On first viewing, GIPF looks like a game that has been around forever. An abstract two-player that looks like the kind of thing your grandfather would dust off occasionally to resoundingly thrash you when you were a kid, probably while regaling you with dubious tales of the war.
The resemblance to classic board games doesn’t stop there, as GIPF is a game that needs multiple plays to get the most out of it. If you love abstract games that are simple to play but challenging to master, then this may be for you.
How To Play
Like the classics that inspired its design, the key to GIPF is its simplicity. Black and white pieces, a quick and easy set-up along with a pleasingly short ruleset mean that you will be playing GIPF within a few minutes of opening the box. The rules themselves are very straightforward and while the box also includes Basic rules for beginners, I would recommend skipping these and going straight to the Standard rules for all but the youngest players.
GIPF is played on a hexagonal playing area with a series of lines linked in a network, with the intersection of these lines being the playing spaces (or “dots” as they are called) similar to a Go board. Each player starts with three pieces on the board and each turn will add another piece by sliding it in from the side, pushing any existing pieces it touches along the line.
The aim is to eventually have four of your pieces in a row, at which point they are removed along with any other pieces in that row. If those other pieces belong to your opponent, they are captured and not returned to play. Your pieces then go back into your reserve ready to play again. By creating these rows and capturing pieces, the aim is to constrict your opponent’s moves and eventually leave them unable to place a piece on the board on their turn. If this happens, congratulations you’ve just won your first game of GIPF!
The additional Standard rules involve the initial three pieces which are placed on the board for each player. These are considered special “GIPF” pieces and are represented by two stacked counters, like kings in Checkers. If ever these are all removed from the board, then the game ends and you’ve lost. This is pretty much the entirety of the rules- other than to cover certain specific in-game situations, and it is clear that the lack of complicated or overly elaborate instructions is a deliberate choice.
The basic ruleset means that anyone can quickly become competent and familiar with the basic strategies, all they need is a few games under their belt and they will soon start to feel like a GIPF Grandmaster. Hence while GIPF rewards the time put in to learn the moves and strategies, it avoids some of the more intimidating trappings of other well-known and established abstract games such as chess or go.
How The Game Looks
This is a game that has been designed to appeal to those who enjoy traditional abstract games such as Othello, Checkers or Backgammon and this is reflected in the packaging. Simplicity is part of the appeal and design aesthetic. The board is simple and uncluttered with only the basic information required shown.
The pieces feel solid, weighty and satisfying to play with while you consider your turn. The box is similarly unfussy with little extraneous information. The only unnecessary addition is a bag for storing playing pieces, but this hardly detracts from the game itself and is a nice touch.
The gameplay itself, like with all the best two-player abstract games, is essentially antagonistic but doesn’t feel cruel or unfair. Because moves are limited and everything you or your opponent does is done in plain sight- even the number of pieces remaining has to be kept visible while playing- then by necessity, this is a game of perfect knowledge that rewards concentration, subtle sleight of hand and misdirection.
The only way to win is to see something your opponent hasn’t, or at least see it before they did. When you win a game of GIPF you feel very smart indeed. When you lose you feel, ultimately, that you probably deserved it! This is a game for a player who gets a sneaky thrill from watching an opponent squirm as their options slowly reduce turn by turn; or from removing an opponent’s pieces one by one following a well-executed plan, especially one they didn’t see coming.
If you are a gamer who enjoys tense head-to-head battles which require focus and concentration to win then this will very much appeal to you, as cunning as the calculating, beating heart of GIPF.
There is no doubt that GIPF will not appeal to everyone, and it makes no attempt to do so. If you prefer a more immersive experience, encouraging long-term strategy and engine building over tactics then this is not the game you are looking for. GIPF has a simple, two-dimensional presentation that is not likely to appeal to those who desire Theme and flavour in their games.
If you are looking for a short two-player strategy game that provides similar aggressive, tactical gameplay but with a more visually appealing theme, then I would recommend looking at Onitama, which has chess-like moves and pieces, with a beautiful Japanese design.
But GIPF is unapologetically simple in its presentation. Austere even. It is essentially a logic puzzle that you and your opponents are approaching from opposite ends. There is a board, two sets of pieces and the players. For forty minutes, anything, everything else is a distraction. And I love that.
The GIPF That Keeps On Giving
A quick word about the game design itself. GIPF is one of a series of games by the same designer, Kris Burm, often referred to as the GIPF project. Each game in the series has increasingly bizarre names and explores different aspects of abstract gaming. The idea is that these can be played sequentially, each game adding pieces and new layers of complexity to the previous ones, or as stand-alone games.
So, if you try GIPF and it appeals to you, it might be worth looking for some of the others in the series. The most highly rated of these is YINSH.
GIPF is a lovely little game that is simple to learn and teach to others. If it gets its hooks into you, it can be very addictive as a quick game becomes best out of three and then best out of five, and before you know it the evening is lost. It can be played by pretty much anyone, but in honesty won’t appeal to everyone, as its deliberately old-fashioned feel and looks will put off many modern board gamers, even those who enjoy abstract games. And that’s a shame because those who try it will find something special here.