Where do the Extra ZÈRTZ rings come from?

When ZÈRTZ was still "under construction", it could already be predicted that the game was going to need a larger board when players were going to become really good at it. A ZÈRTZ-move is rather complex and offers plenty of options (you choose a marble, you put it on the board and next you remove a ring). On top of that, you and your opponent play with the same pieces, both marbles and rings. It takes a while before one finds out how to deal with the combination of possibilities. But, on the other hand, once you get a grip on it, the fact that you must undertake several actions in one and the same turn implies that you have more ability to control the game, meaning that having the initiative becomes increasingly important. It allows you to force the play and leave the opponent no other choice than to do what you want him to do. As such, the strategic possibilities can be seen as a bottle neck: the many options you have when you start learning the game are reduced as you improve, in particular because of the shrinking board.

When playing ZÈRTZ with 37 rings the bottle neck is becoming extremely narrow for the experienced players. In particular 4 dedicated players have contributed to the way ZÈRTZ is currently played and to the speed with which playing it has evolved in only 2 years time. First there was Yoshi Ikkai (J). He played several games per day for a period of four months and came up with the strategy of repositioning the marbles on the board by making sacrifices. His point of departure was simple: I can give whatever I want as long as the pay off will bring me closer to victory than my opponent. He showed his method of playing ZÈRTZ to Stephen Tavener (GB); he stuffed Stephen with 11 marbles to capture 4 white marbles himself. A hit! Stephen, amazed by Yoshi's approach of the game, got into practising long sequences of moves and went one step further: he specialized in combining capturing by jumping with capturing by isolation and, even more significant, he launched the sacrifice to prevent the opponent from getting "sente" (the initiative). This sacrifice concerns giving more than what you get yourself, with the purpose to remain in turn.

Then Michael Reitz (D) and David Glaude (B) started playing ZÈRTZ on Richard's PBeM server. Michael played a number of games against Stephen, asked advice and learned from his defeats. David studied quite a number of games that were played by e-mail. Both really got into the game. Yoshi and Stephen had analysed systems, Michael and David started to analyse positions. Meanwhile they got that far that a player who opens against one of them with a marble on the edge of the board, already lost the game (no matter the colour of the marble, no matter which ring he removes). There are still enough save spots to start a game, but it illustrates well why advanced players may want to start playing with extra rings some day.

The first version of ZÈRTZ was the basic version (i.e. with 5 white, 7 grey, and 9 black marbles). 3 marbles (one of each colour) were added to the game. It was also discussed to enclose 12 extra rings in the box from the very beginning, but tests pointed out that it was not a good choice. It would have meant that players were supposed to understand the game before having learned the basic strategies. Extra rings turn ZÈRTZ into a different game, especially for beginners and for players who normally don't fancy abstract games. It makes the game longer, it takes more moves before having reached a conflict on the board, and, last but not least, it makes it a lot harder to find out how to start making sacrifices for the simple reason that more distance must be covered between the marbles on the board. In other words: many who like ZÈRTZ as it is for the moment, would not have come to a positive conclusion with extra rings.

Even a player like e.g. Stephen Tavener thought in the beginning that ZÈRTZ was a game about filling up the board until no more safe moves were possible. Nothing spectacular, he thought. Then he discovered the strategy of giving away a couple of grey and black marbles with the purpose to isolate one or more white marbles, and at that point he started liking the game. But it was not until Yoshi Ikkai showed him how to reposition the marbles on the board through forced captures, that he understood the true complexity of the game. This only to say, if it even takes a gifted abstract games player like Stephen over 6 months to start seeing what the game is all about with 37 rings, then what would be the point of confronting less abstract games minded people with 48 rings?

For a short while it was discussed to enclose, apart from 3 extra marbles, also 3 extra rings. That would already have offered the possibility to start with an irregular hexagon and have given more different opening moves, but it would have been nothing but an intermediate solution. So, the extra rings were discarded - that is, they were going to be made available through GIPF Set 2.

At this point the cooperation with Schmidt Spiele came to an end and that explains why it took so long before GIPF Set 2 became available. Now the set exists, and this is where I'm today. But it is far from sure that this will be end of the line. I have no idea how the play of ZÈRTZ will go on to evolve. Maybe the extra rings will be enclosed in the next edition of ZÈRTZ. That is a possibility. The game already has a reputation, so enclosing the extra rings would not harm it. But it could also be, as Stephen Tavener predicts, that the ultimate version of ZÈRTZ will be played on a board with 61 rings. Or maybe, one day, other measures will be taken to lift the game to another level. I just don't know… It will be a matter of listening carefully to the best players out there...

Stay tuned!

Kris Burm (Feb. 11, 2002)

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