Saturday, January 20, 2007


Puerto Rico: Still the best game in the world.

Friday evening we had over two families: the family of a friend of my daughter, Tal, and Nadine and son. One of the son's of the first family was interested in learning a game, and Nadine and Rachel were happy to play Puerto Rico, so he got his first introduction to new games via Puerto Rico.

While Puerto Rico is the best game in the world, it's not usually my first choice for new players, as it is a little more complicated than some of the other games, especially the longish set up time.

Once the boy got into it, however, he loved it. Unlike usual, we kept Nadine in check a little; she has a habit of explaining and offering advice for most every move when a new player learns PR. I instead gave the bare minimum, explanations here and there about what the buildings do, and a few warnings about some egregious moves he was going to make. Other than that, he played, and ... won. Yes, 50 to Nadine's 49, Rachel's 43, and my 39.

I was thwarted on almost every move and got almost no cash the entire game. Everyone else was able to sell when I wasn't. Harsh. When this happens, even I admit that it is a bit of a failing in a game when despite good play, you can end up with nothing to show for it. Even Rachel began to feel a little sorry for me.

The boy's initial purchase as first player was a Hospice, and he won against good players, so that will teach you. It helps when all the corns come up early. I manage to get a Harbor, but the big buildings were all gone before I could get them, and so actually bought a Large Warehouse for the first time in a year or so (the Small ones were gone, and I couldn't afford a Wharf). Rachel and Nadine, both corn players, both got Factories, but Rachel was producing Coffee along with two others, while Nadine had a Tobacco monopoly.

So, still the best game, but not perfect.

When it comes down to it, there are two types of games: games where the better player always wins, in which case it's no fun because the other player has no chance of winning, and games where either player can win, in which case it's no fun because better thinking and playing offers no reward. Ipso facto, games are not fun.

Zertz: A terminating abstract game

Zertz is my fourth game of the Gipf series, a series of six modern abstract games by Kris Blum. All the games come in futuristic looking boxes with otherworldly landscape designs on them, and the pieces are marble-like plastic with a heft. his contrasts with most designers' abstract games where they aim for wooden or metal pieces.

Along with the six games, Kris tries to claim that the games can be played interlockingly and with other games by means of "potentials", which basically means taking the pieces and using them in other games. The whole idea is grand and ambitious, but essentially silly, in my opinion.

However, he does have these six abstract games, and of the four I've played, so far three are quite good.

The one I didn't like was Gipf, the first and namesake of the series. This is because the gameplay is rather pedestrian, without any real "wow" factor, but mostly because the game doesn't terminate. With correct play by both parties, players continuously add and remove pieces from the board, or move them around (like Abalone), wating for an opponent to make a mistake. If they don't no one can win. Nope, not good.

The first game that I played was Dvonn, and it's the one I like the best, so far. Dvonn is a strange game of filling in all the locations with stackable disks in the first part of the game, and then stacking them in the second part of the game.

The first part appears to be very random, although there are plenty of things to take notice of while you are doing it. The second is quite interesting, as the person who ends up with the highest stacks with their color disks on top wins. A few other interesting rules make the game deep. And the game is guaranteed to terminate, because each move reduces the playing field until no more moves remain.

The second game that I played, and the highest rated on BGG was Yinsh. Yinsh is a nice terminating abstract game which plays like Othello on drugs. Instead of only flipping your opponent's pieces, you flip all pieces. Every time you make a line, you remove one of your own controlling pieces, thus making it harder to compete. This auto-balancing mechanism works great, and the gameplay is very interesting. The game terminates if the board fills up, at which point the winner, or a tie, is determined. Although, in practice, someone always wins before that happens.

I played Gipf third, and didn't like it, as I mentioned.

The latest in my collection is Zertz, which I acquired Friday, and I mentioned in my last post.

In Zertz, the board is built out of a hexagon of disks. Each turn, you either add a ball to the board and remove a disk on the outside of the space, or jump a ball with another and capture the jumped balls. Multiple jumps occur, as in Checkers, so it is not surprising to discover that the game is quite like Checkers in tactics. Checkers on drugs would not be too far off the mark. (You know, where you force them to jump you so that you get two jumps in return).

Each time you place a ball and remove a disk, you are reducing the area, so the game works its way toward termination. When you jump, you don't limit any area, but you capture a limited supply of balls, and so that also works toward termination. And owing to the winning conditions and ball distribution, once all the balls are captured, someone perforce has won. So the game must terminate.

And it's a good game. It's closer to Dvonn than Yinsh. It has few pieces, but readable depth, so can involve some analysis paralysis, but since the game is limited in length, you simply accept the length of the game as such.

I like Yinsh, and it's a very good game. It has a bit of a "wow" factor, much more than Gipf, but not as much as either Dvonn or Zertz, which are games that start with a great number of possibilities and then diminish.

I played twice with Saarya. The first game he won fairly easily, and I despaired of ever beating him. But the second game I took a bit more time to analyze and managed to execute two "Checkers-like" sacrificial plays that won me the victory.

I'm not going to go into more tactics right now, as they were fun to discover, but I will probably go into them more in future posts.

Hmmm, I think I need to discuss terminating vs non-terminating games sometime.

By the way, you can buy all six games of the Gipf series at once here.

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