most interesting dynamic in all of the GIPF games is the emphasis on balance. Every move you make also strengthens your opponent. The trick is to do so while still gaining an advantage. I find GIPF the most circular of the games and the most difficult to understand. It’s also the longest.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Chris Wray, Erik Arneson, Lorna, John P, Mitchell
- Not for me…