Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Separating the Game from its Pieces: Game Systems

A few years ago, Stonehenge was released by Titanic Games to much anticipation and mixed reviews.

If you follow that link, you'll see a "designed by" list that seems excessive - you see, its initial release contained rules for five different games each by an "all-star" game designer.

The first expansion, Stonehenge: Nocturne contained enough pieces for an additional player and four more games, again by all-stars. There are a number of other games which have been designed for these components as well - some by famous designers and some by average folks like you and I.

It is a fairly recent example of what I like to refer to as a game system rather than as a game.

What's the difference? A game system is a set of components which is intended for use with multiple different sets of rules.

Ever have a friend ask if you wanted to play a game of Deck of Cards? Of course not - your friend asks if you want to play Poker or Blackjack or Hearts or any number of other games. So the idea isn't new.

In fact, one of the Stonehenge: Nocturne games was designed by an old hand with game systems, Andrew Looney of Looney Labs. Andrew Looney is responsible for the Icehouse series of games. And there are a lot of those, too. The Icehouse pieces are brightly-colored pyramids in three sizes - the small fits inside the medium which fits inside the large. You can't just create & sell your own pieces, however - they are the intellectual property of Looney Labs. Not that I consider that a problem for two reasons:

First, Looney Labs has kept the pieces relatively inexpensive - In fact, I only have one complaint about their price point: Many games require a "stash" of one color for each player. A stash is fifteen pyramids (five of each size) in a single color. You used to be able to buy stashes of your color of choice for around ten to twelve dollars. Now, the only colors available individually are grey and pink. The others are sold in five-color tubes. The tubes are ten to twelve dollars, but you need to buy five tubes in order to get a stash of a single color. Looney Labs also produces a number of accessories which include books of games, coaster sets (with more games printed on them), replacement dice, and a novel.

Second, they have been very supportive of fan-created Icehouse games. The link above should demonstrate that adequately.

And I know that Looney Labs doesn't often get a fair shake here, between the Werewolves Incident post and my well-known dislike of Fluxx. But - again - I find the Icehouse games to be both fascinating, quirky, and brilliant. Here's some of the Icehouse product I have purchased (duplicates removed):


Another popular modern game system is the piecepack system. The basic piecepack set consists of 24 tiles (numbered 0-5 in four suits), 24 coins (again 0-5 in four suits - the suit is marked on the back), four dice (numbered 0-5, one in each suit's color), and four pawns. There are expansions, which each add four suits to the mix.

Again, there are a number of games available - and the Piecepacks are Public Domain, so you can make (and sell) your own. Or you could buy one pre-made. Mesomorph Games makes some very nice Piecepack sets. So does Blue Panther Games.

Like Icehouse, there is also a great deal of piecepack fan support. Most of the games linked to above are fan-created, and there are a number of forums and interest groups.

There are even games out there which combine some of these systems - some Icehouse games require decks of cards. While researching this post, I saw one piecepack game that requires Icehouse pieces. Several games from both Icehouse and piecepack require a deck of cards - in some cases, it's a standard deck of playing cards, but some games require tarot cards or other specialty decks.

So all those words above here: What's the point?

The point is actually pretty short:

What's cheaper? Five different games or a game system? While games have traditionally done well when the economy slows (and some outlets reported as much as 30% growth last year), slow economies do hit gamers (and game stores and game publishers). I expect to see a slight uptick in sales of game systems over the next few months as gamers try to squeeze more game out of their dollar.

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