Looney Pyramids, Part One: Nomids
My curiosity for Andrew Looney’s pyramid system began with the discovery of Pyramid Arcade on the shelf of a local game store. Twenty-two individual titles, all crammed together like the stacked pyramids that have been the system’s hallmark for a quarter century. The set was so overpriced that it sat there for three years, unpurchased by me or anyone else. According to the owner, somebody eventually stole it. I’ve pined over might-have-beens ever since.
But time heals all wounds. To make the system easier to break into, Looney recently issued four sets of his famed pyramids, ranked in order of ascending complexity. Today we’re looking at the introductory box. And let’s just say, as far as relationships go, this one’s off to a rocky start.
2-10 players. Tagline: UNO with pyramids.
As the headline entry of this introductory set, Nomids is already under the microscope. Or maybe it’s just the one with the catchiest title. Either way, it’s a dice game. Hmm. Is that the appropriate way of putting it if there’s only one die? Die game. That sounds too hostile. Let’s go with “game of chance.” That gives it an elegant edge.
Or perhaps a dull edge. The game itself is achingly simple. Everyone begins with three pyramids, each of a different size and color. Small red, medium blue, large yellow, straight out of a Dr. Seuss knockoff. Turns are all about rolling the die and taking the prescribed action. Sometimes that means returning a pyramid to the bank. Other times it means taking a pyramid. More interesting is the result that swaps pyramids. Normally this would be zero-sum, but Nomids’ sole twist is the “monochrome liquidation”: gather all three pyramids of a single color and return them all to the bank at once. Since your goal is to rid yourself of anything resembling a triangle, there’s an element of strategy to picking uncontested colors, hunting for sets, and breaking up opposing pairs.
Not that this makes for deep strategy. I’d call it a filler or a family game, but I’m not in the habit of deploying those terms pejoratively, and there are plenty of better ways to while away a spare ten minutes. In particular, it’s disappointing that there’s nothing especially, well, pyramidy about Nomids. The included pamphlet that introduces the system mentions various ways of stacking your pyramids. Nests! Trees! That’s what I’m thirsting for. Yet both are absent from Nomids. Really, it could be played with trios of colorful stones, and nothing would be lost apart from the addictive clacking of those plastic ‘mids. It’s a peculiar flub for a box meant to ease me into a system. All ease, no function.
2-4 players. Tagline: Tic-tac-toe with pyramids.
Fortunately, each entry in the Nomids box is more interesting than the one previous. The next entry, Pharaoh, is all about arranging your three pyramids in a straight line in the middle of a five-by-five grid. Grid not included. But if you have a box of colored pyramids, surely you have a grid lying around somewhere.
There are two additional considerations that prevent this from ending in immediate concession once the first player is determined. First, you earn as many moves as dictated by a roll, although the result is the higher of two six-sided dice and you’re permitted to reroll doubles, so your odds of only rolling a one are highly contingent on you zoning out. Larger pyramids cost more moves, so trundling the big ‘mid into the middle is a hassle compared to the zippy mini-‘mid. Second, larger pyramids crush smaller pyramids. Not that they squat over them, nest-like, but at least there’s some sense that pyramid sizes matter.
In the end, Pharaoh doesn’t quite escape its simplicity. Either somebody rolls well and rushes to the center, or else everybody trades similar rolls and tit-for-tats each other until you’re begging for the first outcome. Neither of these prove more enjoyable than the earthy pleasure of stacking and unstacking plastic pyramids.
5-10 players. Tagline: Rock-Paper-Scissors with pyramids. Also betting.
When I read the description for Pyramid-Sham-Bo, it seemed to me that this entire set had descended into self-parody. Like Pharaoh and Nomids itself, there’s hardly any “pyramid” on display. It’s also built around that same schoolyard ritual you used to settle important group issues, such as “who would win” between two superheroes. There’s a hilarious scene in the underappreciated television program Patriot that features roshambo, but that’s about all I can say for the sport.
But, hey, everything is better with betting, and this is no exception. There are even a few subtleties, such as the rules for making change, payouts for eliminating opponents, and how ties lead to escalating bids. Okay, three subtleties. It’s enough to generate a mild metagame, although it doesn’t manage to elevate the process beyond its origins.
2-9 players. Tagline: Simon Says with pyramids.
And then, like a bolt of lightning illuminating a dark landscape, there is Treehouse. A sign in the heavens. A revelation.
Of course, it’s also the fiddliest of the whole lot. The idea is to precisely mirror a trio of pyramids in the middle. As with Nomids, your actions are dictated by die roll — the same die, in fact — but there’s some latitude in how you choose to resolve an action. Not every action is immediately intuitive. “Dig,” for example, sees a tipped-over pyramid tunneling under other pyramids, but only in the direction it’s facing. It eventually surfaces, either between other ‘mids or perhaps even pushing an unwitting ‘mid up onto its nose, resulting in one of those “trees” I mentioned earlier. Nests are also possible, the result of larger pyramids landing on smaller ones and temporarily sealing them away.
Between the die’s six results, your goal is to finagle your pieces into the proper arrangement. Don’t mistake this for easy. For one thing, each result is both an opportunity and a restriction, as liable to shift your formation away from the desired arrangement as toward it. For another, it’s also possible to change the orientation of the pyramids in the middle, transforming the master trio everybody is attempting to mirror. This doesn’t happen often; it isn’t some triviality. But the possibility is real enough that the entire puzzle can upend itself at the worst possible moment, often to only one person’s benefit.
Smart stuff. It isn’t such a sea change that it redeems the entire set, but at least it shows what the system is capable of accomplishing. Frankly, I wish this had been the headline game of this set. As it stands, it’s referenced in the rulebook rather than being included outright. Still, this is the entry that makes Looney’s pyramid system come into its own as a viable concept, instead of behaving like a repurposing of another game but with plastic pyramids. Here the pyramids are essential. And more importantly, used in a way that opens the imagination to the possibilities.
Next time, Ice Duo.
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Posted on December 14, 2020, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Looney Labs, Nomids, Pharaoh, Pyramid Arcade, Pyramid-Sham-Bo, The Fruits of Kickstarter, Treehouse. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.
its about the cones
I hope you reply with this exact comment on every entry in this series. Sincerely. This is my holiday wish.
I got through 8 games of the Pyramid Arcade box, although I should say I haven’t played Homeworlds, which is the ‘big’ one. I love the presentation but the games felt a little how-about-this to some degree. One exception was Colour Wheel, which was a very simple co-op game – it’s great. The other Looney game I love isn’t actually part of Pyramid Arcade, sadly – Zendo is a really clever deduction game where the weight of the puzzling is decided by the players themselves.
I want to try Zendo. What puzzles me about this set is that it’s pitched as a low-complexity introduction to the pyramids system, yet three of the four games don’t even use the pyramids in a way that’s pyramid-y. Feels like a missed opportunity.
Just play homeworlds, it’s that good. And martian chess, which is weirdly interesting.
The only entry of my pyramids box that I haven’t played is Homeworlds. I absolutely love Martian Chess, though. Spoiler warning.
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