Monday, August 18, 2008

Ten Games into Tzaar

I've now played ten games of Tzaar, and you would think that I would have something clever to say about it by this point, but you would be wrong. In fact, all the evidence suggests that I am not particularly good at the game yet. I have managed to learn one important lesson, though.

Early on I decided to explore a strategy of favoring capturing over stacking; the idea was that I would reduce my opponent's options relative to mine, thus giving me an advantage in the endgame. Moreover, I find with perfect information games that one can learn the quickest by adopting an extreme strategy and and seeing why it doesn't work. Had I taken a few minutes to think it through, however, I would have realized that this was not an approach with much promise. By the end of the game my opponent did indeed have fewer pieces than I did, because he had spent more turns making stacks, but his few stacks could capture any of my many pieces and my many pieces couldn't capture his few stacks. Despite having more pieces, I ran out of captures before he did.

In my next series of games I made a point of stacking on almost every turn, but even so things did not go well for me. What ended up happening was that my opponent and I would each build one large tzaar stack and then these two stacks would chase each other around the board, trying to pick each other off for the win (as all the other tzaar pieces had gotten gobbled up). I lost all three of these games, but not because I lost my monster stack; instead I lost sight of the victory conditions, and I was blindsided by the loss of all of one other kind of piece. Even worse, in one game I had had an opportunity to win by eliminating my opponent's totts and I didn't even notice; I think I had unconsciously dismissed the possibility of winning this way because the totts are so plentiful in the early game.

Partly I blame that 0-3 sweep on tiredness, as I had not slept well the previous night, so I was determined to make a better showing this past Saturday, when I was a bit more rested and ready. This time I was careful to keep an eye on how many pieces we both had left of each type. It looked as though it was going to be another loss for me after I made a careless move and lost a four-stack, but I pressed on and managed to earn a win. My opponent had taller stacks than I did, but I won a positional victory by ducking my pieces away and leaving him without a capture. It was a close game, however, and it could have easily gone either way in the end.

I would have hoped that after ten games of Tzaar I would have more to say about strategy than "stacks are good," but I'm afraid that that's as far as I've gotten. The only other trend I've noticed is that our games tended to end "on the edges," which is to say that the final pieces were usually situated at the edge of the board rather than the middle. However, whether that means that the edges are the best defensive position or that my brother and I simply have a tendency to start in the middle and work our way outward, I don't know.

So far the game has a more amorphous feel to me than any of the other games in the Gipf Project, even more so than the volatile Yinsh; I don't find myself building towards some strategic goal or angling for a particular board position, rather I just try to menace my opponent's stacks, avoid the opposite, and look ahead to see how the endgame might develop. I still consider this an early impression, however, and I am looking for ways to improve at the game. Interestingly, the tournament rules have the players choose the placement of their pieces as opposed to seeding the board randomly, and this would suggest that there is something going on positionally. Actually, I assume that this is the case, particularly because I feel strongly that all the other Gipf Project games play best with their tournament rules, with the basic and intermediate rules just being watered-down versions of the "real game." Unfortunately, I haven't the foggiest idea of what approach I would adopt if I had to choose the placement of my pieces on the board in Tzaar. Probably the best way to explore placement would be to play a couple of games against myself using extreme setups, for example inner vs. outer, clustered vs. unclustered, et cetera.

Regardless, none of this means that I think that Tzaar is dull or not worth playing. The game is still fun and challenging, and what's nice is that a smart newbie might well have a fair chance of winning against someone who's played ten times, which is probably not something you could say about Gipf, Zertz or Dvonn.


linnaeus said...

I'm really eager to get a chance to try Tzaar. It actually sounds rather different than any other abstract I've heard of, aside from a distant relationship to Dvonn. I like the sound of the differences, though (as you know, I'm not a huge fan of Dvonn), and hopefully it has learned some lessons from the problems Punct and (IMHO) Dvonn have.

Maybe biskai will get it's version up and running soon.

Joe Gola said...

I'd love it if Biskai implemented Tzaar, though on the other hand all you guys would probably be getting in line to beat me....

linnaeus said...


Maybe Robillard if he's having a good day.

Thi N said...

I just got Tzaar 3 days ago, and somewhere in the first play, she said, "I love how your enemy's pieces are your own movement opportunity." And I thought, "OH!"

The game triple-deepened for me when I thought not only of creating stacks and destroying the enemy, but of *shaping the movement paths of the board*. You could diminish AND strangle with the same breath.

Anyway, after that insight, the game stopped being orderly/processional and started being weird guerilla warfare tag, with nearly-trapped pieces, and lots of force-moves.


James said...

My roommate and I got tzaar recently. Here's what we've learned so far -

1) Stacks are good, stacks on lines of length 8 are even better.

2) Ending up on an outside corner is how pieces get strangled.

3) Regional power is more important than absolute power in the mid-game.

4) Controlling movement (just about the only thing you can control) is more important than having the biggest stack.

I know I am way late to this party but if anyone sees this let me know what you think

Joe Gola said...

Yeah, the more I play the game the less I worry about capturing the other player's big stacks and the more I focus on trying to preserve mobility for myself while reducing it for my opponent.