Interview with Abstract Games

By Kerry Handscomb.

This interview was published in Issue 6 (Summer 2001) of Abtract Games, a magzine that is completely focussed on - as the name says - abstract games.

In AG1 we reviewed Gipf, and in AG4 we reviewed Tamsk and Zèrtz and explained a little of the concept behind Project Gipf. In the following interview the Project's Belgian creator, Kris Burm, explains his views on his games and how he expects the Project to develop.

AG: How do you expect the Project to develop?
KB: I don't know. The fact that Schmidt Spiele [publisher of Gipf, Tamsk and Zèrtz] and I separated at the end of last year makes a big difference. All I can say is that the continuation of Project Gipf is still uncertain. I, personally, am still very committed, but I have no idea whether that will be sufficient to realize the complete series.

AG: Can you tell a bit more about the split, or is that an indiscreet question?
KB: It is not indiscreet, but rather too complex to answer in a few words. As an individual, I can engage myself emotionally; a company cannot do that. My fuel is conviction and belief in quality; a company works with statistics. That went okay for a while, but in the end it always comes back to one question: what are the expectations?

AG: In other words, Schmidt Spiele was not happy with the sales.
KB: Right. That was the main factor from Schmidt's point of view. From my side there were other reasons. After Zèrtz was released, Schmidt wanted to postpone the fourth game. I thought that was not a good idea. Gipf was a stand-alone game that announced the Project. Tamsk was the second game and the first to reveal something substantial about the Project, but Tamsk alone was not enough to make things clear. With the third game, Zèrtz, I thought that the Project finally had enough weight to take off, if not yet as a project, than at least as a series of quality games. So, my opinion was that we had to stick to the rhythm of one game per year. It came down to another meeting with Schmidt, and we found a solution: I could go on with the fourth game. But when everything was ready for production to start, there was a disagreement about the game itself.

AG: This is the game called Dvonn, isn't it?
KB: Yes. For commercial reasons they wanted me to make a few changes. I couldn't agree with what they proposed, and there was no time left to look for a compromise. From my side this was the reason for the divorce. I understood their arguments, but couldn't accept them.

AG: You published Gipf initially as an independent. Do you think it would have been better if you had stayed as an independent?
KB: Who knows? But one thing is sure: it's a lot harder to make waves as an independent. I'm more than ever convinced that big companies must publish abstract games, too. If only they would have the courage to change their attitude towards that type of game. An abstract game is not a toy or a puzzle, nor is it a normal board game. It needs a completely different approach and different support. I fear that most publishers have lost their affinity with quality; they are so occupied with getting better and better at public relations and marketing and promotion that they can't distinguish a good game from a bad game any more. And the rare individuals who still can make that distinction don't have the guts to go for it. The next step leads to the sales reps, people who never play games, but nonetheless decide what will be proposed to the shops. And at the end of the line there are the shop keepers. Too few of them really love games, and many of those who initially did love games have put their affinity with good games aside and focused on what sells best. This is understandable, but it is nonetheless a great pity because I'm absolutely sure that potentially there is a big market for abstract games, if only the people involved with games would be a bit more passionate and a bit less obsessed with business. The right angle, the power of a bigger company, and a fair amount of patience -- this is all you need to reopen the market for abstract games.

AG: Do you think the games of Project Gipf can survive, if not as a Project, then as a series of games or even as separate games?
KB: If I did not believe that, I would already have given up. It is clear that abstract games are going through difficult times. In Germany a journalist deduced from the divorce between Schmidt and me that abstract games could well be over and done with. This kind of nonsense is typical of the problems abstract games are confronted with. Most people who write about games prefer games with a theme. That is a fact! Abstract games don't fit their interest; they are not their specialty. I wish some writers would be just a bit more careful when they feel the urge to note down their opinion. If there could be a bit more information available about abstract games, and above all better information, it could make quite a real difference. On the other hand, the games of the Project were in general well received and got good reviews. In addition, I get more and more emails from people telling me how much they like the games. Some even call the Project one of the best things that has happened in the game scene the last decade. Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue, just the fact that I get that kind of support matters. Gipf and the related games have an excellent and growing reputation, and that is why I believe that there is at least a chance that they'll survive.

AG: My view is that in a hundred years the popular theme games of today will be long forgotten, whereas many of the great modern abstracts will still be played. Anyway, how do you feel about the review of Tamsk in AG4?
KB: I had no problems understanding your point. Tamsk got extreme reactions; some called it a highlight, and others considered it more of a gimmick than an abstract strategy game. That aside, the use of hour-glasses as playing pieces was not just to make the game fit in with the Project, as you suggested in your review. The aim was to develop a game with time as an element in the game, not just as a limitation.
I, myself, also prefer Gipf and Zèrtz, but not because Tamsk is not as good. I'm very proud of Tamsk. The reason I consider the game less beautiful to play than the other two is a production matter. The hour glasses are not precise enough, but more precise pieces would have made the game at least twice as expensive. So, it was either that or no Tamsk at all. I chose to go for it, but it is hard to say whether it has been the right choice in the context of the Project.
Apart from that, I live with the idea that I have already reached my peak with Gipf. But, on the other hand, there's also a little voice in me that keeps whispering that not Gipf but Tamsk is the best thing I did so far. People who don't like time pressure, will never like the game, that is a sure thing. That aside, Tamsk is not a game about time but about territory. The fact that each piece carries its own time around the board and will be lost when it runs out of time is nothing but a restriction just like all the other restrictions that are more commonly accepted. The limitation of a board with 64 spaces is also a restriction that could be considered to be "putting the players under pressure" as there's no escape out of the 8 x 8 frame. A limited number of pieces is also a restriction. In fact, every rule is a restriction. Tamsk adds a restriction that is not commonly accepted yet: time as a factor that must be considered in all the potential movements on the board, just like limitations concerning spaces and pieces must be considered, too. Ultimately, it can be seen as a new way of capturing and sacrificing. In certain situations you can make your opponent lose an hour glass if your piece carries more time. On the other hand, you can let an hourglass deliberately run out of time to block a passage. As such, more than any of my other games, Tamsk introduces something which I would dare to describe as novel. But, I know, all this is just theory; eventually it is not the brain but the stomach that tells whether a game is good or not, even when it is an abstract game that is at issue.

AG: And where do you place Zèrtz? In many reviews it is called the best of the three.

KB: I'm very happy with Zèrtz and with the enthusiastic response, of course. Because I talk so much about Gipf sometimes I get the feeling of being a bad father, as if I like one of my babies more than the others. But you must see it in the perspective of the project. Gipf was the start of everything; if I had not have been so convinced of its quality, I would never have dared to set up the Project with its name. Neither Tamsk nor Zèrtz could have functioned as the center of something bigger than the respective games themselves. I mean, they are not strong enough to carry four or five other games, as Gipf can. Gipf is like my eldest son, helping me keeping the bunch of younger ones together.

AG: Why were you so eager to construct the Project around Gipf?
KB: Oh well, there were several reasons. The first one goes back to my youth. I used to play a lot with my younger brother, and we worked out several systems to combine games. One of these systems was a race around the carpet. We both started with three cars or soldiers or whatever. We would play a game and the winner got a roll with six dice, of which he could use the best three results to move his three cars; the loser could roll only five dice. Then we would play another game, and the winner would again have a roll with better odds, and so on. It sometimes took two or three days to finish a race. Now, soon after I started designing games, I made my first attempt to find a mechanism that would make it possible to combine games. Many more attempts would follow, all without success, until I found Gipf. I had never felt such a thrill before. It is a little embarrassing to explain how beautiful I thought the game was. I played it on my own night after night, fascinated with what was happening on the board. The rules could be worked out in so many different directions, introducing different pieces, functions, and goals, and so. The game almost presented itself as the mechanism I had been looking for.
The many options I had as a designer is the second reason why the game had to become a project. Never would I have succeeded in finding a publisher for what I thought was going to be the strongest version of Gipf. Not only that, I knew enough of the game scene to understand that not more than a handful of players would give the game a try if I proposed the completed version from the outset. Through the Project, with each new game introducing one new piece, players could step into the full game bit by bit. I'm not talking about the possibility of combining games now, but just about Gipf with the additional potentials. And that was yet another reason for making Gipf a project: I needed a lot of time to find out systematically what could be added to Gipf. And I still need time. So, the search still goes on.

AG: Are you saying that the game Gipf is not complete yet?
KB: Gipf is complete as it is now, but Project Gipf isn't. Eventually Project Gipf, apart from being a series of games and a mechanism to combine them, will also become a game in its own right, a kind of "ultimate Gipf," played with 12 or 15 additional pieces. That will be my master piece, something where everything comes together. But playing "ultimate Gipf" will always remain nothing but an option. I can't stress enough that all the games in the series must be seen in the first place as separate titles, and that counts for Gipf, too.

AG: I heard that the next game you'll be publishing is Dvonn. How does it work?
KB: It won't come as a surprise if I say that it is played on a hexagonal board, but I'm afraid I can't tell much more yet. I would like to release the fourth game in the second half of this year, October or so. That means that I still have time left to think things over. Now, I like Dvonn a lot and, what's more, with only a few adjustments it would be a suitable game to close the Project. So maybe I'm going to save Dvonn for later.

AG: Do you have the remaining games in the Project already designed?
KB: Until now I have never looked further than the next game. The reason for this is that it is impossible to predict in which direction the way Gipf is played will evolve. For example, some of the potentials I used to test the project five years ago cannot be used anymore; the level of play today is so much higher than in the beginning that some functions connected to the initial potentials would put the game completely out of balance at the present. So, I look at the project as something that grows organically. I started it as an experiment, and that's what it still is. Nothing is certain yet, not even what already exists.

AG: You are clearly a very talented game designer. Do you think maybe your talents, for their full expression, have to move beyond the Project?
KB: Beyond the Project? That is a strange question.... Quite a few people have let me know that they consider Project Gipf to be the work of a megalomaniac, too ambitious, too what ever. Any way, for the time being I can't think of a better use of my talent than to finish the Project and try to hold onto about the same quality as the first three games. I don't think I can ask for more. I say that because at times I fear not to be able to match the standard set by the games introduced so far. What I told you about Gipf as a game also counts for Gipf as a Project: I -- and I'm really honest about this -- can't imagine that I will ever do better. For the time being, and speaking about my talents, I simply can't imagine that there's something beyond the Project. So, anything that would go beyond it, would come to me as a complete surprise.

AG: Well, life is full of surprises.... Thank you very much, Kris, for your candid and enlightening responses. However you do it, I hope you get the next game to us quickly. Good luck!

2001, Kerry Handscomb

GIPF, TAMSK, ZÈRTZ, DVONN,YINSH and PÜNCT ® & © Don & Co NV. Content Kris Burm. All rights