Cost: $37 (xyloid), $7 (origami)
From: Icehouse Games, P.O. Box 761, College Park MD, 20740, (301) 441-8596
Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 15+ minutes
Type of game: Abstract strategy
Complexity: 6
Skill level: 9
Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 3.2, Spring 1995

This is a weird game.

I mean that in the literal senseó it's unusual, completely unlike other games. First of all, it's a board game without a board. Second, it doesn't have any turns. And third, its the only game I know marketed in both an origami and a xyloid edition (that means "of or like wood"ó I checked Webster's. Thought I'd save you the trouble.).

Icehouse comes with a lengthy rule book neatly subdivided into quickstart and full-length sections, some handy reference cards, four "stash pads", sixty pyramids divided evenly amongst three sizes and four colors, and a cloth bag to hold them in.

The first thing you have to do is choose your playing surface. Since the game has no board, the playing surface itself becomes the field of battle. Everyone starts with their stash pad in front of them on the table and all fifteen of their pyramids on their stash pad. The game begins when each player has one hand on one of their pieces. Pieces can be played either offensively or defensively. Stand a pyramid on its base and you have a defensive piece. Point one on its side at an opponent's defensive piece and you've got an attack. Each pyramid is worth 1-3 points (the larger the piece, the greater its value). The idea of the game is to "ice" opposing defenders by pointing pieces at them worth a combined total greater than the defender's value. When all stash pads are empty, successful attackers and un-iced defenders earn their value in points.

Confused? You're not alone. Icehouse proved to be a difficult game to teach to people. That's because there are a few more rules to consider. You can't move your pieces once you place them. Attackers must be no farther than one length away from their targets. Attackers can only be pointed at opposing defendersó not other attackers, defenders of the same color, or nothing at all. Because the position of the pieces is so important, bumping them forces the culprit to give away one of his pieces to an opponent.

But wait, there's more. The game is played without turns, so anyone can play at any timeó but only with one hand. You might think this would lead to chaos, but in practice the game tends to start with a flurry of activity and then slow down as players take stock of the situation. You see, I'm not done yet.

If you ever get down to seven or fewer pieces left on your stash pad and all your defending pieces are iced, you can be "put in the icehouse." If an opponent notices your situation, he gets all your pieces and you get 0 points for the round. You also have to beware of over-icing a defender. This occurs if the defender is iced with so many attack pieces that it would stay iced if one of the attackers were removed. If this happens, the defender's owner can remove one such attacker and take it prisoner. You can then play these pieces elsewhere where they won't help their owner.

There are advanced rules involving imaginary walls between defending pieces, and plenty of variations to choose from. In fact, the rule book is quite generous with the options it presents. It also provides clear, illustrated examples of all the important principals, a much-appreciated touch.

A truly unique abstract game, but not one I'm clamoring to play again. I'll quickly admit that I'm sure I'm just missing the boat here. We started out having no idea what we were doing, which is pretty normal when learning a new game. But it never got better. No matter how hard we tried to play strategically, the outcome still seemed rather random. We also couldn't see any reason not to play attackers so that their tips touch the pieces they're attacking, making it impossible for an opponent to block your attack by slipping another piece in the way. The examples in the rules don't seem to expect this, and as a result some of the strategies they outline aren't particularly effective in practice.

Also contrary to what the rules suggest, we found ourselves playing all of our own defenders in a group near our stash pads, resulting in segregated clumps of pyramids and making it impossible to block attackers with attackers of our own. Again, this is probably just an example of our poor playó the solution is obviously to play your defenders near your opponents'.

Icehouse didn't jazz me, but your mileage may certainly vary. The xyloid set is rather attractive, and the origami set is certainly a low-risk investment.

The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (