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Game Design Concepts: Level 2

I'm not necessarily planning on doing a post for every lesson (twice a week for ten weeks), but I thought I'd post today since I made two games.

Today's lesson talked about what game design is, the iterative process, and the benefits of paper prototyping. The readings were the second chapter in Ian and Brenda's book and an article by Doug Church.

At the end of Chapter 2 of the book are five challenges. The first challenge is basically the same as the challenge from Monday, so I decided not to repeat that. Challenge 2 is to make a territorial acquisition game, and Challenge 3 is to make an exploration game. I did both of those, and I'll present them next. Challenge 4 is to make a game with the mechanic of picking up things by passing over them, like you would in many video games. I have the germ of an idea, but I want to think about it a bit more, since this is a bit tougher than the previous challenges. Challenge 5 is an "Iron Designer Challenge", similar to Iron Chef, where two teams are supposed to work on the same design. I may or may not get to this, as it is fairly specific (make a game about a Civil War battle without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic), and I think this kind of specificity would make the resulting game interesting only if there were others to compare it to. Of course, there are 1400 people taking this course, so I may end up doing it.

Now, on to the games I made today. I welcome any feedback on the games.


The first game is a territorial acquisition game. I couldn't come up with a good name, so I'm just calling it Outgrow.


(Pictured above: The endgame of Outgrow. The four players were blue/purple, green/yellow, red/orange, and white/clear.)

Game: Outgrow

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player represents a fungal colony, trying to outgrow the other colonies in the limited space available.

Materials: chess board, two Icehouse stashes for each player (10 each of small, medium, and large pieces)

Setup: Each player places a medium piece from his stash in a corner of the chess board. Randomly determine the first player.

Gameplay: A player may make one action per turn. There are four allowable actions:

  1. Grow a small piece into a medium piece.
  2. Grow a medium piece into a large piece.
  3. Make a medium piece spawn. Place two small pieces orthogonally adjacent to the medium piece, then replace the medium piece with a small piece (if you run out of small pieces, use a medium on its side to represent a small).
  4. Shoot off a spore from a large piece. Place a small piece up to three spaces away from the large piece in a straight line, either orthogonally or diagonally, then replace the large piece with a medium piece.
The one constraint is that you may not occupy a space that is already occupied.


Game end and winning: The game ends when there are no more empty spaces on the chess board. The winner is the player occupying the most squares. If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player who has the larger pip count (small = 1, medium = 2, large = 3). If there is still a tie, then the winner is the tied player who had the fewest number of turns.

Analysis:I played one test game with four sides, and the final scores ended at 17, 17, 16, and 14, with one of the 17s having a medium while the other one had all smalls. Interestingly, the tied players started out by spawning their medium, and the other players started out by growing the medium to a large.


The next game is an exploration game. I've been interested in games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different special ability (and this is now the second time that I'm mentioning that I intend to post about that here at some point, and maybe this will actually inspire me to do so), so I decided to make this game with a tarot deck. I didn't manage to get a special ability for each major arcana, but I think I got a decent selection of abilities. I may come back to this game idea and flesh out more powers (feel free to suggest some!).

Game: Tarot Dungeon (I couldn't come up with a decent name for this game, either)

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player is a representative of one of four major powers who are working together to explore a dungeon and loot its treasure. Of course, each player has received secret instructions to get out first and seal the rest of the players inside.

Materials: tarot deck (can use a regular deck plus counters in seven different colors)

Setup: Separate the tarot deck into the major arcana and the minor arcana. Shuffle them separately. Put the minor deck in the middle of the table and set the major deck off to the side. Each player should choose a different suit (cups, disks, wands, swords, or whatever your deck uses). Randomly determine the starting player.

Gameplay: There are two phases to the game, going into the dungeon and leaving the dungeon. In the first phase, the starting player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he sets it in front of him and draws the top card from the major deck (he's found a treasure!); otherwise, he puts the card in the discard pile. Play continues clockwise until the minor deck is exhausted. (In the unlikely event that the major deck is exhausted, then play continues as normal, but new treasures are not drawn.)

This is the end of the first phase. All of the treasure has been found, and so players must race to the exit.

The first player of the second phase is the player with the least number of treasures. If there is the tie, then the first player is the tied player who went closest to last in the first phase. Reshuffle the minor discards (but not the ones that the players have kept) to form a new minor draw deck. The first player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he keeps it (separate from the cards drawn in the first phase); otherwise, he discards it. Play continues clockwise.

Game end and winning: The game ends when one player has collected five cards in the second phase. That player is the first to escape the dungeon, and he triggers a collapse, sealing the other players in the dungeon.

Treasures: Each treasure has a special ability. On a player's turn after he has flipped over a card (or sometimes before; see the list of abilities), that player may discard a single treasure card in order to activate its special ability. Once the active player has played a treasure card or passed on the opportunity to do so, each player in turn order has the option of playing a treasure card or passing. This continues until every player has passed in turn (i.e., there have been four passes in a row). A player may play more than one treasure card (assuming he plays one, then someone else plays one), and a player may pass but play a treasure card later in the round (assuming someone else plays a treasure card).

There are seven abilities, as follows:

  • Flip 2 - The player flips two cards instead of one. This is played before flipping. (Assign to major arcana 0-3.)
  • Denial - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches the active player's suit. That card is discarded. (Assign to major arcana 4-6.)
  • Leavings - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches your suit. You get that card. (Assign to major arcana 7-9.)
  • Counter - Nullifies the effect of the last-played treasure card. Note that a counter can be countered, which would let the original treasure card stand. Also note that Flip 2 can be countered (you go around playing or passing after a Flip 2 just as you would after a card is flipped). (Assign to major arcana 10-12.)
  • Double - If the card flipped is the same suit as the last card flipped, take the card that was just flipped. (Assign to major arcana 13-15.)
  • Weak Force - Take a card that you just flipped, even if it does not match your suit. (Assign to major arcana 16-18.)
  • Strong Force - Instead of flipping a card, simply take the top card. This may not be countered (but you might end up taking a card of your suit, thus wasting this treasure). (Assign to major arcana 19-21.)

Analysis: The idea is that the player with the most treasures will be bogged down the most, so they will be slower in getting out. For the second phase, in the minor deck, there will be the most cards matching the suit of the player with the fewest treasures. So theoretically, that player's lack of power will be balanced by their being more likely to flip a card that matches their suit. In the two test games that I played with four sides, one game was won by the player with the most treasures, and one game was won by the player with the fewest treasures. It's unclear whether the players in the middle are at a disadvantage.

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Pylon online (and other stuff)

pylon.pngDoug Orleans' Pylon, winner of the 2007 Icehouse Game Design Competition as reported in Episode 6, is now an online game! It's hosted on the Volity Network, with art and programming by Doug himself. The user interface is rather basic but entirely functional, and the game's playable against both human and automated opponents. Give it a try!


(Special insider Gameshelf trivia: I referred to Doug as "Somerville's own" during that show, even though he had moved to Billerica, several towns away, by then. But I figured that he probably at least started to think about the game that would become Pylon while he still lived here, so it was all good.)


Some unrelated notes, while I'm here:


I discovered a couple of days ago that the spam-fighting features of this blog were wound a bit too tightly, and perfectly legitimate comments were getting treated as junk. If you got a message that your comment was being held for moderation, but you never saw it appear even days later, please accept my apologies! All such comments have been promoted to their rightful, visible status now, and I've tweaked the blog's spam-fighting settings to act a bit more lenient. Please let me know if you sense anything fishy going on in the future.

In happier news, I'm pleased to announce that production has begun on our first couple of new episodes for 2008. These shows will be different from those that came before, in several ways. We're trying new things with the format, and we're also shooting footage for more than one episode at once, which I will later edit into separate half-hour shows; this is my attempt to complete more than two shows per year. It's gonna be the best year yet for The Gameshelf, and we're happy to have you watching!

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Martian 12s wins the winter IGDC

Congratulations to Avri Klemer for Martian 12s, the winner of the Winter 2008 Icehouse Game Design Competition. It is a gambling game for two to five players, and like all the entries in this materials-restricted competition, it requires two (and only two) Treehouse sets to play.

A round of applause from The Gameshelf for all twelve eight games entered into the contest! All are listed on the competition page, with links to each game's rules.

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Episode #3 - Wargames

View or download a high-quality version.

Jmac and guest host Joe Johnston take a look at some fairly recent wargames.

  • Memoir '44, an accessible yet rich modular game of tactical engagements between Allied and German forces in World War II.

  • Gnostica, an abstract wargame played on a shifting deck of Tarot cards. Players use colorful Icehouse pieces to represent their forces.

    The players on the show use my copy of the Aquarian Tarot, which, with its pretty but low-key imagery, is my favorite deck for gaming. I marked up this deck with Gnostica stickers [pdf link], which helps tremendously in remembering all the cards' powers and point values in this game.

  • Warsong, a very deep, story-driven wargame released for the Sega Genesis video game system in 1991. I spent much of the summer of 1993 playing this, and now you too can while away the hours on your computer through a Sega Genesis emulator. Finding the ROM is an exercise left to the viewer cough cough.

I did not like this episode as much as a the previous one, mainly because our regular director, Joe Constantine, had to miss the game shoot. (We currently split the show's footage collection over two shoots: one for games, another for the host segments.) Lee Stewart, who usally does camera, did an admirable job filling it as director for that shoot, and I took over camera duties. My camerawork was rather mediocre, though -- check out the vertigo-inducing focal plane misplacement in some of the Memoir '44 shots -- and I didn't get to play any games!

I need to position the cue cards closer to the camera -- that's why I keep looking to the side -- and have a better idea of what I'm going to say. Until then it's the Umm uhh uhhhhm show, at least during my monologues.

Other than all these technical complaints, I think that the episode content is pretty good. And hey, we used the green screen correctly for the first time (for that intro bit with me yelling at the camera). Looking forward to having more fun with that later.

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