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Conrad Zimmerman avatar 6:47 PM on 02.23.2008  (server time)
On the Table: GIPF

While I adore video games, I'm equally fond of board and card games. On the Table is a weekly feature of my cBlog that examines some of these analog entertainments. If you have a suggestion for a game to appear in this column or suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know

Following upon the theme of last week's On the Table, today I'm going to cover another simple, two-player strategy game. GIPF is a game of survival in which players must maintain a supply of pieces in order to continue playing while simultaneously working to eliminate those of their opponent.

Players take turns placing disks on the outer points of the board and sliding them inward. Whenever four or more disks of the same color are positioned in an unbroken line, they are removed from the board and returned to their player's reserve pile. At the same time, any pieces of the opposing color that are connected to either end of this completed chain are captured and removed from the game. A player loses when they have no pieces left to play on their turn.

The movement aspect to the game is one of its more unique features. Sliding pieces along the lines of the hexagonal board pushes other pieces, which can drastically alter the plans of unwary players. It also has the effect of gravitating loose pieces to the center of the board, often leaving them stranded until a player can work a lifeline out to them... or move in for a quick kill.

From the perspective of strategic thinking, the board is a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, that's the only way in which it's attractive. Made of rather thin cardboard and with sparse design, it's a really bland presentation. The discs are plastic, decent quality and appealing to hold and turn over in your fingers while you contemplate your next move.

GIPF is the core title in a series of inter-connected board games called GIPF Project. Each of the five (technically six, with the addition of TZAAR which is intended to replace TAMSK in the series) other games in the collection can be played individually or in conjunction with GIPF using special pieces called "potentials". Potentials are played on top of a normal GIPF piece as part of a regular move and are inert until they are activated (usually by having the piece they're on become part of a chain). Once activated, they have special effects on the GIPF board.

The original intention of the designers was that, when a potential was to be used, the user could be challenged to the game in the series that the potential originated from, forcing them to earn the right to its benefit. Potentials come packaged in each of the GIPF project games. There are a few problems with using them, however.

The other games, while short, can still take upwards of thirty minutes to complete, not including the time it takes to set them up and put them away when finished. While some of them are fun exercises, most of them aren't spectacular and buying an additional game just to get a few new moves in one you already own is a bit cost prohibitive. This was remedied to a certain extent with the "GIPF Project Packs", inexpensive sets of additional potentials, but then you don't have the associated game to challenge with. As a result, the whole thing just comes off as an excuse to bilk more money from gamers for something that ultimately dilutes elegant, balanced play in the basic set.

There's an computerized version called GIPF for One (available here) which features a particularly brutal AI opponent and has been rather popular amongst fans of the board game. A few other versions exist, but GIPF for One is widely considered to be the definitive example.

GIPF is a decent game with some very cool strategic thinking involved. Originally priced at around $35, it would have been difficult to recommend. These days you can usually find a copy for less than $30, which makes it a much more reasonable investment and worth the time to check out.

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