Unplugged: Keep things abstract with YINSH and ZÈRTZ

June 1, 2012

While I appreciate most of the strategic offerings of modern boardgames, I always have a soft spot for the ones that fall under the “abstract strategy” umbrella. The closer I can get to two players going head-to-head, matching wits in a game with incredibly simple rules but forcing each other to think two or three moves in advance, the happier I tend to be. Chess is of course the king of the genre, but there are less intimidating choices out there if you and a partner are just looking to give your brain a workout. Some of the best in recent memory are those in the “Project GIPF” (sometimes “GIPF Project”) series by Kris Burm. I’ll be discussing two of those titles here: the ring-moving YINSH and the marble-capturing ZÈRTZ.

YINSH is a connect-five challenge with a little Othello thrown in. Players start by placing five rings each on intersections of a hexagonal-lined board. In turn, players then place a marker stone in one of their rings and then moves that ring. Rings can move to any vacant space in a straight line from its origin, with two exceptions: one, if a ring moves over a group of stones, it must land in the first empty space on the other side of that continuous group; and two, rings cannot pass over other rings. Any and all stones passed over in this manner flip to the other color. If, after flipping stones (if any), a player has connected five stones of one color in a row, those stones are removed from the board and that color’s player also removes one of their own rings. Note that it doesn’t matter whose turn it is when the connection is made; the player of that color is the one who scores, so be careful not to help your opponent. The winner is the first to remove three rings in this manner.

That’s it. Place, move, flip. Repeat until someone has removed their third ring. The game starts out on an empty board but quickly becomes complex thanks to ten rings jumping all over the place. Key strategy in YINSH involves using your rings to block the movement options of your opponent, but the more you score the harder that gets as you have fewer rings to use. You also have to consider the maneuverability of your own rings. Having too many rings clustered together can effectively make some rings useless, and you frequently have to weigh giving up established positions in order to move into more advantageous options. A game of YINSH should take about twenty minutes.

While YINSH sees your options decrease slightly with each scoring play, ZÈRTZ is all about giving you fewer and fewer options with every move. The game starts with thirty-seven rings laid out in an hexagonal formation, and an assortment of black, white, and gray marbles off to the side. On a player’s turn, they are presented with the opportunity to capture by jumping one marble over the other they must do so; multiple jumps are possible, and you have to capture as many as you can, although you can choose which direction you jump should the choice present itself. Otherwise, they place a marble of their choice on any ring, then remove a vacant ring from the edge of the board. If removing a ring in this manner creates an isolated island of marbles and no empty rings, then that player captures all of those marbles and removes the isolated rings from play. It should be noted that the number of available marbles is finite. If all of the marbles have either been placed or captured and you cannot make a new capture, you have to place one of the marbles that you have already captured! The winner is the first to capture four white marbles, five gray marbles, six black marbles, or three marbles of each color, so you at least have some leeway as to what color to sacrifice should you find yourself in such a position.

Due to the constantly-dwindling play space and forced capturing, a game of ZÈRTZ should only take about fifteen minutes, but that quarter-hour will feel like an eternity — and I mean that in a good way. Removing rings from the edge with nearly every move will really cut down on the playing field in short order. Forcing your opponent to make captures of little benefit in order to set up a key move on your turn takes patience and cunning, but you have to be aware of their current marble counts lest you unwittingly provide them with a winning combination. On the other hand, if you plan ahead too far you might find your hopes shattered by a vital ring no longer being available when it comes time to execute.

Of the two, I would recommend YINSH to newer players, although both are excellent games. If ZÈRTZ has a shortcoming, it is the fact that the loose rings that comprise the play field are, well, loose. Without any anchor, they tend to shift a bit during the course of play, which can create question as to whether or not a ring is on the “edge” and eligible to be removed. As long as both players are aware that a ring must be missing two adjacent neighbors (of six) in order to be removed things should be fine, but it can still be something of a nuisance. Also, the “four/five/six” scoring, while proportional to the number of marbles available in each color, takes some getting used to (not to mention the “three-three-three” back door) and is not nearly as clear as YINSH‘s “three rings” win condition. These two titles are the only two GIPF games that I have had the pleasure to experience thus far, as most of the others have been out of print for some time now. Each of these games should retail for about $30-35 thanks to their high-quality ceramic pieces that give the games a classic, timeless look.