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Off the Grid plays with Icehouse


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Just so we're clear, Icehouse isn't a game. Well, technically that's not true. Icehouse was a game, designed by John Cooper of Looney Labs in the late 80s. Now, Looney Labs uses the term "Icehouse" to refer to unique pyramidal game pieces invented by Andrew Looney to play that game. So to call this a review of Icehouse wouldn't be inaccurate. Except we're not reviewing the game today; we're reviewing those pointy pieces.

From the same people that brought us Fluxx, the Icehouse pyramids are small, plastic, stackable pawns grouped in sets of three from largest to smallest. Each set of three can be nested like russian dolls -- with one inside another inside another -- or they can be stacked in inverse order, making adorable little christmas tree formations. The pieces have a unique aesthetic for gaming, but looks can only get you so far. What really matters is how they play, and that depends on the game.

When you buy Icehouse pieces, they come in rainbow-colored sets of fifteen, with rules printed on the side of the package for a game called Treehouse. In Treehouse, 2-4 players take turns shifting the formation of their three pyramids to try and match the "house," a central set of three pyramids in a particular formation. Each turn, a player can either move their own pieces, or in some cases those of the house, making the configuration of the game space -- and the winning move -- in a constant state of flux (the play-style of the game actually bears an uncanny, possibly intentional resemblance to Fluxx). A special set of die dictates moves specific to the Icehouse pieces, like one piece digging into another, or a stack of pieces falling over and separating.

While Treehouse is an interesting -- and fairly atypical -- game, it doesn't take full advantage of the unique attributes of the Icehouse pieces. For this, we turn to another Looney Labs Icehouse game: Black Ice, a two-player game along the same vein as the classic code-breaking game Mastermind.

Unlike Treehouse, the requirements for Black Ice are a bit more complex. Players need three Treehouse sets, and an instruction manual for more complicated Icehouse games, which is sold separately. Two players take on the roles of competing hackers, each trying to successfully guess the three-color code needed to break into a computer mainframe. The three largest black pyramids in the sets are used to hide the smallest colored pyramids, which represent the password. Players roll to perform different maneuvers, such as taking a peek at one of the password colors, or swapping around the codes to confuse their opponent. In order to win, a player must make his/her three pyramids match the three underneath the black pyramids. Since players can't normally see the winning color combination, but can see each other's guesses, the game becomes an interesting tug-of-war between hidden and public information.

The number of games available for Icehouse pieces is constantly growing. A community wiki tracks new games invented for the pieces, and Looney Labs continues to promote the unique format. Budding game designers take note: Icehouse pieces hold a lot of potential, even if they are hard to get back in the box.

Scott Jon Siegel is a game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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