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
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
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
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
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
2001, Kerry Handscomb