Not a day after the Atlanta post where I mentioned Costikyan’s essay I Have No Words and I Must Design, it became assigned reading for my Game Criticism class. We were also tasked (among other things) with reviewing a game against some of his defining characteristics of games. I’ve been smitten with IceTowers (a game played with Looney Lab’s Icehouse pieces) for a long time and was planning on writing something about it here eventually anyhow. As I’ve ended up writing it for class, there’s some overly specific references to some of Costikyan’s terminology. Just saying…
IceTowers is a game played using the colorful plastic pyramids from Looney Lab’s Icehouse set. In its original publishing the set included 60 translucent hollow pieces in four colors and three different sizes. It also included a small rule booklet with instructions for a half dozen or so different games, including, IceTowers.
In IceTowers the pieces begin scattered, right side up, on a table top between the players who synchronously stack them in an attempt to gain control of the resulting ‘towers’. The game concludes when all parties agree there are no moves left, or no moves left they are interested in making. In between stacking towers and counting points players can occasionally ‘mine’ their pieces from a tower and ‘split’ towers into two smaller ones (see fig. 1) giving the game a measured strategic bent in contrast to its turnlessness. Play time is between 1-5 minutes.
IceTowers is an interesting game to look at in terms of Costikyan token/resource relationships. Particularly because the game pieces fluctuate between one and the other. When the game begins and all pieces are scattered on the table, each player is free to move pieces of their selected color. At this point these moves consist of placing a piece on a same, or smaller, sized piece. Doing this claims the piece (and all pieces under it) as points for the player who has ‘capped’ the stack. Each ‘move’ of this type turns a player token into a resource to be ‘managed’ by the placement of their remaining tokens.
While there’s no turn structure, IceTowers is hardly a game of speed. What may look like a game of reflexes at first glance actually contains a number of interesting game decisions. As pieces can only ‘cap’ the same size or smaller, the smallest piece – the one with a single pip – is the most powerful and can be used to claim point rich towers of larger pyramids. Occasionally, to be a nuisance, a player can use a one point pieces to cap another player’s one point piece and effectively deny both of them the opportunity to use these important tokens.
As the game is zero sum, and point stealing moves directly effect a single player (opposed to all three opponents), many game decisions become political. Furthermore, as the stacks are built and re-arranged, players often have the ability to ‘split’ towers, redistributing points from one opponent to another. This can even result in a tower one piece tall, in effect returning a competing player’s piece to token status and allowing them to replay it on top of other existing towers. While it can be occasionally used to create a tower that’s easier for the splitting player to cap, most often it exists as a diplomatic ‘screw your friend’ maneuver.
IceTowers has no metaphorical or representational qualities that Costikyan directly associates with his term ‘color’ (outside from Icehouse being occasionally referred to as the “Martian Chess set”). Though it does have an aesthetic particular to its pieces and even more particular to the way they’re manipulated for IceTowers. It’s hard not to be drawn to the brightly colored pyramids regardless of their setting. The formal relationships between the three sizes – each smaller size fitting with the larger like Matryoshka dolls – and the small pips placed inconspicuously in the bottom corner (see fig. 2) speak of rules and systems unknown, begging you to play with them. Inside a game of IceTowers the plastic clink of a small pyramid being placed on a stack becomes synonymous with stealing points from other players. The growing towers and the transformations of the pieces from scattered to organized is not only visually pleasing but also expresses the game’s progress from beginning to end.
While I really appreciate this ‘color’, my biggest complaint about IceTowers is leveled at an aspect of it. The often precariously high towers are frequently knocked over in the midst of the free form play, stopping the game until they can be put back together based on the players best guesses. While this unfortunately common occurrence doesn’t destroy the game – with matches only lasting a few minutes most players are perfectly happy just picking up and continuing – it’s certainly detractor. As such, IceTowers might benefit from a set of pyramids which are shorter and less prone to collapse from the gesticulations game play requires. Alternatively these accidental collapses could be elevated from unwanted color by incorporating them into the game rules; perhaps even just a small penalty for the person who knocks the stack over.
Aside from this issue IceTowers is a great quick-play game. Visual, tactile, and even acoustic qualities of the pieces make them intrinsically fascinating. Being able to play king maker in the end game fosters diplomatic relationships that extend between single games, and allows losing players to stay involved. Differentiating between moves can be a little difficult for new players, but it only takes a few plays to start developing strategies for the pacing and targeting of piece placement. Finally I’m particularly partial to games like IceTowers that utilize their pieces so fully, in this case making them play both token and resource roles.