The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Game Systems - Part 1

Ron Hale-Evans

December, 2001

Take an average deck of cards. Please.

That was my attitude toward ordinary playing cards until I became interested in the concept of game systems. A game system, as I define it, is a set of components that function together in multiple games. A standard deck of cards is a game system because it is a set of components (52 of them, 54 with jokers) that function together (a lone Jack of Hearts isn't very useful except to college sophomores as a poetic metaphor) in multiple games (such as Poker, Patience, Pinochle, and the weird concoctions of Parlett and Abbott).

Game systems are open-ended and infinitely variable. By contrast, a "closed" game, such as Carcassonne or The Princes of Florence, has a single set of rules and relies on components that can only be used for that game. Of course, variants to closed games are frequently published on the Web and elsewhere, but a game system is less an individual work than an actual medium; game systems offer the opportunity for endless creativity, rather than just a variant here or there. In a sense, they are gamer folk art.

Over the course of this series, I plan to introduce a number of game systems, what makes each interesting, and some games you can play with them. In this article, Part I, I will be discussing three of my current favorite game systems (the piecepack, Icehouse, and Orion), and the status of each as "intellectual property".

The intellectual property status of a game system is important. If we want gamers to constantly add new games to a game system's repertoire, it is crucial that a single creator or corporate entity does not maintain a monopolistic hold on the system. When a game system is free -- I don't mean costing nothing, but instead free to use, make, modify, extend, and redistribute, like free software -- then the game system will flourish. On the other hand, if a publisher maintains a tight grip on it with patents, copyrights, and lawsuits, then gamer creativity will be smothered, new games will not be created for that game system on a regular basis, and it will vanish into obscurity. Everyone suffers when that happens, even the company that "owns" it. (I hope to discuss game systems and the question of intellectual property in detail in a future article in this series.)

NOTE: Strictly speaking, a bat and ball are a game system, but I am not planning to cover sports in this series because I am writing for a card- and board-gaming audience. I am also not planning to cover role-playing games, which arguably don't have "components" anyway.

The piecepack

At the moment, the piecepack is my favourite game system. It is a new system designed by James Kyle Droscha (creator of the popular game HellRail). The piecepack is meant to be a standard set of components for creating and playing board games, the way a deck of cards serves as a standard set of components for creating and playing card games. It consists of 24 square tiles, 24 "coins", four dice, and four pawns. Like cards, piecepack components are divided into suits: Suns, Moons, Arms, and Crowns. Each suit has a separate emblem and color.

There are six numbered tiles and coins in each suit: 1 (or "ace") through 5, plus 0 or "null". On the obverse side of each tile is its suit and value, and on the reverse is a grid of four squares, which can be used to create boards with movement spaces. Similarly, on the obverse of each coin is its value and a mark to indicate directionality, and on the reverse is its suit and another directional marker. Each of the four dice is numbered from null to 5, in the color of one of the suits, and the four pawns are also in the four suit colors.

There are only a few published piecepack games at present, but they are extremely varied. Baseball is a sports simulation that incorporates a deck of standard playing cards in addition to the piecepack. Snowman Meltdown, which I wrote with my wife Marty, incorporates an Icehouse set (see below), and Wormholes, the first of my uxorial collaborations, is a game of starship tactics. Silver Isle is a game of colonization and silver mining vaguely reminiscent of The Settlers of Catan, and Takeover is reminiscent of Acquire. Reversi (a.k.a. Othello), several kinds of Mancala, and the children's card game War have all been adapted to the piecepack, and there is even a dexterity-based "flicking game" like Crokinole called Soccer. Clearly the piecepack is a highly flexible and adaptable game system.

Does the piecepack seem well integrated, with its tiles, coins, and dice in four suits ranging from null to 5, and its pawns in matching suit colours? It is, and its tight integration hides a few surprises. Consider the following bit of information from Kyle's seminal article on the piecepack in issue 1 of Grampa Barmo's Discount Games Magazine: 3dP (my term; a "dP" is a piecepack die of 0-5, "3dP" being the sum of three piecepack dice) has a range of 0 to 15, the same range as a random subset of a suit of tiles or coins (0+1+2+3+4+5). Kyle also revealed the following arcanum on the piecepack mailing list:

"If you like those little mathematical curiosities, how about this... you've got 4 null tiles and 4 ace tiles in a piecepack, so you could use them to represent a 4-bit binary number (where null=0 and ace=1). And what is the decimal range of a 4-bit binary? That would be 0-15."

So far, I don't know of any piecepack games that use these novel mechanisms, but I have a feeling that the piecepack will be here a long time, so I'm sure some games that use them will surface.

If you want your own piecepack, you can buy a nice wooden set from Mesomorph Games, or you can print and assemble a copy yourself. Best of all, the piecepack specification is completely public domain, so you're free to be creative and modify it as you like.


Icehouse, invented by Andy Looney and John Cooper and manufactured by Looney Labs, is an unusual game. It's not a board game; there is no board. There are no turns, either. You play by placing coloured, pyramid-shaped pieces on a table or other flat surface in "real time", everyone playing at once. Essentially, the game revolves around pointing your pyramids at other players' pyramids to attack them. Play is positional, geometric, and thoroughly analog; the angles and relative distances of the pieces are important. It's a highly strategic game -- the few rules fit on a single page, but the strategy fills a small book.

Aside from its primary game, however, Icehouse is also a game system. You can use an Icehouse set to play many other games. My gaming group has become fond of Zarcana and its successor, Gnostica, both of which are played on an extensible board made of Tarot cards; each card has a special power that dictates how pieces may be played. There are Icehouse chess variants, Icehouse backgammon variants, even an Icehouse railroad game, as well as a very popular inductive logic game called Zendo. Zendo is renowned for selling copies of Icehouse; passersby are unable to resist joining in during Zendo games in public places. At this writing, there are 67 Icehouse games at S.L.I.C.K. (the Sortable List of Icehouse's Cool Kindred). More games are released practically weekly on the Icehouse mailing list, and some of them are listed on a rotating basis at the New Icehouse Games page.

A whole subculture with its own mystique has grown up around Icehouse. The Icehouse phenomenon has a 1960s feel to it, with communalism (the hub of the subculture, Wunderland, is a website on which the Looneys provide web space free of charge for their friends and loved ones), handicrafts (people make and paint their own regulation-sized pieces), notions of "cool" and "uncool" Icehouse play, and offbeat science fiction (Andy Looney wrote a novel called The Empty City about Icehouse). The Londa Tarot is the official deck for use with Icehouse/Tarot games like Zarcana and Gnostica because it features long-haired characters on every card. Chancing across Wunderland is like discovering a pocket of hippies that somehow have managed to fight off the cynicism of the past few decades and stay true to their ideals. This rich subculture is one of the things that makes Icehouse such an appealing game system.

Unfortunately, in a remarkably hard-nosed, un-hippie-like business move, Looney Labs patented Icehouse (U.S. Patent #4,936,585), and it is therefore not free (which is one reason the piecepack has been replacing it in my affections lately). At least, Icehouse was patented, but by most accounts, in a remarkably laid-back, hippie-like business move, Looney Labs neglected to renew the patent. In any case, and I must stress here that I am not a lawyer, I don't believe the actual specification for an Icehouse set (five pieces in each of three sizes and four colors, specific dimensions, etc.) has ever been other than public domain; only the combined use of pyramid-shaped pieces with the peculiar board-less, turn-less rules of Icehouse was ever patented, so you should be able to create (and even sell, if you choose to) your own Icehouse sets without getting into legal trouble.

Whatever the intellectual property status of Icehouse the game system or Icehouse the game, Looney Labs has gone out of its way to encourage the free development of new games for the game system. People will create new games for Icehouse for many years.


Orion is an older game system published by Parker Brothers in 1971. (I have created what is apparently the only Orion home page on the Web; while it doesn't contain much text yet, there are numerous photos of the Orion set.) Orion consists of a plastic board with a five-by-five array of rotors and four different-coloured sets of flat, eye-shaped pieces. Each rotor can contain up to four pieces, and the rotors interlock so that turning one rotor can pass a piece from the moving rotor to an adjacent one. With the right sequence of rotations, you can shuttle a piece across the board or direct the movement of the pieces in other ways.

The set also comes with a die for randomizing certain decisions, and a booklet with a number of games and solitaire puzzles, all named after constellations of stars. For example, in the game called Hydra, players try to connect two sides of the Orion board with an unbroken chain of their pieces. Hydra might be thought of as the Orion analogue of a connection game like Hex. Similarly, Draco is an "unbalanced forces" game like Fox and Geese: one player controls a single piece that represents a dragon, while the other player controls a group of pieces that represent knights. The dragon tries to move from one side of the board to the other, and the knights try to surround and capture the dragon first. These are only analogies, however; Orion's system of interlocking rotors is unlike any other game that I know of.

Orion detailI don't think many copies of Orion were manufactured, although some of my correspondents remember an ad campaign for the system from the early 1970s. Despite its relative obscurity, it has been popular with my gaming group Seattle Cosmic. In a recent poll of the group about which games members want to play, Orion was one of about five games (out of 60) to receive five votes or more (out of seven), and every voter who had played it wanted to play it again.

I initially learned about Orion in issue 3 of the small-press magazine WGR, which you can order from its editor, Michael Keller. The article describes the system and contains several new Orion games, including a chess variant. Soon after I read it in early 2001, I bought my copy of Orion on eBay, for $36.00 plus shipping -- about as much as an average German game from Rio Grande, and less than you might pay for Orion if it were manufactured today. Of course, at that point there was no Orion Home Page, nor articles in The Games Journal to publicize the system.

Orion may or may not be free to make, use, or modify at the moment, but it would be difficult to manufacture a set yourself without a machine shop, and in any case Parker Brothers doesn't seem to care much about it anymore. It's too bad, because Orion is unique among game systems; there's literally nothing else like it. One solution to the problem of wonderful game systems like Orion becoming all but invisible on the gaming scene might be for game manufacturers to release games into the public domain after they have been out of print for a while, as the Abandonware Petition suggests that software publishers do with their titles. More to the point, if big-name game publishers such as Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro, like most other big U.S. game companies) didn't have such a stranglehold on their games, a fine system like Orion might have had more of a chance to blossom in the first place.

Future Articles

Future articles in this series will cover, among other topics, chess variants, Sid Sackson's Sly system and the related game Realm, dice systems, Zoki, Alpha playing cards, Tarot, decks of cards with more than four suits, and, of course, the average deck of cards I mentioned at the start of this article. Please e-mail me if you have a favourite game system you'd like me to cover.


Several of the ideas in this article were suggested by my off-handedly brilliant wife Marty Hale-Evans, who kept me from making an utter fool of myself by acting as developmental editor for this article. Thanks go to her, to The Games Journal for providing a forum for this series, to my games group Seattle Cosmic for letting me foist new game systems on them, and to the creators of the game systems listed above.

- Ron Hale-Evans

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