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Subject: The Empty City - Reviewing a Game and a Book rss

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Jorge Arroyo
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Icehouse - The Game

I've been thinking a lot about the game Icehouse lately (as opposed to the Icehouse gamesystem). It was the first game that used the pyramids and it has an interesting origin: The fiction stories of one of its creators, Andy Looney.

It also has some sort of mystique around it, some kind of aura that separates it from other games. I think this comes, in part, from the stories on the book The Empty City, where a small cast of characters live their lives around this game that in their reality has replaced Chess and Go.

The Empty City

I read this book during these last few days (It's available for free from Looney Labs: http://www.wunderland.com/icehouse/emptycity.html ) and I did enjoy it a lot (It's the first book I've read online that has grabbed me enough that I didn't mind reading it on a computer screen).

I liked the fact that the game Icehouse is an important part of the book, but also enjoyed the story itself and the way it is told. The book is composed of many short stories, each focusing on one character or situation. Each one on its own is more or less complete, but together they manage to tell us how the lives of this group of people change over time as different events come into their lives.

The situations range from normal everyday problems to seemingly magical/sci-fi stuff with some weird situations that a few of the characters have to go through. Also, through the character's dreams and writings, other independent stories are told and incorporated into the main book.

Learning about the game

While reading the fortunes and misfortunes of these people, the game Icehouse unfolds through little details that give us an idea of how it is played. First we just get a description of the pieces, then some of the characteristics of the game and finally, a short explanation of the full rules. Also, we learn about the "real" origin of the game (It isn't called the 100.000 year old game from mars for nothing)

This way we learn that the game is played in real time with no formal turns and using no board, just a flat surface. Anyone can play a piece at any time, so the game may have chaotic moments where everyone is playing quickly and at the same time, but then moments where everyone just stops to examine the situation and decide what to do next. Maybe then someone does something that changes it and it all starts again. In order for the game to work well it requires a certain attitude from its players, a certain cooless and zen-like way of acting.

Early in the story we learn that being put in the "icehouse" (losing all your defensive pyramids) means losing the game, and from the first short stories the book is composed of, you could get the impression that it happens often, but in fact that's not the way most games usually end. Most of the times players "survive" until the end of the game and the winner is the player with a higher score.

Also, even though the actual rules of the game were not invented when the first stories were written, the games portrayed on those stories reflect the spirit of the game very well. You can see how this game requires concentration but at the same time physical skill. You can see the flow of the game and how you need to adapt (quickly) to new situations. Also, different characters play at different levels and it is implied that it takes years to master the game.

Rules and Strategies

In fact, if you just read the rules for this game, you won't really have any chance against an experienced player. As it predictably happens in the book when one of the characters plays a few games against the game creator, you will lose, and lose very quickly. This is because many of the things you can do by using the rules are not obvious at all when reading the rules.

The rules do say how you can place pyramids standing up as defenders or on their side as attackers. Attackers have to point at an opponent's defender but defenders can be placed anywhere. The strength of a piece depends on its size (ranging from 1 to 3 points) and in order for an attack to be successful against a given piece, the combined strength of all the attacking pieces must be greater than the strength of the defending piece.

Then the key rule is explained: When an attack is so successful that even if one of the attackers were removed, it would still be successful (only taking into account the pieces that were originally attacking), then the owner of the defender can take one of the attackers as a prisoner. This is very important because prisoners and how you use them is one of the most important parts of the game.

Of course, the obvious move is to just play them as defenders and quickly "ice" them to score more points. But there are some more subtle ways of playing them that will let you do things like breaking into fortresses (groups of pyramids enclosing and protecting a defender) or saving your own pieces from destruction. These maneuvers require not only focus and attention on the game, but quickness and physical skill so other players can't interfere with your plans. Of course, at the same time, you have to pay attention to their moves, as they will try to do the same to you.

As the character on the book that after playing and losing to the creator of the game, goes on to crush his friends with the new strategies he learned, so will new players, as they learn (either by watching better players or by reading strategy articles on the 'net), will manage not only to think of better strategies and maneuvers, but to execute them flawlessly, becoming better players themselves.

But don't think that everything is said and done about this game. After years of running Icehouse tournaments, new strategies were introduced by players that managed to take everyone by surprise. Then, counter-strategies were developed, and who knows what will come next. Who will be the next person to shake the Icehouse world? Maybe you!

Diplomacy

Another element of the game that is described on the book early on is the diplomatic aspect. Because prisoners are so important, and the only way of getting them is having one of your defenders "over-iced", it's clear that usually it is a bad idea to over-ice a defender, as you're basically giving that player a free prisoner. What usually happens is that players have to make short alliances in order to get prisoners. Sometimes two players will decide to exchange prisoners ("I will over-ice you here, you over-ice me there"). Sometimes a player will ask someone else to over-ice him to get a prisioner from a third player, etc...

This element is very important except in 2-player games. But to compensate its lack, a variant is usually used where players either start with some prisoners, or a third, neutral color, is introduced (each player gets a tree of this color). Then players can use it to over-ice themselves. Else, the game would be quite uninteresting, as all the cool tactics that require a prisoner would be impossible to realize.

Icehouse in the Real World

So, as I finish the book, the question comes to my mind: ┬┐Why didn't Icehouse do as well in our reality as in the book's? It does have many cool elements, both rules-wise and component-wise. It's one of the few boardgames that is played in real time and really works well, although it does give it a steep learning curve. This can be offset with handicaps (just as in Go) but I can see it being a tall hurdle for beginners.

The pyramids are one of the nicest game components I've ever seen in any game. Just about anyone I've showed them to has been attracted to them. But of course, they do look quite abstract, and abstract games are not as popular nowadays (except for the classics like Chess and Go).

The fact that Icehouse is also a game system with many other interesting games to play may also have been a cause for the game's lack of popularity. For example, in the game's BGG entry, how many posts are about the actual game? Just a few. Does this reflect the game's popularity within the Icehouse game system community? Also, in the Looney Labs web site you can read how "the Icehouse name is like the Duct tape name" most people don't use duct tape to tape ducts, but the name stuck.

It seems they resigned themselves to accept that this game is just not as popular as they expected at the beginning, when it was first created. The only remnant of the game's great old status is the fact that each tournament still has its number displayed each year (the only Icehouse game to have it), and next year it'll be the 20th Icehouse Tournament.

This alone suggests that the game has some hidden quality (adding to its mystique) that still draws players after all these years. Who knows, maybe as the pyramids become more popular, the game will attract new players and eventually we'll live in a reality like the book's, where we will be able to walk into a Pub, sit on a table and open the Icehouse drawer for a quick game while the drinks arrive.

But for now, I can only recommend this wonderful game of skill (both intellectual and physical) and this interesting book which I'll be soon buying, as Looney Labs still seem to have some real copies for sale on their online shop.

-Jorge
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Timothy Hunt
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maka wrote:
Then the key rule is explained: When an attack is so successful that even if one of the attackers were removed, it would still be successful, then the owner of the defender can take one of the attackers as a prisoner. This is very important because prisoners and how to use them is one of the most important parts of the game.


Hmm... interesting - I'd have to double check the book. That's not how the rules are. We had a fairly long discussion about this at Origins 2007. A better, clearer way to state the rule is that if you count the attack value of a piece as 0, is the defending piece still iced? If so, it's over-iced.

Consider a tip block, where a 1 point piece is attacking a defender, and has squandered the attack of the three point piece on the same defender. Assuming that defender is iced, then removing that one pointer will clearly keep it iced, and under the former stating of the rule, would therefore make it over iced.

On the other hand, counting the 1 point attack as 0 may well mean it's no longer iced (as you can't count the three point attack as it's still squandered by the 1 point piece), and therefore not overiced.
 
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Jens Hoppe
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Great review! I haven't played the game myself, despite certainly having the pyramids to do so, if I could muster the courage.

I just love the book, however! Brilliantly funny, surreal fiction. kiss
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Jorge Arroyo
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Timotheous wrote:
maka wrote:
Then the key rule is explained: When an attack is so successful that even if one of the attackers were removed, it would still be successful, then the owner of the defender can take one of the attackers as a prisoner. This is very important because prisoners and how to use them is one of the most important parts of the game.


Consider a tip block, where a 1 point piece is attacking a defender, and has squandered the attack of the three point piece on the same defender. Assuming that defender is iced, then removing that one pointer will clearly keep it iced, and under the former stating of the rule, would therefore make it over iced.


Of course, you're right I should have added that only the pyramids currently attacking the piece should be examined... I was really trying to explain in a simple way the idea of over-icing for people that haven't played the game...

Thanks for pointing it out

-Jorge
 
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Timothy Hunt
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Yes, I understand that... the problem is when you try to make it simple, but cause a misunderstanding.

As I said, I think we worked out that the simplest way to say it, while keeping the intent of the rule, is if you can count one of the attackers as having 0 strength, and the defender is still iced, then the defender is in fact overiced.


 
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Zack Stackurski
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Thanks for the review! I had seen Icehouse sold at my local game store a few years ago and thought the game pieces looked neat, but since nobody I knew played I let them be. I saw your post while modding and it got me interested in these great little gaming pieces again... So I went out and bought a Treehouse set to try things out and I look forward to expanding my collection soon after only a handful of plays of some small games. You even got me hooked on the stories that started it all!

Thanks again for re-introducing me to a great gaming system that I missed out on for many years!
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Jorge Arroyo
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I'm glad and thanks for the tip! be sure to check the icehouse wiki (if you haven't already done so): http://icehousegames.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page
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Zack Stackurski
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Thanks for the link! I'd already stumbled on to that site and am impressed with all of the games available online to play with Icehouse pieces. Now I just need to go get some more stashes so I can try more games!
 
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