I'm a fetishist. Not the rubber masks and high-heeled shoe kind. Or at least that's not what I'm talking about right now. No, I imbue inanimate objects with emotional context out of all proportion to their utility. My work environment is cluttered with tribal totems that establish my place in the geek. Some of these are practical: the controllers, the mics and headphones and keyboards and mice. Each functional, but also chosen for their perfection as objects.
But to suss the true geek, you need to look not for his choices in mice, but his choices in completely irrelevant kipple clogging the corners of the desk. In my case, I have two relics which I rub like a brittle splinter of the cross as I coax words from blood. The first of these is unsurprising: a 20 sided die. Emblematic of all that is gamergeek, the actual version changes on whim and need. The 30 year old near-round soft plastic blue die reminds me of my past. The ginormous 2-inch hard red plastic die with easy to read white numbers reminds me I'm old, and thus spurs rebellion. Most recently, the stainless steel D20, which, when tossed in the hand, feels like the stone David would have used if he'd had access to a machine shop with a CNC machine.
The other object, or I should say objects, are Icehouse pyramids. Pieces from the greatest game you've never, ever played.
Andy Looney is an extremely strange man with whom, from a distance, I've always felt a strange never-met camaraderie. Like me, he's a gamer, over 40, and a Vigil member of the Boy Scouts of America Secret Society (Order of the Arrow). Unlike me, he's a self-professed hippie, a NASA software engineer, and a developer of innovative titles for the worlds highest-profile failed game console (the 3DO). He's also the inventor of some of the weirdest games on the planet.
He didn't start out as a game designer. He started out as a writer. In 1986 he wrote a short story which featured a fictional game called Icehouse. "It was purely a plot device, an imaginary game, as real as Quiddich or Fizzbin," he recalls. The point of the game was to establish the basis of a relationship between a bunch of old friends. It could easily have been Hearts, the game he played with his actual friends at the time, but he wanted something that would break the reader from the plane, and make it alien, different. "I described it as being really radical," he explains. And he then used the game as a focus for conflict. At one point in the story, two characters settle a dispute over the ownership of an Atomic Bomb by having a throwdown on a subway platform.
Radical meant no turns, no board. Just 15 pyramids in three sizes and with enough players, vicious diplomacy, backstabbing and revenge. But that was kind of it. "I was detailed on specifics, but not how you played it." As with most aspiring authors, Looney didn't hit the jackpot with his freshman novel. But he did stir the pot among a certain class of gamer. "The people who read the stories said 'well, umm, this is neat, but we want to play the game!'" He recalls. "But I didn't know how to play it."
It seemed an indomitable problem. "Growing up nobody knew who designed a game! So the idea of "inventing" the game that was anything like this fictional thing I'd described seemed impossible." He recalls. "I mean, you can't design a game right? They come from some magical place ... in a box!" And yet, over years of handwringing, he and co-creator John Cooper figured it out. A game created in a vacuum with absolutely no preconceptions about what a game is "supposed to be."
The game seems so simple, and yet for some reason it's extraordinarily difficult to learn without being taught. I learned the hard way: a long-time friend and I dedicated an evening to figuring it out. But now that I know how to play, I can teach it in less than 10 minutes, and go from a cold start to having played 10 games with a new player within an hour.
We face off across a table (or a bathroom floor or a patch of dirt). We each have 15 beautiful, gem-like pyramids, in our own colors: 5 pawns, 5 drones, 5 queens, with values of 1, 2 and 3 respectively. The rules can be printed on a 3x5 card with room in the margins for keeping score.
And yet it remains hard to get your head around. Here, let me try:
Pieces can only be one of two things: an attacker or defender. Attackers go flat, defenders point up. If your attacking pieces add up to more than the defending piece you've assaulted, you get the points for your pieces and he gets nothing. If your defenders are still alive at the end of the game, you get the points for those too. Just play a piece whenever you feel like it.
As the game progresses, one other simple rule come into play. When you're down to 7 or fewer pieces unplayed, you need to have at least one defender on the board that isn't dead (iced in gamespeak). When the dust settles, the gameboard speaks for itself and you score.
There are some outlier rules for how you start (two defenders have to start), for accidentally bumping pieces, making mental errors and such, but really, thats the game. That's the whole game. Everything else is strategy and style. You can go nuts and attack everything. You can make nests of defenders. You can play slowly, or you can play in a flash of action, counting on your opponent to make mistakes in responding too quickly.
While scoring, novice players often don't even understand what happened, although they played perfectly by the rules and with intention. Scoring is simple: each player counts up the value of their "live" pieces, whether they are defenders or attackers. In practice, scoring can be a bit more tricky to extract from a finished board:
Taking a deep breath and looking at the board as you and your opponent run through counting up, most players are struck by three things.
1: They played without even understanding the implications of each simple move.
2: Playing a strategic game in real time is both stressful and challenging.
3: You need at least a passing amount of coordination just to play.
"The play area is very unforgiving," admits Looney. "Dexterity is not a factor in any other game really. It can be excluding to people." And herein lies a great mystery. Icehouse is, to my knowledge, the only serious strategy game that you can play by candlelight on a desert island that happens in real time, and requires a modicum of twitch-skill. And because of this, the grognards don't take it seriously.
Yet in the video game world, the opposite is true. With the sole exception of a small handful of strategy games (notably, the Civilization series) virtually every "serious" video game is realtime, dexterity dominant, or both. Even in a standard real time strategy game, the ability to hotkey your way through time-sensitive parts of the game can be the difference between "casual dad" and "uber-lord."
Looney, who is doing just fine as an indy game publisher thank you very much, struggled with this dilemma for 8 years before finally realizing that Icehouse just wasn't for everyone. It was, and is, too different from what people expect out of a face-to-face game. This was antithetical to running a business. "I like to have games that everyone can play," explains Looney. Difficult to argue.
So Looney, and his growing company at Looney Labs, branched out. He issued a decree that the pyramids weren't just for Icehouse anymore, and that everyone (whether employee or friendly barrista) should get busy figuring out what else they could do with these beautiful plastic pyramids his company had been hand-pouring into molds. Icehouse graduated from being a game, to being a game system. "When we finally let go and had the revelation 'make more games,' it was incredibly liberating," he explains. As a result, there are now over 200 games published for Icehouse pieces. Some of these are the workmanlike efforts of amateurs, to be sure. But many of them are brilliant. Icehouse pyramids have become a thinking human's deck of cards, capable of playing a dozen unique and challenging strategy games, to the simplest of games with 7 year olds, the current marketing flagship game, Treehouse:
Or the mind-bendingly painful puzzle game of Volcano:
Or quasi-random "aww crap" bar-table game, Martian Coasters:
And along the way, this freedom from the mother game has led Andy Looney to develop simpler, better-selling and crazy fun games like his latest release, Zombie Fluxx (an appropriately named card game in which you kill zombies and never really know when the rules will change). But despite Looney's revelation that making commercially accessible games is a better way of making mortgage payments, I believe his place in history will be cemented by Icehouse.
A game that could only exist in the mind of one slightly deranged and aging hippie. A game as simple in theory as Go, but one that can be played in 3 minutes. A game that can be played anywhere, anytime, with almost no equipment. A game that can be as casual or as cutthroat as you please. A game that plays anywhere from 2 players to whatever sanity dictates as unreasonable. A game that is, for all the betters and all the worses, completely, utterly, and unashamedly unique.
If it sounds like irrational exuberance, it is.
My name is Julian, and I have an Icehouse fetish.