The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Game Systems - Part 3

Ron Hale-Evans

June, 2002

Board Game Systems

A game system is a set of components that function together in multiple games. Previous articles in this series have introduced the concept and gone on to survey card game systems. This article focuses on board game systems.

It can be hard to separate games that are board game systems from games that are not. On one hand, a board-less game system such as Icehouse can become a board game system with the simple addition of a chessboard. On the other hand, many board game systems, such as New Games in Old Rome (below) incorporate components with enough power and flexibility to be game systems in their own right, such as decks of cards.

For this reason, and because of the enormous variety of board game systems currently available, a comprehensive survey of board game systems would be the length of a book. Hence, I will limit this article to a selection of board game systems that I find most interesting. If I have neglected one that you consider important, I welcome your feedback.

After revisiting some game systems from Part 1, we will discuss public domain board game systems and proprietary variants, then move on to commercial board game systems, including Sly, Realm, New Games in Old Rome, four systems from Kadon Enterprises, and finally GRYB. Note: Unless otherwise stated, the rules and artwork of the game systems listed below are copyrighted, but the actual game systems are not patented.

Orion and the piecepack

Two game systems from my first article in this series qualify as board game systems without reserve: Orion and the piecepack.

piecepack

Not much has happened with Orion lately, or indeed since the early 1970s, but the piecepack world is in ferment. Tim Schutz of tjgames.com has released a piecepack expansion set called piecepack pyramids. Derek Hohls, of the excellent Board Gamesbook site, has released a new specification for a piecepack with a fifth suit and additional types of component, called a piecepackplus. While Hohls's revisions are unlikely to gain much support because he changes the piecepack suit symbols, it is rumoured that Mesomorph Games, currently the only commercial manufacturer of the piecepack, will soon release fifth and sixth suits for people who already own four-suited Mesomorph piecepacks. Finally, there was a piecepack game design competition in March 2002, sponsored by James Kyle Droscha, the piecepack's designer. My wife Marty Hale-Evans and I won this contest with our game KidSprout Jumboree, and are sponsoring a second contest, in which the object is to combine another game system with the piecepack. (As of June 1, 2002, there are still about three weeks left in which to enter.)

Although Orion regrettably seems to be a moribund game system, the piecepack is very much a living one. If you have read the article this far, it would probably repay you to look the piecepack over, if you haven't already.

Free Systems and Commercial Variants

In this section we will discuss both board game systems in the public domain, such as 8x8 chessboards, and commercial game systems based on them. Strictly speaking, an 8x8 game board, such as a chessboard, is not a game system by the stated definition, since it is only one component. However, add a handful of pieces from Chess, Checkers, or Reversi (a.k.a. Othello), and you have a very flexible -- and popular -- system indeed. Even better, it's in the public domain.

In 2001, About.com, Abstract Games magazine, and the Strategy Gaming Society co-sponsored an 8x8 game design competition. The results were very interesting. I keep an "8x8" section in my binder of game system rules, along with piecepack and Icehouse sections; I hope that as the concept of game systems becomes better known, more people will maintain personal rulebooks for their favourite systems.

Now let's look at a very strange 8x8 board and a non-8x8 board that can be used to play 8x8 games.

The Noble Celts Board

8x8 boards are easy to make or find, of course; you can probably buy a cardboard checkers set from your local thrift store for about a dollar. One rare bird of a board, however, is Noble Celts from Dream Green, the folks behind the G8 Game Timer reviewed in The Games Journal a few months ago and the card game systems 1-2-3 OY! and A-B-C OY!.

Noble Celts is a high-quality 8x8 board printed on heavy, durable cloth, with black and white spaces marked for Chess -- but it's a board with a literal twist. The geometry of the Noble Celts board has undergone an Escheresque topological transformation. First, the square board was made circular, as in Byzantine chess, then the board was redrawn so as to make the connections between the spaces even more obscure.

You can in theory play any 8x8 game on Noble Celts -- Chess, Checkers, Reversi, the games from the 8x8 competition -- but theory and practice may diverge. I tried playing Reversi on the board, but after laboriously puzzling out that the four central Reversi start squares are off-center and halfway to the periphery in Noble Celts, my brain melted like a Dali watch (in a good way). If you are a gamer and a geometer, however, as some in my gaming group are, you might enjoy wrapping your mind around this board. I'm certainly going to give it another try, but I'll keep the ibuprofen handy. In a good way.

The HexGames Board

The HexGames board from tjgames.com is not an 8x8 board, but a hexagonal board on which you can play many 8x8 games with minor modifications. For example, it comes with rules for hexagonal Checkers and Reversi. Unfortunately, you cannot play the most popular hexagonal chess variant, Glinski's Hexagonal Chess on the HexGames board, but there are probably other variants that can be played on it.

Hexagonal variants of 8x8 games are not new, but boards for them can be hard to find. The HexGames board is attractive and inexpensive. It is printed on a large sheet of cardstock, which you can mount or laminate as you like it.

Chess Variants

Since Chess variants are so multifarious, I am leaving them for a future article of their own.

Go Set

A Go set can be used to play many other games. Since a Go board bears a grid of 19x19 lines (and therefore 18x18 squares), you can use it to play many games that will not fit on an 8x8 board, such as Robert Abbott's game Epaminondas, which requires a 14x12 board. (You may find it helpful to use masking tape to delineate the board area you are going to use.)

Joćo Pedro Neto's Games of Soldiers web page contains a long list of games that can be played with a Go board and game pieces undifferentiated by type, such as Go stones. Some of the games mentioned are Epaminondas, Phutball, or Philosopher's Football, which was designed by noted mathematician John Conway to use a 19x15 subset of a Go board; Olix, by Reiner Knizia; and Renju, a highly-developed form of the five-in-a-row game called Go-moku, as well as the origin of the popular commercial game Pente. (Note that not all links above are from Neto's website.)

Go sets are, of course, in the public domain.

Backgammon Set

Many people don't realize that a Backgammon set can be used to play a variety of games. David Parlett's book The Oxford History of Board Games (1999) lists about 25 games that can be played with a Backgammon board and pieces. Most of them, such as Buff de Baldriac, are merely historical or national variants that differ from standard Backgammon in only a few particulars, such as the direction the pieces move on the board, but some of them, such as Chase the Girls, differ enough to be considered separate games.

Backgammon sets, like Go sets, are in the public domain.

Sly & Realm

Sly and Realm are two out-of-print game systems with similar components. Rumour has it that Sly was developed to use leftover plastic molds and components from Realm. I don't know how true this is, as the Realm components I have seen in photos look fairly different from the Sly sets I own, but functionally the components are identical, although different in number. If you have rules for both Sly and Realm, they can be treated as a single game system, but I will discuss them separately because they were designed by different authors and are usually encountered apart.

Sly

Sly board and
        pieces.Sly is a 1975 game system by Sid Sackson that was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 1979 under the name Blockade. It is a pre-piecepack attempt to do for board games what the standard deck of cards does for card games. The Sly set comes with a specially-marked 12x12 board (it is divided into 16 3x3 "fields", and the center space of each field is marked with a circle). The playing pieces include, in each of four colours, one cylindrical piece, four triangular pieces, and six square pieces.

There are six games listed in the Sly rulebook: Solitaire Sly, Sniggle, Line Up, Blockade, Empire, and Gateway. Solitaire Sly is a one-player puzzle reminiscent of many "jumping peg" solitaires. Sniggle is a two-dimensional race game for 2-4 players. Line Up is a two-player four-in-a-row game with a highly unusual turn order. Blockade, after which the German edition of Sly was re-titled, is a bit like Ricochet Robot; players try to set up their six squares ("guards") in such a way that their cylinders ("kings") can ricochet off them and escape. Empire is a sort of Chess variant for up to four players. Gateway, which has a thin science fiction theme, is largely about tempo -- how many turns does it take for you to enter a piece through the gateways onto the board, compared to your opponent?

Although some of the games above may sound like tired rearrangements of traditional games, and while they may not be on the same level as some of Sackson's masterpieces, most incorporate fresh mechanics that reveal the hand of a master. As with many Sackson games, the rules sound dry, but the depths of the games are not revealed until they are played. Perhaps this is one reason why Sly is so vastly underrated, at least in the United States. It is a good game system to start with (the flexibility of the components is high), and the games in the rulebook only make the system better. My wife says that for her, the replay value of Sly and its associated games is greater even than that of the piecepack, which is high praise from her.

Realm

Realm is a game system designed by Phil Orbanes, the author of that gamer favourite, Cartel (a.k.a. Dallas). Like Cartel, Realm was originally published by Prince Joli Kansil's company Gamut of Games in the 1970s. It was later reprinted in a limited edition with slightly different rules by Mik-Lev, Inc.. Both editions are somewhat rare, but take heart: since both Sly and Realm use the same board and the same pieces, by combining three or four Sly sets, you'll have enough components to play the games from both Sly and Realm. You'll even have a choice of not two, but four groovy colours reminiscent of American kitchen appliances circa 1975 -- the year Sly was published in the U.S. -- and plenty of spare pieces as well. (Each of the two sides in Realm uses from three to four cylindrical pieces, from eight to nine triangular pieces, and from 12 to 14 square pieces, depending on the edition. As described above, Sly contains, in each of four colours, one cylinder, four triangles, and six squares.)

This option is probably more economical than purchasing a Realm set on eBay; final bids for Realm tend to be pretty high, but in my experience, Sly sets come up for auction about once a week at reasonable prices. The only problem you may encounter is finding rulebooks for Realm -- but ask around.

The games of the Realm system (Realm, Classic Realm, Medieval Realm, Oriental Realm, and Modern Realm), are more similar to one another than the games of Sly are. Still, a perusal of the rules is enough to show that they qualify as separate games rather than variants. The object of Classic Realm is to immobilize your opponent's pieces; Medieval Realm is a race game; Oriental Realm has the Go-like object of encircling an opponent's piece; and Modern Realm is a displacement game with an espionage theme in which the object is to establish bases on the eight circled squares on the opponent's half of the board.

The base game, Realm, is the deepest of the five. It is too complex to summarize here, but it contains numerous kinds of movement and attack by the three types of piece, and would probably repay study. Fortunately, Abstract Games magazine has recently published an article that details the rules for Realm proper. (The article is by William L. Mikulas, the "Mik" of "Mik-Lev".)

New Games in Old Rome

New Games in Old Rome componentsNeue Spiele im Alten Rom (New Games in Old Rome) is a game system by Reiner Knizia published by Piatnik in 1994, with a separate, commercially-released English rulebook published by Reaching Moon Megacorp in 1996. It is less abstract than most other game systems, since it has as its overall theme the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. (Of course, as with many early Knizia games, the theme is pretty thin in places, if not actually threadbare.) The games fall into seven periods, with two games per period: The Founding of Rome (The Wheel of History, The Seven Hills of Rome); The Republic of Rome (Consul, Senator); The Ascent of Rome (Hannibal versus Rome, Proconsul); The Roman Revolution (Caesar, Spartacus); Rhetoric and Law (Tribunal, The Catiline Conspiracy); The Roman Emperors (Imperium, The Praetorians); and finally, Bread and Circuses (Mercator, Circus Maximus).

These games run the gamut from wargames (Hannibal versus Rome) to race games (Circus Maximus) to games of pure deduction (The Catiline Conspiracy). Some of them were later reworked, re-themed, and republished (for example, Mercator was later published as Medici). There are several, however, that have never been republished by Knizia to the best of my knowledge; of these, I have especially enjoyed Senator and Tribunal.

In Senator, players vie to push and shove members of their family (cards with values from 1 to 10) onto the Senate floor. Only cards that remain inside the Senate building at the end of the game count towards your total, and the highest total wins. Gamers who have played Ravensburger's Amazing Labyrinth game or its successors will be somewhat familiar with the jostling mechanic in this game. A Senator game takes only 10 to 15 minutes, a quick shot of fun.

Tribunal is a negotiation game that simulates the Roman court system. People who enjoy Witch Trial from Cheapass Games may also enjoy this game, although it is somewhat more complex and certainly less frivolous. The rulebook warns, "It is one of the more complicated games in the book and requires some gaming experience", but the game moves surprisingly fast, and, like Senator, the let's-play-it-again factor is high.

Because all but one of the eight different game boards in New Games in Old Rome are used only once (Mercator uses the board from The Praetorians), some players in my game group have argued that New Games in Old Rome is less a game system than a game anthology. However, there are several good reasons for classifying New Games in Old Rome as a game system:

  1. The deck of cards that comes with New Games in Old Rome is, like a standard deck, flexible enough to be a game system itself. For example, The Wheel of History (on which Tutanchamun was based) is played with only the cards and a single pawn. The Seven Hills of Rome is played with cards only, as are Consul and The Cataline Conspiracy. If a subset of New Games in Old Rome (the cards) meets the definition of "game system", how can adding more components (thoughtfully integrated pawns, counters, money chips, and game boards) detract from that status?
  2. Many components are reused in novel ways. For example, in the game Senator, the cards function as pawns. In The Wheel of History, the cards function as the game board, and in Tribunal, they specify your degree of interest in the defendant. Similarly, in Tribunal, pawns represent defendants, and counters represent "guilty" or "innocent" votes by the players while in the wargame Hannibal Versus Rome, pawns stand for fleets and counters stand for legions. Thus, many of the components of New Games in Old Rome are almost as flexible as piecepack components.
  3. New Games in Old Rome is a "living" game. Derek Hohls, the fellow who runs the Board Gamesbook site and developed the piecepackplus, designed a set of six new games called New New Games In Old Rome (emphasis mine) that uses components from New Games in Old Rome. Although he designed some new game boards, his game Tribunes can be played with the Imperium board. The flexibility of Knizia's design is highlighted by Hohls's game Goggle Box, which has nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Rome -- the theme is acquiring control of television broadcasting resources! Most telling is that Hohls consciously thinks of New Games in Old Rome as a game system; in his introduction to the piecepackplus, he writes, "Prior to finding piecepack, I had come across a similar idea in Reiner Knizia's New Games in Old Rome, where he uses a common set of gaming pieces in a variety of ways."

These are my reasons for including New Games in Old Rome in this survey of board game systems. Your mileage may vary, as may your kilometerage if you live in Germany.

If you're having trouble finding New Games in Old Rome, drop me a line; I have a lead on several brand-new boxed sets and English rulebooks, but there are some caveats. (I do not stand to gain from giving out this information; I would just like to see more people experience the game system.)

Kadon Enterprises: Every Game a Game System

Kadon Enterprises is a unique game manufacturer. I am devoting an entire section to them because they might almost be called "the board game system company". Virtually every board game they make is actually a board game system in disguise.

The production quality of Kadon's games varies, but in most cases it is extremely high -- their boards are often made of hand-crafted, finished hardwood, and the other components are equally attractive. Kadon's prices reflect the quality of the bits; a typical Kadon game costs about $50, and some cost much more. They have made available some "cheapo" editions with vinyl boards of some of their more expensive games, but even these cost about as much as a typical German-style game from Rio Grande.

I can't afford to write a comprehensive survey of Kadon's games, but now that I own two of their flagship games (Quintillions and Colormaze/Flying Colors), one of their more unusual games (Lemma), and one of their backlist games (Void), I feel I can attempt to do them justice.

Kadon is a company with high ideals, even if the ideals are somewhat self-contradictory. For example, the Flying Colors rulebook states that the author, Stephan Sniderman, hopes his games will help people become "more humane, more thoughtful, less violent, less greedy" (emphasis mine). To that end, I challenge him to upload his rules to the Web in such a way that they are not only free as in free beer (gratis) but free as in free speech (libre), for example, by placing them under the GNU Free Documentation License. As will become apparent, doing so would be a service to the gaming community, and, if Sniderman is correct, to the whole world. (To those who would claim that I myself am being greedy, I can only say I forked over the 50 dead presidents for my own copyrighted copy. I'd just like to see Kadon live its ideals.)

Quintillions

Quintillions, by Kate Jones, is a game system based on the geometric shapes called pentominoes. It has been in the Games 100 eight separate times, and made the 1995 Games Golden Oldies list. It is Kadon's biggest seller, and was the game that launched the company. The story goes that Kate had read Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel Imperial Earth, in which pentominoes play a role, and was inspired by the variety of things you could do with those 12 little shapes. (Clarke himself is, if not obsessed with pentominoes, at least terribly fond of them. In the film 2001, which was co-authored by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, the scene in which the astronauts are playing Chess with HAL replaced a scene in which they played a pentomino game. Kubrick decided pentominoes were too abstruse for the average filmgoer -- as if the stargate sequence at the end of the movie wasn't.)

I dithered about buying Quintillions for years because of its $50 price tag (there were always two or three games from other manufacturers I wanted more). However, as my interest in game systems grew, I began to see that Quintillions was indeed an important system. I still haven't budgeted for the $85 Quintillions expansion set called Super Quintillions, containing 18 non-flat pentacubes, or the combination Quintillions/Super Quintillions set called Super Deluxe Quintillions that costs $175 and comes in a hardwood box.

Pentominoes from QuintillionsWhat do you get for your $50 when you buy Quintillions? Well, basically a rulebook, a vinyl game board and a set of pentominoes. But what pentominoes! They are made of laser-cut maple, and instead of being flat, each of the five monominoes in a given pentomino is a cube. (Thus, the Quintillions pentominoes, or "quints", are technically "pentacubes".) This makes possible some nifty three-dimensional games and puzzles that you just can't play with the flat plastic set you bought at your local teacher's supply store.

Kadon claims that the rule book for Quintillions is the most complete collection of solid pentomino games and puzzles ever published. It contains five competitive games you can play with the set (Quintillions, Quintominoes, Squint, Blockout, and Quint-Mate), and over 70 solitaire puzzles.

In Quintillions, the base game, each player receives a hand of quints and tries to maximize the surface area contacted by each quint she plays as it touches another quint. There is a second, rearrangement phase to the game, with the same object. In the third and final phase, players try to maximize the surface area they are exposing as they remove quints. This game can be played with all pieces flat on the table, or in three dimensions. The game Quintominoes is similar to Quintillions, but with the extra rule that every new quint placed must touch the last quint placed.

Squint is similar to an early pentomino game called Quin, or simply Golomb's Game (after its inventor). In Golomb's Game, players take turns placing pentominoes on an 8x8 board in an attempt to be the last to place a piece. Squint, however, is played on the 9x12 board that comes with the system, with the extra rule that every new quint placed must touch a corner (but not a face) of a previously-played quint. Players who prefer the simplicity of Golomb's Game need only avail themselves of their handy roll of masking tape. Similarly, the game Blockout might be thought of as a three-dimensional version of Golomb's Game.

Finally, in Quint-Mate, each player vies to be the first to "mate" the X-shaped quint with the U-shaped quint, while negotiating an obstacle course made of the other 10 quints on the 9x12 board.

Flying Colors & Colormaze

Flying Colors is a game system built on top of another, more limited game system, Colormaze. It made the 2002 Games 100, and worthy it is. Besides being a game system, Flying Colors is a "game construction kit" tour de force. Like GRYB (below), it does not provide so much a complete set of games as a few basic games, plus a large number of mutators for them.

Mutators, which can be defined as "ways to vary a game", are explored extensively in a paper by Joćo Pedro Neto. (Compare David Parlett's idea of "ludemes", from The Oxford History of Board Games.) The Flying Colors rulebook calls mutators "Meta-Games", but this is so vague a term (I recently counted four meanings in common use; I guess this is a fifth) that I'll stick with the term "mutators".

For example, Flying Colors contains a two-player game called Quadrants, played on a 6x6 grid of colored tiles; the basic rule is as follows (there is an additional rule, but it's irrelevant to this example):

"Odd [that is, the first player --RWHE] wins if three-in-a-row of White or Black pieces appears in both the upper left and lower right 3x3 quadrant of the board before three-in-a-row appears in both the other two quadrants. Otherwise, Even [the second player] wins."

The Paranoia mutator turns Quadrants (or any other two-player game in the first four chapters of the rulebook) into a new and different three-player game, Paranoia Quadrants. Four aces from a standard deck of cards are taken. Three are dealt to the players, and one is discarded. Each of the three players places a stone on the board in turn. Any player with a red Ace wins if the "virtual player" Odd wins, and any player with a black Ace wins if Even wins. The twist is that any player may accuse the other two of being on the opposing side. If the accuser is correct, she plays the rest of the game alone, and all three players win or lose as usual. If the accuser is wrong, she loses, and the other two players finish the game, winning or losing as usual. The Paranoia mutator alone would add flavour to many two-player games such as Chess or Go (while enabling them to be played by three), but this is only one of many mutators in the rulebook.

Some Flying Colors mutators turn puzzles into games. For example, the Saboteur mutator turns a solitaire puzzle into a three-player game. Three Aces are dealt out again (two red and one black this time). The Red players attempt to solve the puzzle, while the Black player attempts to thwart them. Any player may accuse another of being the Saboteur; if the third player agrees, the convicted player may not take another turn until a different player is convicted, although he may make or support an accusation.

I have barely begun to delve into the possibilities presented by Flying Colors. I would be interested in hearing from people who have.

Lemma

Lemma is an interesting game system, again by Kate Jones. It comes with a vinyl board, numerous transparent acrylic disks of various colours, and a rulebook. The object of the primary game, which is also called Lemma, is to be the last person to take a turn. On each turn, a player adds a rule to the game and makes a move on the board that illustrates the rule. No new rule can contradict an earlier rule. The general idea is to constrain the field of action further with each new rule, so that eventually it is not possible to take a turn. The last player who can take a turn is the winner.

I have played a few games of Lemma. The most extended one was with my game group Seattle Cosmic. Although most people in the group who played it disliked the game, Kate has partially convinced me that the fault lay as much with the players and their mood at that game night as with the game. Nevertheless, in my opinion the basic ruleset of Lemma is not as robust as the initial ruleset of Peter Suber's notorious rule-changing game, Nomic. This should not be surprising, as Suber is a scholar of constitutional law.

A number of puzzles (polyominoes again!) and traditional competitive games can be played with the Lemma set as well. (You can play Hounds and Hares with it, and it makes a fine Alquerque board.) There are also rules for a couple of original games.

Void

I think of Void, by Michael Waitsman, as one of Kadon's more run-of-the-mill game systems (pace Kate; perhaps I should say it is "less extraordinary"). The set comes with a 4x4 board, plus 16 checker-like pieces in two colours. Each colour contains four pieces with one arrow ('>') and four pieces with two arrows ('>>'). The rulebook contains five abstract strategy games (the eponymous Void; Avoid; Row-of-Four; Null & Void; and Tic-Tac-Void), plus, as usual for Kadon, a number of solitaire puzzles (you may have noticed by now that their website is not www.kadon.com, but www.gamepuzzles.com).

The object of Void proper is to be the last player to place a piece on the board. The first player places a piece pointing in any direction, orthogonal or diagonal. Double-arrow pieces point two spaces away in the given direction, while single-arrow pieces point only one space away. On further moves, each new piece must be placed on the space to which the last piece is pointing, and must itself point to an empty space, or "void".

The Void board is small, and it fills up quickly. Strategy is not very deep in my opinion, because of the small board size, the small number of piece types, and the small number of possible moves on a turn. The only strategy hint offered in the rule book is that players should try to keep a reserve of both types of piece (single- and double-arrow), and to force their opponents to use up all of one type. In Void's favour, however, because the board is so tight, players have little room to "maneuver" and recover from a mistake; every move counts. Games typically last 10 to 15 minutes, so Void is a good game to play with kids or non-gamer friends, to introduce them to strategic thought.

Another game of interest in the rulebook is Avoid. Its rules are similar to Void, but instead of placing a piece where the last piece pointed, players must place their pieces on spaces that are not pointed to by any other piece. Avoid's board closes up faster than Void's does, and is probably less deep for that reason.

Row-of-Four is a venerable Tic-Tac-Toe variant, while the ironically-named Tic-Tac-Void appears to offer more opportunity for strategic thought than the former. Null & Void also looks interesting, but I have not yet played it.

GRYB

GRYB boardJDB Games's game system GRYB, like Flying Colors, is a "game construction kit". It is played on a cloth bandanna printed with an unusual geometric design called a "quaternary tree". The board is fractal, such that each "level" of the board is similar to the levels above and below it. Each level is composed of one or more "quadrangles" with a Green, Red, Yellow, and Blue node at each corner. A position with one of your own tokens on each colour of a quadrangle is called a GRYB, and getting one is the basic object of the game.

While the GRYB rulebook does not contain quite as rich and widely-applicable a set of game mutators as Flying Colors, it does contain a few pages of them, and the designer, J. David Barnhart, seems to be updating the rules regularly with suggestions from the Internet. You'll want to play GRYB with the advanced mutators (called "parameters" in the rules), because the "Quick & Easy" game on the back of the rulebook is nothing to write home (or The Games Journal) about. But then, the game Quadrants from Flying Colors is little more than dandified Tic Tac Toe. It's the combination and recombination of the elements in GRYB -- and Flying Colors -- that make these game systems so exciting.

There are levels, if you'll excuse the expression, that we haven't plumbed yet in our explorations of this game system. For example, it's possible to form multilevel GRYBs. That concept gives me as much of a headache as the Noble Celts board -- which is a good thing, except that even in my large game group, with people of many tastes and skills, it's still hard to find players who will push past their own headaches and explore with me.

GRYB's novel board suggests many possibilities beyond those in the rulebook. On the Yahoo! Groups abstractgames list, it was suggested you could play a Go variant on a GRYB board. Chess variants also spring to mind.

If GRYB has one flaw, it's that it's hard to see the forest of the board for the trees of the individual quadrangles, so that battles, at least by newbies, tend to be fought in a comparatively small area. GRYB lacks clarity, in Robert Abbott's sense. However, I have never agreed entirely that a lack of clarity is always a bad thing in a game. The game Void, above, may suffer from too much clarity, and surely Tic-Tac-Toe does.

The GRYB rulebook is available gratis online, but seems to be encrypted so that it cannot be printed.

Endgame

In other game system news, since Part 2 of this series, in which I praised Looney Labs for making Icehouse free, they have patented it. Patent US 6,352,262, which Andy Looney had been referring to as a patent on his game IceTowers, is actually a patent on the entire Icehouse game system. He recently posted an article in which he defended his decision to seek this patent.

Card game system aficionados will want to check out Dvorak, which I egregiously omitted from my card game systems article. Dvorak players start with a blank deck, and design their games as they go. It's also possible to play with other designers' finished Dvorak decks. There's one deck in particular that is close to my heart.

And finally, a warning: if you have a large game collection but not enough time to devote to it, don't collect game systems! They cost as much as regular games on average, but they multiply your purchase manyfold, since each one you buy contains many games. You may find yourself, as I do, forever trying to catch up with the great games in the game systems you own, and tormented by the knowledge that however many you play, there's a new game system in your future with a dozen more.

Also in your future: articles on dice, word, and minimalist game systems; game systems and intellectual "property" issues; and Game Systems That Were Never Meant to Be

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Greg Aleknevicus and Frank Branham of The Games Journal for continuing to publish this series. Sincere thanks to my game group Seattle Cosmic, in particular Karl Erickson, Mark Haggerty, Jay Lorch, Chad McDaniel, Tim Schutz, JT Thomas, and Eric Yarnell, for helping me playtest these board game systems. Thanks also to Peter Schultz for keeping the Cosmic flame going while I was busy. And my deepest thanks go to my wife, editor, and partner in game design Marty Hale-Evans, who has always seen the whole of the moon.

- Ron Hale-Evans

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