Monday, March 17, 2014

Playing with pyramids

Although I find most traditional, "according to Hoyle" card games other than poker a bit too simple to be really interesting, I do like the idea that there are hundreds of games you can play with just a regular deck of cards. This is what caught my attention about Looney Pyramids (also known as Icehouse Pieces), a set of plastic, pyramid-shaped game pieces with which dozens of different games can be played.

The first game we decided to play, Martian Backgammon, is a two-player game played on an imagined board divided into a 5x5 grid. Each player starts with 15 pyramid pieces, five each of three different sizes, all the same color, stacked in groups of three with the smaller pieces on the top, then the middle pieces, and the larger ones on the bottom so that you end up with a tree-like shape.

The object of the game is to move all of your pieces across the board in a pattern that forces them to move through two full rows of spaces. Your turn consists of rolling two dice, and moving pieces the number shown on each die separately; for example, if you roll a five and a four, you can move one piece up to five spaces and another piece up to four spaces. As pieces move, they can be stacked on top of the same size or larger pieces of the same color, but not on top of smaller ones. They can also end their move on empty spaces, but that is dangerous because if a piece lands on a single opponent's piece, the opponent's piece goes to the back row and has to restart its journey across the board.

The game is very abstract but surprisingly engaging, with a lot of movement and strategy choices as you try to set up the safest path across the board for your pieces and also slow your opponent down by sending their pieces back to the starting row.

The next game we played was Volcano, which is the game I remember most enjoying when we originally bought these pieces. It's another abstract movement game, but rather than each player starting with and moving their own pieces, the board (again a 5x5 grid) is populated by several nests of pieces in 5 different colors, plus 5 distinct "caps," small pieces of a sixth color that sit on top of the others.

Over the course of the game, players move the caps, which cause the pieces underneath to spread out in a specific pattern. If any of those pieces land on a piece of the same size, they are captured by the player. Captured pieces are worth more at the end of the game if they are in matching sets by color, so part of the strategy is in which pieces you capture and which ones you leave for your opponent.

The third game we tried was Gnostica, a game played with pyramid pieces and a deck of Tarot cards (we used the terrific 8-Bit Tarot by Portland artist Indigo Kelleigh). At the start of the game, nine cards are laid out in a 3x3 grid to create a board. Players start with a hand of six cards, and one piece on the board. Orientation of the pieces is important, as they affect either the card they are pointed at, or the one they are placed on if the piece is set upright, pointed upwards.

Each turn a player can either activate the ability of a card his piece is either on or pointed at, add a new card to the board, or discard a card to use its ability once. The abilities depend on what suit the card is: Cups allow you to place new pieces on the board, Coins allow you to grow your pieces to a larger size, Swords allow you to attack other pieces, and Wands allow you to move your pieces on the board. The Major Arcana cards each have their own special ability, usually a combination of two of the suits.

The object of the game is to score nine points by occupying cards on the board. The game ends when a player thinks they will have the nine points on their next turn - they declare their intention to win, and then the other players each get one turn to try to stop them from winning by taking occupied cards away from them. If the player who declared doesn't have nine points at the end of their next turn, they are eliminated from the game.

We found Gnostica to be the least interesting of the three, although it's possible that it just isn't balanced well for two players. With two, we found the game endings to be too abrupt as either the winning player would have an unassailable position, or they could easily have a few points taken away from them, allowing the other player to win by default.

Rating: Martian Backgammon and Volcano 3 (out of 5), Gnostica 2 (out of 5) The two movement games were definitely the more interesting, with a lot of strategic choices. However, we found them to be very unsocial, as we tended to concentrate on figuring out our moves in silence rather than chatting about the game as we normally do.

Dates played: February 17 and March 8, 2014

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