Looney Pyramids have been a fixture in board gaming for over 20 years. That's kind of a staggering thing to put into perspective considering how much the landscape has changed in that time. Interest has waxed and waned as it does, but a few years ago Pyramid Arcade's success on Kickstarter demonstrated that plenty of people still wanted to see just what these little things can do. And as I'm always behind the curve, I didn't get in on that.
But now I have! I have been playing with pyramids lately. A lot. So much so in fact that I've now played every game featured in the arcade. All 23* of them, a minimum of once, a maximum of dozens of times. No exaggeration. Writing that out and reading it back, good lord that is a lot of pyramids.
As an officially recognized Starship Captain I feel it is my duty to inform prospective Space Cadets what they're getting into, so I've taken it upon myself to rank them all. Yes, all of 'em. And of course I'm putting them in a numbered list. Let it never be said that I don't understand what BGG users want. We'll be starting with the negative opinions and working our way up for two reasons: I generally like the games in PA and want to get the not-great ones out of the way, and because negativity is another thing that BGG users really love. I won't judge, don't worry. We're counting down!EVERY PYRAMID ARCADE GAME RANKED23: Powerhouse
Fumbling around in the bag to identify the size of pieces and hoping to pull the right-colored ones has the potential to be a great gimmick. Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don't. Unfortunately Powerhouse massively overstays its welcome to the point of being a slog due to a combination of crabs in a bucket syndrome, the aforementioned randomness, and the most non-intuitive rules of any game in PA. This is my least favorite game in the box and the only one that I won't revisit if asked. Maybe I just don't get it, but it put me off enough that I don't care to. Strangely it appears to be the only one without a BGG listing, which may be for the best.22: Give or Take
A weak dice game that can end in 3 turns or 300. There are other games in the list that succeed at what this game attempts. Very little else to say on this one, other than that it isn't really worth your time.21: Treehouse
I recognize that this is probably a sacrilegious opinion among pyramid heads, but Treehouse just isn't worth the rules overhead and fiddliness for what you get. Its use of its namesake die is arguably the worst depth:complexity in PA. Each of the 5 moves requires its own explanation, and early plays of the game will be fraught with "no you can't do that" and "wait, hold on" as you tell other players why they have to undo their move that they were excited to perform. Eventually players get to the point where the dice are second nature, but even then it just isn't as satisfying as other games in the arcade. Couple that with how variable the playtime is, with games ending anywhere from a minute in to indeterminate depending on rolls, and you can start to see why I'm not hot on this one.
All that being said I do appreciate Treehouse for being a lot of people's introduction to pyramids. I played it once a while back, years before the arcade was even close to being announced. But it was never the game that stuck out in my memory, only the pieces themselves. I was excited to revisit Treehouse when I realized what it was but there are so many better options available in PA that I don't see why this one should be bothered with.20: Verticality
I love all kinds of dexterity games, and stacking games are some of the best. Generally speaking the best stacking games have interactive game states that generate tension as structures get increasingly precarious. Verticality doesn't have this, and as a result isn't all that interesting. Building isolated towers with no input from anyone else turns this into little more than an endurance match of whose hands are steadiest. The cards and pyramids stack well and stacking things is generally a fun activity, but when there's no real difference between playing this solo or with a full table it can feel hollow. Plus you don't even get to stack the pyramids themselves!19: Launchpad 23
I don't dislike Launchpad 23. It's fine. Unfortunately "fine" just isn't up to par with the majority of the games in the arcade. In this case it's the action economy that throws me off. Rolling the multi-pyramid sides or wild on the color die gives you selection when you otherwise wouldn't have it, which is neat, but having it also give you more action points is baffling. I am very much a fan of dice as we'll see later in the list, but the implementation here just feels lopsided to the point of making the game a bit unsatisfying when someone gets a lucky break.18: Ice Dice
Reasonable little push your luck game. Doesn't really make the best use of pyramids as it's just a set collection game, but it does have a fun twist with the bank taking back stolen pieces even if you bust. Average.17: Hijinks
Hijinks marks the point in the list where we transition from games that are "fine" to games that are "good" or better. Hijinks itself falls exactly halfway between both of these. Sometimes it's a clever dice-driven abstract with a lot of action and reaction, other times it's a dumb dice activity that ends almost instantly. There tends to be a lot of undoing what the previous player did but the die won't let you do that as often as you may initially think, which keeps the gamestate moving. If Hijinks didn't have a significant chance of fizzling out immediately it would have landed higher on the list, but as it stands its inconsistency keeps it at the borderline.16: Pharaoh
A king of the hill game that feels like alien Backgammon (but not Martian Backgammon, that's another thing). A bit too zero sum with 2p and a bit too crabs-in-a-bucket for 3 and 4p, and it's completely outclassed by a game further up on this list, and yet there's something about it that appeals to me enough that I can't put it any lower than this. Maneuvering around at weird angles, baiting win attempts to counter them and take the game, the improvement of the dice curve via roll-two-pick-one. These are good ideas executed with no waste whatsoever. It's a bit simple, but sometimes that's what you want.15: Petri Dish
Petri Dish is one of the strangest games in the arcade. The lower player counts are no fun at all, and at high counts it's entirely possible that a player could be eliminated without even getting a turn. It's one of the swingier lighting dice games with some actions just being straight up better than others. Nasty, brutish, and short. And you know what? It works.
Despite Looney's explicit warning that playing with more than 5p can lead to hurt feelings that's exactly where I think this game is strongest. PD feels almost like a battle royale if you play with 6p or more, with everyone scrambling for some kind of foothold or just trying to not die. Hasty uninforceable negotiation will break out as weakened players plead their cases, only to roll a ton of infects next turn and consume the player that spared them. It's a damn mess, but a funny one that's hard to get mad at. I'm generally a fan of the lightning dice games, and while this isn't the strongest of those it's unique in its ability to entertain a crowd.14: Zark City
80% of Zark City is really good. The building of the board, quick yet deliberate pace, and deterministic combat are as simple as they are clever and snappy. Unfortunately the game suffers from its tension fizzling out like a deflating balloon by endgame as players spread out or fly off, build the last piece of a power block in an unassailable location, and gloat as the rest of the table takes turns confirming that they cannot, in fact, do anything about it. It's possible for the game to be all conflict all the time as everyone scrambles for the same block and when that happens it's a knock-down-drag-out brawl, but that's unlikely as it'll just come down to who draws the most face cards and any given player could opt to run off and build their own win condition. This is a shame because the game really does have a wonderful arc up until that point and I can definitely recommend it if you don't think an anticlimactic ending will hamper your enjoyment. I intend to try Zarcana and Gnostica in the future to see if they fix the issues, because there's a game in here I really like that just needs a little help.13: Color Wheel
An enjoyable solo/co-op puzzle, if a relatively easy one. Turning the chaotic fractal pattern into an orderly one is always satisfying. Most fun when chasing high scores, in particular the timer variant where you're just trying to make speed records and not tracking how many moves you take. The only weakness here isn't with the game itself, it's that setup and teardown takes about as long as the actual playtime. I definitely do recommend that you play this otherwise it wouldn't be this high on the list, but maybe fit in a couple rounds in one sit-down when you do. Added bonus: it's one of the best looking games in a box full of attractive games. Very photogenic if that's something you're into.12: Lunar Invaders
In a box full of abstract games Lunar Invaders offers something completely unique: the nope token. Yes I know it's officially called the malfunction token, but nah. Nope token. So it is said, so it shall be.
LI's hook is that each player starts with a stash of spendable tokens that allow them to counter or steer opponent's moves in an advantageous manner. I don't think I've ever seen "in-response" attempted in a perfect information abstract before and it's pretty darn neat! The tension of each play ratchets up nicely as players hem and haw over when to spend tokens, and as they grow familiar with the game on repeat sessions players start making moves to bait token use out of their opponents at opportune times. This added layer to an otherwise straightforward game gives Lunar Invaders a heck of a memorable hook. If you enjoy tactical abstracts and want to try something truly unique give this one a go.11: Looney Ludo
You know how I said Pharaoh was outclassed by another game? This is it. Looney Ludo really had to work to win me over. I went in skeptical as the pitch of a Fluxxified Parcheesi wasn't the most appealing, but it manages to be much greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of moving the goalposts ala Fluxx or taking progress away like Parcheesi, it has players interacting by adjusting the field temporarily. The board is perpetually in *ahem* flux, but not to the point where you can't fix it to your advantage and make permanent progress each turn. It makes good use of the Treehouse die for simple yet massive powers that are easily taught, and the roll-2-pick-1 from Pharaoh is a huge equalizer here in what would otherwise be a very swingy roll and move.
More so than many others in the arcade this game struck me as a slam dunk for families. It's simple, but there's room for tactical play and you can definitely get better at it. It makes for a great filler, it's constantly engaging, and darn it, it just looks cool. Hopping coasters around is cool. Nesting pyramids for the win is cool. Looney Ludo is cool.10: Pyramid Sham-Bo
We're in the top 10 now! If you're already familiar with Pyramid Arcade you might have been wondering why Pyramid-Sham-Bo hadn't shown up yet. No I didn't leave it off the list, it's here and it DESERVES to be. It may just be tournament rock paper scissors, but you know what? Tournament RPS is really fun! If you've never played tournament RPS and seen how bizarre the meta becomes as players strengthen and weaken and claim to know other player's patterns you really should give this a go with a good sized crowd. The scoring twists of pyramids going away when players are eliminated and getting paid for KOs significantly changes how you choose your targets and when. Admittedly it has basically nothing to do with pyramids and as a result feels like a strange inclusion for the arcade but I refuse to complain about a game as entertaining as this is. Pyramid-Sham-Bo is here, and I'm glad for it.9: Petal Battle
Petal Battle was a real surprise. In a box with so many 2p conflict games I must admit I didn't expect this to be one of the better ones. On an initial scan of the rules it seems like it would be very zero-sum, similar to 2p Petri Dish. What wasn't immediately apparent is Petal Battle's true draw: sequencing.
I've never seen bidding and programming meshed together like this before. Players secretly stack a trio to determine how many actions they'll get for the next three turns, as well as turn order. This uneven turn structure is really intriguing. Do you throw a 3 for your first turn to put your opponent on the back foot knowing that they'll probably get to go first? Maybe go for speed and end the round with a flurry of actions? Or do you try to get into their head and predict their bid, then yank first play by locking in first? All of these are equally valid and make no mistake, there's a very real game happening on the board itself. Another solid tactical abstract that does a lot with a little.8: Sandships*
Another lightning dice game on the list and it's a doozy. Sandships is a compelling mix of area control, combat, and logistics. Your pieces transform between spires and ships, but canals on the board divide the map and force your ships to land in order to embark from another dock. Since you need to control 3 cities without giving up your starting one in order to win it becomes a game of balance: not only do you have to consider where you commit forces, but you're essentially only able to attack by spending your life points. Choosing when to go for a dead city and when to strike an opponent's HQ for a cheeky elimination is all kinds of cool. The entire game is balanced on a razor's edge, yet it does it without any output randomness. Moreso than any other lightning dice game wilds/effective wilds are really easy to generate, so you'll almost always be able to do at least most of what you want. With 4 players you're going to have to eliminate someone before winning is possible and that may rub some folks the wrong way, but I strongly recommend giving this a go regardless. It's fiendishly clever.7: Black Ice
From here on out we're talking about fantastic games. All of these stand head and shoulders above most other games on store shelves today. I genuinely believe that any one of them would see success if sold individually, and the fact that they're all bundled into the arcade makes this box feel like an embarrassment of riches.
Black Ice completely replaces Treehouse in every way. The additional deductive element and implementation of lightning dice to allow for multiple actions per turn is inspired. Once you've got a game under your belt to nail the rules switch to expert mode and never look back. The bluffing and deduction opens up beautifully once it becomes harder to actually know everything. The dice are flexible in what they allow you to do and yet you'll constantly feel the pressure as you and your opponent race to fix your keys first. It's basically head to head Mastermind where you both get to play the code cracker, and that was a game I never thought I'd see.
We have one house rule for this game that I highly recommend implementing. When your keys are set and you're ready to declare a win, you have to say "I'm in" in a gravely movie hacker voice and then reveal the code. It dramatically improves the experience. Hack the planet.6: World War 5
This surprised me. A game inspired by Risk and Diplomacy that fits easily into a lunch break is a pitch that sounds too good to be true, but when played with 4p WW5 actually delivers on it!
The genes of its parent games can very clearly be seen in its offspring. Dice combat is plentiful in WW5, with ties going to the defender. When a piece is defeated it gets to retreat rather than be eliminated outright if it has an escape route. What WW5 does to keep things brisk is only allow one action per turn. Making/improving a unit is your turn. Moving a unit is your turn. Attacking is a gamble - you essentially get to do two actions at once as you shove them out of the way and take their spot, but if it fails you get nothing. You will be fighting often of course, but always selectively.
There are parallels to be drawn to Sandships here but I prefer WW5 due to how constant the threat of conflict is and how that incentivizes negotiation. Everyone can reach everyone else from the word go. Alliances aren't just a good idea, they're necessary in order to not get locked into an endless turf war with a neighbor. Once again elimination is present, but it often requires a several step coordinated assault to bully someone out of their home continent so there's plenty of time to strike up a bargain and defend yourself. Play aggressively and you'll win the day, but overaggression will leave you impotent and beaten down as your stronger opponents overrun you. Positioning, board awareness, and the gift of gab will carry you further than bloodlust. I was honestly surprised at how much I like this one, folks. Do give it a shot.5: Ice Towers
Of every game on this list this was by far the one I debated the placement on the most, and not just because I didn't put WW5 in the 5th slot. I'm actually still not 100% sure how I feel about it and its placement. Let me try to elaborate through some stream of consciousness writing and make some sense of that for you and me.
I like Ice Towers. Like, REALLY like Ice Towers. It's got so many elements that I like: real time, stacking, direct conflict, even a bit of haggling over splitting towers! It's a blast from start to finish, and since it's so short you can play over and over in a single sitting with no issue.
But. BUT. This could very well be the most divisive game on this entire list. There are going to be a lot of people who absolutely loathe this game. You will introduce it to people who think it's just a stupid speed game and refuse to give it any more thought than that. And perhaps even more importantly, playing with that mentality can actually make the game worse for everyone else. That's a crappy thing to do, but if they truly don't see what else they should be doing besides chucking pyramids around at mach speed you won't get much more out of them. Your eurogame friends probably aren't going to want to give this enough plays to "get it", and that makes me sad.
That said, Ice Towers deserves to be this high. Maybe even higher. Played with a group that's willing to give it the attention it deserves there's a really great tactical game here. If you can convince people to dig into this you won't regret it.4: Martian Chess
One of the very first pyramid games I ever played, and one that deserves its lofty reputation. There isn't actually a lot to be said about Martian Chess. It's an incredibly simple abstract, played on a half chessboard (assuming you're playing at 2p with the included board) with half as many types of pieces as vanilla Chess. And yet from that comes a really interesting tactical game with arguably the coolest hook of all of its ilk in the arcade: you only control pieces on your half of the board.
At first this translates to sending long bombs back and forth like a weird game of Pong, then fighting your chess instincts to immediately take your opponent's queen as you realize wait, no, that's my queen now. Once you get past the mental blocks and see how to approach without immediately getting assaulted the game develops into a devilishly clever skirmish. Like Chess it can end in stalemates sometimes, but I fail to see the issue with that when we accept it in so many other games. Consider that match well played between two evenly matched opponents and go again. Games of this are so quick that it's a non-issue, and repeated plays bear significant rewards as you grow as a player. I look forward to more plays of this and possibly assembling a multiplayer board to introduce it more often.3: Volcano
If Color Wheel has any competition for the "prettiest game" award this is it. Volcano is a behemoth of a thing, with setup consisting of assembling a layer cake of pyramids and topping it with little frosting caps. If this thing tasted as good as it played it'd win plenty of bake-off awards. Metaphors!
Volcano is the puzzliest of the puzzle games by a long shot. It's perfect information and hoo boy is there a lot of it. In order to capture pieces you need to leapfrog them over the maneuverable caps, have them match sizes, and hopefully do that multiple times in one move. You're given a tremendous amount of flexibility in how you approach this as it's relatively easy to shove caps around without erupting, but setting up a mighty chain that snatches you a fistful of plastic is still a serious challenge. If there was ever a game that'll set off your analysis paralysis it's this one.
Don't let that scare you though. Volcano is worth the work, and the actual rules are simple as anything. Scoot a cap, jump the pieces, take some home, pass. If you're feeling particularly fancy you can drop a piece on the board in order to set up chains or eruptions that you otherwise wouldn't be able to pull off, but that's the extent of it. After a couple plays the maneuvering of the caps will be second nature, and with that comes some of the most satisfying puzzle action Pyramid Arcade has to offer. Combos galore, blocking maneuvers that'll make you pull your hair out as you try to solve how you'll get to a key piece before your opponent, and figuring out when to pivot between going for 3 monocolor trees VS 5 of any trees will keep your head buzzing well past the end of the game. If you enjoy a bit of brain burn this one's for you.2: Twin Win
When I mentioned in the intro that some of these games have been played dozens of times I was mostly talking about Twin Win. This thing has gotten its hooks in us something fierce and quickly become a default "let's play something" choice, and once it comes out it always gets played at least three times. I'm going to try to be concise as to why it works so well.
Twin Win has each player drawing two secret objectives that depict a nest or tree of a color. If either is assembled at any point during the game you immediately reveal the card and declare victory. All you can do on your turn is hop pieces around twice and the board restricts movement, so each player's moves are very predictable. This works to the game's benefit as it's laser focused on two things: bluffing and deduction.
Let's set a scene. You win on a purple nest or an orange tree. You could just dig up the relevant pieces and scramble to set them in advantageous spots, but it'll be transparent as to what you're doing and disrupting a shape is much easier than assembling it. Your opponent could ruin that for a couple turns with a single action if they're paying attention, so it's probably not going to work. Instead you skirt around the edges and spread pieces out. Your opponent, unsure as to what you're going for, starts moving some purples towards the center as they cycle through stacks for their bits. You can't win on this turn, but there is something you CAN do - assemble 2/3 pieces of a purple tree.
Obviously you know that's not going to win you the game. But your opponent can't let you get away with that in case you DO have that card and would need to waste their time disassembling it, which would actually set you up for a nest! It's brilliant! You're a genius! Unless of course they have the purple tree goal, but there's no way that's what they're going for...right?
These are the moments that make Twin Win so memorable. Choosing when to clear the smokescreen and call the other player out is critical, as is their response. It's a top-class game of double bluffs and bamboozlement that fits into 5 minutes. I couldn't ask for anything more. What a fantastic game.1: Homeworlds
A confession, dear reader: this list was rigged from the start. When I started working on it the very first thing I did was put Homeworlds at the top. Homeworlds is the best game in this box, and that's not just my opinion: Andy Looney declared it his favorite game of all time. After several sessions of it I've begun to see why, and it's deserving.
Homeworlds is a perfect information 4X strategy game. I'm not even slightly exaggerating. It's a spacefaring epic of massive scope where entire galaxies will discovered and annihilated in equal measure. It's got a brutal economy that you have to manage at all times. Its rules are relatively simple yet incredibly broad in scope, allowing for a massive range of actions to be taken on any given turn. It tells incredible stories of empires being built and obliterated in mere moments, and it does it all with 36 pyramids.
I can't even begin to explain all of the mechanical intricacies that Homeworlds offers here. What I will say is this: of all the games I have on my shelf, there is no other game I would sooner drop everything else to play right now than this one. I don't just want to play it, I want to master it, and it supports that level of dedication. There's a reason why Looney offers an honest to god medal to anyone who beats him at it - getting to the point where you can take on a veteran player is an undertaking.
2p games of this depth are incredibly rare and I'm increasingly convinced that this is one of the best. If Homeworlds was the only game in this box it'd be worth the price of admission. You owe it to yourself to play this game. It's a masterpiece, and the crown upon the magnum opus that is Pyramid Arcade.FINAL THOUGHTS
As this was a ranking of the games included in the arcade I couldn't cover things like Zendo, which is phenomenal, as well as several other games mentioned in the back of the book. This was pretty exhausting to work on; adding even more games to it seemed beyond reasonable. Yet despite all this I'm not remotely tired of pyramids. If anything I'm even more excited to play games that aren't in the rulebook and further explore the favorites I've already found. This project has been one of the best board game experiences I've had in a long time.
But I'm tired. My brain is pudding. Thanks so much for reading my ramble! See you all in another bi-week.
*Sandships isn't technically part of the arcade, but it was given away as a holiday gift and is currently being sold as a promo. I'm including it in this ranking as it's essentially an expansion. It's also very good.
Where I put miscellaneous board game writings. Opinions and strong takes abound!
12 Oct 2019
- [+] Dice rolls