As someone who loves to learn new mechanics and games, I love the concept of a game system. In this case, I mean a set of components that allow you to play several games, as opposed to an electronic device that you hook up to your television to play video games. I mean, the idea is a great one. You buy just one set of pieces and you are set. Save on space and save on money.
Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t always live up to your expectations. One thing that you sacrifice when you do this is almost any kind of theme. Theme isn’t the most important thing in the world to me but if it’s all gone, I’m going to miss it. Besides, how am I going to get someone who does like to theme to play?
You also lose the degree of specification that a game can have. When an item is supposed to do double/triple/quadruple duty, that limits how specific it can be. That might not be a huge deal for a pawn or coin but it can be for a card or tile or more mysterious game component. This really does limit the rule set you can use with a game system.
Finally, the games you play with game systems sometimes don’t always hold up compared to a specific game. Sometimes that’s because of the theme and mechanical limitations place on them. Sometimes that’s because the games just haven’t been as rigorously designed and tested.
So, game systems are not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not if you are into euro-games or ameri-treasures. You’re never going to be able to substitute them for a well-stocked game closet.
Despite that, game systems have been around for a long time and have a rich history in games and game design and they definitely have a place in a well-rounded collection. If you have any taste for traditional games, game systems are something that you are already familiar with and have been well rewarded by.
If you want a set of components that you can use to play hundreds of games, games that have been honed by decades and centuries of play, you really can’t do better than a deck of cards. Seriously, would civilization be the same if someone traveled back in time and somehow wiped out playing cards?
Playing cards really do set the gold standard for game systems. They are so portable that they can fit into just any pocket or bag. You can play games with just about anyone, anywhere with them. You can play games suitable for children all the way up to games for hardened gamers with games like Go Fish to Bridge or Poker and people will probably already know the rules. And you can buy them for next to nothing at any given store.
There are plenty of other time-tested game systems, like dice or dominos or checkers. The list seriously goes on and on. You can even use the humble pencil and paper as a game system. However, let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to get people to sit down to a game with cards than a piece of paper and couple of pencils.
Modern game systems, though, are still going through their trial-and-error period. There are quite a few out there but I have yet to find one that holds up to the legacy of the traditional ones. (Not that that’s a really fair standard to hold them up to.)
One that I have found that has managed to impress me is the Ice House or Looney Pyramid system. I have managed to play a lot of really rewarding games with those little plastic pyramids. The system does kind of cheat, though Most of its games incorporate other systems into its games, like chess boards, go stones, playing cards, and piece pack.
I am clearly not the only person who lies awake at night thinking about game systems. The geek has it as an entry
I have a feeling that this is one topic I will keep going back to in my ruminations and my ramblings. In many ways, the nature and history of game systems is the nature and history of gaming.