Long time no post. Time to fix that. Speaking of…

I met up with Mischa and the Nicks at Epoch this evening for some gamey activity. There was much talk about roleplaying and fondling of books, but we wound up spending most of our time playing three games – Category 5, Zendo, and Treehouse. Two of these games were a lot of fun.

If you’re not familiar with Zendo, you should be. The basic mechanic is this: one player takes the role of the “zen master”, and devises a rule to describe whether or not a particular configuration of Icehouse pieces (called a “koan” in the game) has the “Buddha nature” or not. He then sets up an example of one which does, and one which does not, and the players try to figure out what the rule is. For example, a simple rule might be, “A koan has the Buddha nature if all the pieces are the same size”. The zen master then sets up one that demonstrates that rule (say, three small pieces all pointing at each other) and one which does not (like a small pyramid stacked on top of a large one). The players then take turns building koans out of Icehouse pyramids, and either asking “master?”, in which case the zen master tells them whether their koan matches the rule or not, or “mondo”, after which each player puts forth a guess as to the correctness of the koan or not. Each player who chooses correctly wins a guessing stone, which may be used to make a guess about what the actual rule is – if they figure out the rule, they win the round, and become the zen master for the next round. The game sounds deceptively simple, and it kind of is, but the play is fairly deep, and requires a good deal of thought, both on the players’ parts, and for the zen master to pick a rule which will be challenging and fun to figure out, but not too hard or too easy. I highly recommend checking out Kory’s account of the design history of the game – it’s a great read, and gives a good amount of insight into the process.

This was the first fun game.

We also played several rounds of Category 5 (also known as “6 nimmt”), designed by the esteemed Wolfgang Kramer. This is another deceptively simple game with fairly deep play. The game consists of a deck of one hundred and four cards, numbered from 1 to 104, each of which are worth a certain number of points. (Most are worth one, some worth two, three, or five, and one worth seven.) The goal is to take the least amount of points possible, and games are generally played to seventy-five points – there are several variants, but we didn’t try any last night. The way points are scored is this: each player is dealt ten cards, and four cards are laid out face-up for starters. On every turn, each player chooses one card to play, and the cards are revealed simultaneously. There are some simple rules to determine which cards then go where – basically, starting with the lowest card, you either place your card on the end of a row if your card is greater than the value of the last card on that row, but less than the cards on the ends of the other rows. If the row that you place your card on already has five cards, you take those cards (and score the points that they are worth), and restart a new row with your card. Also, if your card is lower than the end cards on all the rows, you must choose one row to score, again starting a new row with the card that you played. Ten rounds are played, one for each card in the players’ hands, and points are tallied at the end. Sounds very simple, plays very quickly, and, as it turns out, has an amazing amount of strategy and tension for the amount of apparent randomness in the setup. This is a game that non-gamers can pick up very easily, but that still has enough meat to it that experienced gamers will still enjoy it greatly. It kind of reminds me of No Thanks! in that way, and may be my current most favoritest pick-up game outside of Jungle Speed.

This was the second fun game.

So, it looks like poor little Treehouse is left out. I really like the idea behind the game – it’s a little like Fluxx – but every time I play it, there’s a lukewarm reaction, and I usually never wind up playing it with the same set of people twice. So, what went wrong? Take a look at the rules – like the other two games, it seems simple enough, and it reads as if there’s a good amount of interaction between players and a wide range of stuff that can happen during gameplay. But in actual play, none of that comes out. The actions that you can perform on your setup are too random – the game doesn’t last long enough for the randomness to diffuse across the potential outcomes, or across the players. The rule that you must perform an action on your pieces if you can severely limits the number of interesting choices that the players can make – and whatever choices they can make are usually blotted out by the chunky randomness of the other players’ actions. I’ve never played a game of Treehouse where it felt that the winner won by skill – it’s always felt like it was just a matter of time that the player’s setup or the house changed to the right place where they matched, like a spinner coming to rest on a random number. Thankfully, a game of Treehouse lasts about five or ten minutes, and after a game or two, we usually move on.
Treehouse does not seem to exhibit what I’ve been calling “deep play” here. The choices available to the player are minimal, and the effects of those choices are minimized by random elements or other player choices. There is no tension in the game – we might not know who’s going to win until the last second, but nobody ever seems to care, either. There is a very limited range of action, and the possibilities that come out during game play feel like they are exhausted rather quickly. There rarely feels like there’s a reason to play it again, because it doesn’t give the players that feeling like they could maybe win this time, if they just did this or that differently, or that they may have won, but only because they outsmarted their opponents. I’m sure that my gaming companions could add to this list, and I hope they do so.

However! I would still recommend that you buy Treehouse, for two very good reasons. First, the tubes of stashes that make up the game set are an excellent and affordable source of Icehouse pieces, which can be used to play a whole boatload of different games, some of which are really, really fun. I’ll probably be picking up another four or five stashes myself in the near future.

Second, I hereby issue the first Flywheel Design Challenge! Mischa and I were discussing the shortcomings of Treehouse after playing last night, and decided that there’s a good game in there somewhere, and we should try to pull it out. So, Flywheelers, here it is: take a Treehouse set (five differently colored stacks of three Icehouse pieces each – small, medium, and large – and a six-sided die) and create a game using only those pieces. It should be easy to explain to a random person in a coffee joint, and you should be able to play it with two to four people on a small table. Try to limit game play time to, say, fifteen minutes to a half hour. You have two weeks to comply – I will collect submissions and post the results here.