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Subject: review with some strategy insights rss

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Alan Kwan
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I'm in love with TZAAR. Rated "11" for "exceptional" on a scale of 0 to 10.

Even if they don't publish it as a GIPF project game with Kris Burm's name on the box, even if they don't make the pieces in black and white with the good quality of GIPF series pieces, even if they paste some great or silly theme on it, you'll know that the game must have been designed by Kris Burm just by looking at the rules (available on the official website, so I'm not repeating them here), for you can see clearly its GIPF lineage:

GIPF's survival rule: in GIPF, if you lose all your GIPF pieces, or if you can't make a move (no pieces in stock), you lose the game. In TZAAR, if you lose all of all your pieces in one of the three types, or if you can't make a move (no possible move on board), you lose the game.

ZERTZ's and DVONN's shriking board: the board (playable spaces) shrinks as the game progresses, adding tension, strategic variation, and nicely controls the playing time.

ZERTZ's two-part move: in ZERTZ a normal move is "place a marble, then remove a ring"; in TZAAR a turn is "capture, then either capture again or stack up (or pass, but that's rarely used)".

DVONN's stacking: though in TZAAR it works very differently. The funny thing is, stacked pieces feel and function like GIPF pieces in GIPF (in fact they are a lot more powerful than unstacked pieces, than GIPF pieces are to normal pieces in the parent game).

DVONN's mobility: in DVONN, having more moves available in the endgame is an important strategic concern. In TZAAR, it's an explicit victory condition.

YINSH's movement: pieces and stacks move in a straight line (not restricted by stack height, hence closer to YINSH than DVONN). Upon second though, it isn't really the same as YINSH either, since you can't freely choose your move distance (have to stop at the first occupied space, not shorter).

And TZAAR also uses a form of capture similar to chess: you capture an enemy piece by moving onto it. But here your stack also has to be at least as tall as the captured stack (as in "open information" Stratego, or the Chinese animal version Jungle).

TZAAR has borrowed some elements from previous GIPF games, and combines all the goodness into an exciting new game which is fitting to become the grand conclusion to the GIPF series. The previous GIPF games have been out for several years, yet Kris Burm is the only person who has the talent to merge them together to make TZAAR. While TAMSK is not "my cup of tea", I see it is a good game and a very interesting game design; yet I could only agree that, the decision to replace TAMSK with TZAAR is a good one, because TAMSK is an odd-man-out in the series, and TZAAR really belongs here. Unlike many of the decisions made in the game industry nowadays, this decision is no less an artistic one than a commercial one.

I loved DVONN. But that game has a big problem: the strategy is very counter-intuitive to the uneducated novice, in the same way as Othello. Although that game is won by piece count, the strategy is on mobility, and a tall stack has low mobility in general - that is counter-intuitive. In TZAAR, height means power, plain and simple. With a tall stack, I can chase my opponent's shorter stacks. Against a tall enemy stack, I keep my stacks well away (unless I can build enough height to chase it back), and try to cut it off from reaching my stacks and pieces.

Yet, TZAAR has its share of counter-intuitive strategy which a player must learn in order to stand any chance against an intermediate player who has learned them well. The victory condition is to eliminate one of the three piece types of your opponent, and this is the way in which the novice will lose most games. Ironically, when the novice tries to win this way by capturing an enemy Tzaar (the piece type which starts with the fewest number) at every opportunity, he will always be thwarted when the opponent stacks up his Tzaar before the last one is taken. The problem is that, on the game box is printed "on each move you may choose to make your opponent weaker (with a double capture) or to make yourself stronger (by stacking up)". This statement is certainly great for a sales pitch, and may actually have been in the original design conception, but in terms of strategy it is way off, for the novice who plays double capture moves to "make his opponent weaker" will lose every game. In order to win, you must make a stacking move at every opportunity, unless you have a clear reason (such as "I'll have a forced win after this") to make a double capture. This is the golden rule of thumb.

For the game strategy is not primarily focused on the three piece types; the game is focused on the stacks. You can win by eliminating an enemy piece type, but the last piece of your opponent's (if he is an intermediate player worth his salt) will always be on top of a stack, and in order to chase and capture it, you will always need your own stacks. Once you have a stack of each of the three types, your focus should be on your stacks, and the identities of your remaining single pieces will have much reduced significance (or rather, they are of but occasional significance). How close one is to defeat is not measured simply by the number of remaining pieces in each of the three types, but rather, by how vulnerable they are to being captured.

Then how does the novice player lose by a piece type being eliminated? It's because the intermediate player plays his stacks better. Against the obvious novice strategy of making one big Tzaar stack, the strategy of playing for "Tzarra encirclment victory" (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/322463) is very effective, and to add to the puzzlement of the novice, (apparently contrary to the aforementioned golden rule of thumb) the game is finished by a series of double capture moves - from a forced win position where the novice's remaining Tzarras can no longer be stacked safely (and hence defenseless).

The next game, when the novice starts building a second stack for his Tzarra early, he finds that he will have to face the complexities of multi-stack play. Even given that one should be stacking by default every move, unlike the single-stack strategy there is now no simple and obvious decision: which stack should I build up, or should I start a new stack (and where)? The precarious balance this calls for is easily overwhelimg for the novice. One moment when he seperates his stacks, the intermediate player will send a big stack in between his two stacks, chasing them further apart and hunting down the more vulnerable one (a process which is often assisted by the novice's weak moves during his attempt to escape). And then the next game, when the novice combines his two stacks into a big one in order to defend against the same threat, the intermediate player immediately commences a deadly encirclement attack on the piece type which is not repesented by the combined stack. The key difference is that, the novice attacks blindly and thus will not succeed, while the intermediate player knows the opponent's weak spot and attacks it successfully (or at least gains an advantage by forcing the opponent to respond). A good player doesn't come into the game planning to follow a certain "strategy" (as some do in Princes of Florence or Puerto Rico), nor does he imitate the style of his opponent; rather, he responds to his opponent's play by exploiting any weakness he shows, focusing on what he stacks or does not stack.

The amazing thing is that, despite the novice player being repeatedly walked over, he is still enjoying the game and would not refuse to play again. This is the magic in this game: a game is fast, and each game the novice feels that he is learning something (thanks to the fact that the strategy is not too counter-intuitive), so he wants to play again because he thinks he can do better. The intermediate player, too, wants to play again, not for another walkover victory (honestly! ), but because he too is learning something.

I play and enjoy themed games; they are fun. And I once thought that abstracts are dated and boring. The GIPF project games have changed my mind with their elegant rules, their depth, and their quick playing time. In these aspects, few themed games (or even other abstracts) can parallel. And TZAAR is the masterpiece in the GIPF project.
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Shin Yoo
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Very insightful, thank you.

I still fondly remember the one day when I walked into the Tarot Games shop in HK a few years ago
Are you still running the retail shop? The webpage seems to be down. Hope everything is going well!
 
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Alan Kwan
Hong Kong
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My shop was closed because it was not making profit.

I'm now working as "rules director" for the World Series of Mahjong, and enjoying gaming with my family in my spare time.
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Sander Martens
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Indeed, some really good insights, thanks! Indeed, Tamsk is a nice game but doesn't really seem to fit into the series as well as the other games do. Unfortunately, I never quite mastered making multiple-capture moves in Zertz, and I agree that Dvonn has some counterintuitive elements in it. Until now, I liked Yinsh best, featuring a simple elegance and somehow, a higher fun-factor than Gipf. You should also try Punct, although it doesn't quite have the same elegance of simplicity as both Yinsh and Tzaar have. I was pleasantly surprised that so many elements of the previous games returned in Tzaar, which gave me the feeling that it could have been the last in the series following Punct rather than replacing Tamsk as the second game of the Gipf Project.
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Björn Hansson
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Bromma
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Alan Kwan wrote:
I play and enjoy themed games; they are fun. And I once thought that abstracts are dated and boring. The GIPF project games have changed my mind with their elegant rules, their depth, and their quick playing time. In these aspects, few themed games (or even other abstracts) can parallel. And TZAAR is the masterpiece in the GIPF project.


You took the words right out of my mouth, as Meat Loaf would have said!
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