Pyramid Arcade

The Looney Labs’ Kickstarter campaign for Pyramid Arcade is wrapping up today and I wanted to get a little post up to explain why I’m so excited to see this project succeed in such a big way. 

The pyramids were originally conceived in Andy’s novel, The Empty City, but the concept wasn’t fully fleshed out until readers expressed interest in the game that was described in the story. Andy spent much of last couple of decades creating games with the components described in his novel. Over the years, they have taken on many iterations: solid and hand-poured, folded cardboard, wooden, gigantic versions for convention play, and the stackable versions that most people are used to playing. They were sold in a standard boxed single game format (Zendo & IceTowers), as separate components with free online access to the rules (like Andy’s favorite pyramid game, Homeworlds), and as portable independent games (Pink Hijinks, IceDice, and Treehouse). The pyramids even appeared in a video game developed by Andy called IceBreaker. Pyramid Arcade takes many of these games and bundles them into one box! There are hundreds of games you could play with this set and rules for 22 from Andy, plus another ten from fans.

I worked with the Looneys for several years, and when I first started out with them I knew very little about the pyramid games. When I went to Toy Fair for the first time as a Looney Labs employee, I met Lincoln Damerst & Nikki Pontius (you can see both of them on  BoardGameGeek’s GameNight series) and they told me about the popularity of Zendo, a game designed by Kory Heath and a pyramid fan favorite - it's also on the 100 games list and I'm hoping to get to play with Kory one day :). Lincoln & Nikki also taught me how to play IceDice, a light press your luck game designed by Andy. I spent all of my down time at Toy Fair 2012 playing IceDice and I highly recommend you play this game. It’s portable, quick, and lots of fun. 

While these games were some of the early products sold by Looney Labs, they were eventually overshadowed by the success of Fluxx. Fans never stopped playing with the pyramids and the Looneys and I often talked about the need for one big deluxe bundle but we all knew how much work it would be (22 games at once instead of one is a tall order!) and there were so many other projects the team was busy with that hadn’t been tried before, like Loonacy and Just Desserts. There were also really exciting licensing projects - Batman, Adventure Time, Firefly, Ugly Doll, Mad Libs, oh my! Meanwhile we were also working on the new logo and visual update of the company brand, which meant touching every single game box, display, web page, sell sheet, business card, etc. UGH! Priorities! 

When the Looneys were ready to begin the project, I was wrapping up my time with them. They reached out to Eileen Tjan for the illustration, graphic design and some of the video work for Pyramid Arcade.  I found Eileen through some mutual friends a few years ago and highly recommend you check out her work. She designed the logo for this blog for me and she is also responsible for the update of the Looney Labs logo and packaging for the core edition of Fluxx. She was based in DC when we first started working together and now works from Chicago, having recently established Other Studio there. She did such a great job understanding the richness and depth of the history of Looney Labs and representing it visually, and I am really happy to see how well she captured the history of the pyramids and Looney Labs in this project.  

Decades of effort from Looney Labs and its friends went into the Pyramid Arcade, so I hope you join me in backing the project! It’s an amazing game bundle unlike anything else I’ve ever seen and I’m so excited to get my copy - it includes some never-seen-before favorites of mine like Color Wheel, Fiesta Caldera, and Petri Dish. Andy calls it his magnum opus and I think he's right. And if you ever get the chance, play Launchpad 23 with Kristin (it is worth it just to hear her rocket launch sound effects). 

Game 5: Can't Stop

If you haven't played this classic, correct that immediately! Can't Stop is a very accessible press your luck game by Sid Sackson, and it's super fun. My vintage copy came from eBay but Can't Stop is now back in print by Eagle-Gryphon Games and in local game stores AND there's a phone app available that is great for pass and play. On each turn, you roll the four dice and divide them into two combinations of two dice each. You move a white placeholder pawn up a space for those combinations in up to three of the numbered columns from two to twelve. After your three placeholders are each allocated to a column, you can choose to continue to roll but if you can't make a combination from subsequent rolls that allows you to advance at least one placeholder pawn per roll, you've busted. Busting is not good. You lose your progress for your turn. I do this a lot. If you have more self-control than I do, you'll stop rolling before you bust and you'll get to put a marker of your color in the columns you advanced in. The first person to advance three markers of their color to the top of the columns (laid out like a bell curve on an octagonal stop sign-shaped board) wins the game.

I played Can't Stop for the first time at a game night hosted by the Looneys a couple of years ago. I did pretty well (but I didn't win - Gina is the champion of Can't Stop at the Looney game night). Even so, I was hooked pretty quickly. I hadn't played in awhile but came back to the game when I visited the Steve Jackson Games office a couple of months ago. I played with Phil Reed, his wife, Gina, and Rhea, the SJ Games Marketing Director - it was a particularly funny game because neither Phil nor I seemed to be able to get on the board at all. It felt like Rhea & Gina made enough progress that each time I rolled I had to do so much catching up to get even with them that I literally couldn't stop rolling the dice. Which inevitably resulted in busting and not getting on the board again. I learned nothing from the tortoise and the hare. And this tension is why this game is so good.

Sid Sackson is awesome. Every time I post about Can't Stop, game designers friends say things like, "Sid Sackson is the man." Eagle-Gryphon ran a Kickstarter a few years ago to republish a signature series of some of his games. He won the Spiel des Jahres in 1981 for Focus and he was nominated for Can't Stop in 1982. He's also the designer of many beloved games like Acquire. And from the very little I know, he's contributed so much more to game design and the game industry. 

When Phil and I played, he mentioned Sid Sackson's book, Gamut of Games, had a piece on Solitaire Dice I should read. If you're interested it is available as a free download for Kindle (for Prime members). Solitaire Dice is the beginning of Sid working out Can't Stop. All you need is five dice and paper and pencil to play. You're attempting to balance allocating your combinations of two dice among the fewest number of columns and balancing your fifth "reject" die allocation among three different numbers over the course of the game. Once you've rejected one of your three chosen reject numbers eight times (tracked by tally on paper), the game is over. You lose points for any combinations between two and twelve you've hit fewer than five times. If you've hit a combo five times, it zeroes out, and anything above a tally of five scores inversely to the likelihood of rolling it (70 points for each eleven combo more than five but only twenty points for each seven combo over five tallies since it's more likely to be hit). Sackson offers advice on how to play the game multiplayer with everyone working off the same rolls of five dice but hiding their allocations from each other. It's amazing to see the difference in elegance between Can't Stop and Solitaire Dice. It's a great insight into game development. I always thought the stop sign design of Can't Stop was ugly and wasn't a big fan of the aesthetic of the game but I really appreciate how functional it is. And you really can't argue with a game that has stayed alive in some fashion since 1980 - 36 years now. A+, will play again :), #DontStopTilYouGetEnough



Game 3: Fluxx

I love Fluxx but anyone who knows me knows that I am biased.  I worked for Looney Labs for the past 3 years, so until September Fluxx was a big part of my life because it’s a big part of the Looney Labs product line.  Fluxx was designed by my friend, Andy Looney, almost 20 years ago and now comes in many shapes & flavors in addition to his design: Star Fluxx for the sci-fi fans; Zombie & Cthulhu Fluxx for the people that gobble up anything with zombies or Lovecraft; Holiday Fluxx for determining if your family really loves each other; and more recently Batman and Adventure Time Fluxx!  I’m also fortunate enough to have played most of Andy’s unpublished Fluxx prototypes - Math Fluxx is way more fun that it might sound, especially if you geek out over numbers like I do.

The first time I played Fluxx was rather dizzying. Kristin, Looney Labs' CEO & Andy's wife, coached the table of new players but it took a few hands before the hilarious chaos really sunk in. The winning conditions of Fluxx are simple - usually to collect two keeper cards that match the goal card that is in play. What happens between the default “draw one, play one” rules that mark the beginning of the game and one player satisfying the goal card is anyone’s guess, or what I like to call controlled chaos.  You might talk like a pirate to draw an extra card on your turn, you might dig through the discard pile to find the action card that lets you steal another player’s keeper, or someone might play a hand limit that makes you discard everything but one card when you’re holding the keepers that would let you win on your very next turn.  

Some people say that there is no strategy to Fluxx, that it’s too random, that winning is dependent on the cards you draw, which vary wildly, as does the length of the game.  It’s true that the goal of the game is incredibly simple - it’s like playing Go Fish for matches, but that is exactly what I find appealing.  It’s very simple to teach to non-gamers and it's obvious what it takes to win but the combination of that simplicity and the fun of using the cards you have to prolong your turn keep and digging for what you need to win happens in a way that anyone can pick up and learn. You don’t need to understand anything about gaming, you just have to be able to read the cards to play, which makes it a great introduction to more complicated card games.  

I’m very grateful to Kristin & Andy for letting me work with them on Fluxx over the past few years. I’ve been able to be a part of working with many talented artists (Ian McGinty, Adam Levermore, Brooke AllenDerek Ring, Eileen Tjan), deciding which games go to print but the most fun I’ve had with Fluxx is seeing how many people LOVE it. People that play it during hospital stays, during camping events, waiting in line at conventions and with their loved ones at parties.  It really hit me one day what a phenomenon Fluxx had become when a little girl came to a local gaming event and brought a Fluxx deck she had designed - Dog Fluxx - complete with chocolate, squirrel & veterinarian creepers. She had been playing with her parents since she began to read. It’s such a fun platform for any theme and I feel super lucky to have been a part of it.  And I can’t wait to see the super shiny Firefly Fluxx come out early next year! 

BTW, if you're on Instagram and you haven't already followed Looney Labs, you shouldDebbie Lee takes the prettiest game pics for the crew at the Lab!

Game 2: Smash Up


I played Smash Up for the first time a year or two ago and I really wanted to play at that time because it was everywhere - demo'ed at cons, in my favorite local game stores, at the Looney game night. It even seemed popular at trade shows and buyer meetings... which doesn't happen for every game.  A lot of games are perfect for certain niches but when you start seeing people whose careers and hobbies are built around games playing something new over and over again, you get the sense that it must be good.

But... I didn't get it. And yet, it's on this list and I know people that LOVE it.  So I set about furiously playing this past month to figure out what went wrong with those first demos.  And I'm here to report that I get it (and kinda love it) now!  I don't remember what I didn't like last year but my first demo this year felt familiar. 

About a month and a half ago, I was on a business trip in Atlanta with a bunch of other game publishers.  I played with about five or so guys, some of whom had never played before, others who clearly were fans of Smash Up.  We had the Pretty, Pretty expansion mixed in but because there were so many people playing a lot of playtime or turns to ask questions about how to use my minions and actions because pretty quickly someone had won. You're given these two types of cards and the minions have a power value.  A collection of minions (and some actions) on a base will eventually have enough power to smash the base.  When your minions contribute to the smashing of a base, you get victory points. The game has many different mini-decks and you get to choose two of these mini-decks to "shufflebuild" together the deck you play with.  This is where it gets fun, but back to that game in Atlanta...

I've never played Magic or any other CCGs and only played a few deckbuilders and I'm only guessing, but I think the guys who jumped into Smash Up so quickly are more familiar with those. The reason I say this is because I took Smash Up on a camping trip with some friends over Memorial Day weekend. Everyone there who played Magic loved it and caught on right away. I had Ninjas, which allow you to play out of turn but I kept hesitating to use them because it hadn't yet completely clicked for me that you must play to your decks' powers.


And this is what's so cool about Smash Up - each mini-deck has a set of special powers and when you take advantage of them, you realize it's super clever, funny and it's fun to get into character.  But it's also limited to 2 sets so the complications of collecting and building aren't there. I really started to enjoy the game when I played again with my friend, Leo, and we dipped into the Pretty, Pretty expansion.  The princesses are all really high powered minions, the kittens come back to life, the ponies work together to give you bonuses and the fairies let you mess with other actions and minions.  There's a great review (and photos) of the Pretty, Pretty Smash Up expansion on GeekDad. I love that AEG made this - it always makes me happy when these cool mechanics aren't lost to guts and gore. Smash Up does a great job of bringing in light art and fun mechanics for each type of faction it includes - there is a good balance of male and female minions and I think the art is inclusive, which I really appreciate.


So after playing about 30 times in the last month or so, I think it's fair to cross this one off the list. And it's definitely staying on my shelf.  Just narrating the game is fun - my favorite quote so far comes from Andy, who boasted last time we played, "I'm sending Queen Fluffy to Ponyland." Even Magic Ponies couldn't save him against the wrath of the Princess Kittens, though!

Game 1: Twixt


With my first new game of this blog, I learned something... that I might play a lot of games in this series but I might also lose a lot of games. And with that, I bring you Twixt by Alex Randolph.  As soon as I decided to start the blog, Andy gave me one of his three copies of this 1962 game. Andy also taught me to play the game and it quickly became clear that I was going to need to study up a bit more before being competitive. Andy has designed some impressive abstract strategy games with the Looney Pyramids and grew up playing Twixt against his brother, who he tried to reassure me beat him just as easily as he won against me.

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The goal in Twixt is to build a connection from one side of the pegboard to the opposite side before your opponent. You build a connection by placing pegs and connecting them with the same color links. It took a bit just to get the hang of the distance that worked for linkable pegs.  I dug around on BGG and found Twixt Live and T1j and started playing online. I've played online quite a bit and at a couple of game days with friends. I like Twixt because once I understood it, it became incredibly fun to play against other friends who got it. 

One of the fun things about Twixt is that it's part of the 3M bookshelf series. It is also a 1979 Spiel des Jahres recommended game. The cover art and components for the game are really impressive compared to modern games in my opinion. Mike said in the panel that Twixt is better than Blokus, which is probably true.  Twixt is certainly deeper than Blokus and it was great to learn.  I'll keep playing Blokus with my friends that don't game very often but Twixt is very accessible, even if it's tricky enough that one wrong move can sink your strategy.

I'll consider this one crossed off the list, even if I still need to schedule a rematch with Andy. I'd love to hear if you've played Twixt - it's currently going for $155 on Amazon but I'm sure it's easy to find a used copy for less and the online option is great.