The Not-So-Pleasing Pyramids
There aren’t many publishers that beat Oink Games for cramming so much utter delightfulness into a box the size of a tuna tin. Even a couple years after their first appearance, both Deep Sea Adventure and A Fake Artist Goes to New York make the occasional appearance at our table. These waters may not run fast, or even all that deep, but they certainly are steady. Like the Nile, perhaps.
Speaking of the Nile, The Pyramid’s Deadline sees designer Jun Sasaki back in fine form. Here, up to six players are the harried architects of an ailing pharaoh, desperate to finish their man-god’s tomb before his last phlegmatic gasp. Like an edifice of sandstone, it’s a sturdy sort of game. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels about as polished as sandstone too.
Last time I checked, there was still some uncertainty over the exact manner of a pyramid’s construction. Which only goes to show that archaeologists struggle to suss out even the most straightforward of solutions.
The way it went down, see, is that each week the ancient architects would toss a handful of dice to determine which bits of stone were available. There were your usual triangular wedges, your chunky trapezoids, and your bigger-than-average triangles of the genus isosceles. Most dreaded was the square, for it portended the pharaoh’s failing health. Too many squares and the poor guy would expire. Also, all but the best architect would be executed, but I’m sure none of them were thinking about that when they went round-robin to pick their dice. Probably.
Anyway, it was a simple enough process. Everyone chose their blocks, piled them high, and as soon as the pharaoh’s ka had fled his body, all those pyramids were subject to judgement. Mystery solved.
It’s the rules that give The Pyramid’s Deadline its roughness. Some of Jun Sasaki’s previous games were masterclasses in mechanical understatement, mere paragraphs that might fit snugly on a notecard while still permitting players to operate flexibly within the boundaries of those oh-so-compact rules. By contrast, The Pyramid’s Deadline occasionally slips into knottier territory. Take the strictures on how to build your pyramid. Flat sides are forbidden at the top but permitted along the sides — though only if they’re never longer than one space. Lines may be laid up-and-down or left-to-right, but never diagonally. Corners may not touch on their own. No dangling blocks allowed. Your pyramid may be as long or as high as you desire, and might not even look like much of a pyramid at all. Its score will be the sum of its length by height, minus its number of capstones.
Invariably, the first few tries at The Pyramid’s Deadline are spent parsing the rules of construction. Which is fine — just as it’s a press-your-luck game, this is a building puzzle. A race to erect the best structure against a changeable but inevitable conclusion. It shouldn’t be too easy to solve.
All the same, it might have been a little simpler to grasp, especially for such a light game. Instead, it takes a while to understand, and a while longer yet to reach a point of competence where you’re competing rather than floundering. Some of that has to do with the rule sheet’s layout and translation, but not all.
That said, the things I love about The Pyramid’s Deadline are almost enough to forgive its sharper corners. First and foremost, I’m always pleased when a game’s setting intersects with its core mechanisms, and that’s the case here. Winning pyramids rarely look like the polished wonders of Giza, instead settling into the hunched-over and angular forms of the Dahshur Pyramids, like distant and unattractive mountain ranges. Which is entirely fitting, because this isn’t a game about building the prettiest pyramid, but the largest, most functional, and most on time pyramid. Dead pharaohs can’t be choosy pharaohs.
Better yet, every round opens with a pregnant pause as everyone scans the dice to determine how much closer the pharaoh has inched to death. How many more rounds do you figure? Should you begin adding a new layer to your pyramid, or do you run the risk of getting caught — gasp! — flat-roofed?
It’s even possible to bully the game over the edge by willingly picking those square tokens, the in-game equivalent of your architect smothering the pharaoh with his own pillow because you’re certain your pyramid is already as good as it will get. The last guy to take one of those squares will even get pinned with the pharaoh’s death and executed regardless of his pyramid’s quality.
Once everyone understands what’s going on, The Pyramid’s Deadline grows tense. Each claimed block, each royal gurgle, and each new appendage to your sprawling pyramid spells opportunity or disaster. It’s the sort of game that might be over in ten minutes or forty, depending on how aggressive everyone is being and the efficacy of the pharaoh’s surgeons. Either way, it rarely outstays its welcome. It may lack the purity of some of Jun Sasaki’s other games, including some measure of their “one more time!” appeal. All the same, it’s a worthy addition to his body of work, a filler that’s perfect in short bursts — even if it’s sometimes muddy.
Like the Nile.