For over twenty five years Andrew Looney has been quietly and incessantly developing his pyramids. Admittedly it has not taken him quite as long as the Egyptians, and his pyramids are much smaller, but they are both more colourful and significantly easier to play with. Pyramid Arcade represents the culmination of his ideas, a collection of twenty two games, nearly one hundred pyramids, three decks of cards and various other bits and pieces all designed for maximum flexibility and near infinite possibilities. You may well be familiar with these pyramids from games such as Zendo or Icehouse Chess, or you may even have played other games with them in the past. You will almost certainly have played some kind of version of Fluxx (Monty Python, in my case) in the past, which is the other of Andrew’s big-hitting additions to the gaming repertoire.
A box full to the brim with gaming possibilities.
How many games? At least twenty two reasons to be happy!
Pyramid Arcade represents a significant step up as far as these aspirations go, a decisive move from the supply of smaller-scale sets of pyramids into big-box gaming. It weighs in at nearly £70, which is a hefty price tag for a game, even, one might argue, for a game system, but there is no doubt that it has the wow factor when you open the box. Three sets of each of ten colours of pyramid, each set including small, medium and large sizes, greet you when you lift the lid and have removed the hefty book of rules and the stack of different boards the various games require. You will be hard pushed not to think “oh, the possibilities!”, and that rule book is designed to draw the prospective gamer into the pyramidal world, beginning with an outline of the system and an explanation of how it is meant to be approached. The book also points out that pyramids are flexible enough to be used as a scoring system for other games, to allow several different games to be played at once…and so on.
The chunky rule book has a useful index.
Bold and beautiful! Colour me interested!
These pyramids are certainly versatile as they can nestle within each other or stack, be placed upright or laid flat, and be organised by colour or size, and that kind of multifaceted thinking permeates the box. The pack of cards, which is square to allow it to double up as a game board, has five suits rather than four, and many of the game boards are also double-sided. There is a first-person marker (always handy!) a bag and even a sticker for good measure. It is clear that versatility is one of the primary aims of Pyramid Arcade.
Most of what is in the box is good quality, even though the pyramids are lighter than I expected them to be, and fiddly enough to be difficult to manipulate back into a stack and therefore into their slots in the box. They are also very slippery and the smallest size especially is prone to falling off a gaming surface if nudged by an errant elbow. I am yet to end up with a small pyramid-sized indentation in the bottom of my foot (filled by an insert-colour-here pyramid), but I have come close a couple of times.
Can’t decide what to play? Shuffle up and deal a game!
The first thing to sort out with Pyramid Arcade is where precisely to begin exploring, and that is where the index at the back of the rule book comes in especially useful. It provides a handy overview of all twenty two games provided in the box, listing their player counts, components, length and complexity, and players will find stops all the way from solitaire brain-burners to epic ten-player games, and pretty much all points covered in between. Want some dexterity? It’s in here. Want a dice-roller? Look no further. Epic strategy? Step right up. Can’t decide? Shuffle the deck of cards that lists the games and pick one at random. Even if you get bored of the wide selection of mechanisms, themes and genres in this particular box, there are a further twenty two games listed at the end of the book, with rules available for download, that can be played with the components in Pyramid Arcade, although they all require a little or a lot in the way of extra pieces. Or, of course, you could design your own game.
Pick a card, play the game.
It is when the exploration begins that players will start to get a feel of whether Pyramid Arcade is actually right for them. The positives of the box are easy to see. It is a quality product with close to infinite possibilities, and covers so many bases that it is hard to know where to begin. The best games are very fine indeed – Homeworlds, World War 5 and Martian Chess, for example, will stand up to repeated plays and provide a significant challenge – and will offer their players many opportunities for a gaming face off. I must also mention that I have been really charmed by Color Wheel as well (that’s Colour Wheel for most people reading this) which is a solo game of pyramid swapping that I found both engaging and relaxing. It is the kind of thing I would be happy to have as a semi-regular solo play, but I certainly would not want to have to buy the whole box just to experience it. In what is probably a decent indication of the way Pyramid Arcade tries to cover all bases, Color Wheel is also listed in the rules as a cooperative and a timed game, but that is a hard sell – it really is a solo game whichever way you slice it.
Boards aplenty, and there are more besides these.
Jack of all games? Or master of one?
However, the strength of the best games in the box also serves to highlight Pyramid Arcade’s weakness, notably that it is hard to describe around seventeen or eighteen of the games included in the box as great, and some of them are barely even within touching distance of good. Verticality, a dexterity game of stacking cards and pyramids, is as light as a feather and requires only the slightest of breaths (figuratively and literally) for it to lose its shape, while Pharaoh, a dice-driven king-of-the-hill type affair, is an experience that has left everyone I have played it with feeling indifferent at best. Many other games in the box leave the same impression, and I simply cannot shrug off the notion that paying £70 for three or four pretty good games and a whole bunch of average ones is just not great value for most people’s money.
Different types of dice and a five-suited card deck are also included.
The main problem I have with Pyramid Arcade is exactly the problem I have with my little box at home that contains a chess set, draughts, dice, cards and so on – it is a games compendium with vast possibilities, but I never find myself desperate to play what is in there rather than a bespoke piece of game design. I will certainly play those kinds of games when I find myself out and about and there happens to be a chess set or a pack of cards to hand, but when am I ever going to have a box of Pyramid Arcade tucked about my person, just in case? I might take the box to a friend’s house to keep our evening’s gaming in a single place, but if I really want to impress them I am always going to take something else.
Quality or quantity? A costly decision!
For the size and price of Pyramid Arcade I could take at least Rhino Hero, Glen More and Race For The Galaxy to game night with room to spare, cover many of the bases covered in Pyramid Arcade and still have money and space for snacks. Unless you are a particular kind of player, it is also simply more involving to place something that looks like the object it represents, even if it is just a card with a picture on it, rather than a particular pyramid, and that means that even the best games in the box therefore feel curiously themeless and abstract. Having said all this, one significant advantage of the lightness and brevity of many of these games is that they are ideal to teach to and play with children and would provide an ideal entry point to get young ‘uns into what proper cardboard can offer. Even so, Pyramid Arcade would definitely be a rite of passage rather than a destination.
Beautiful, but always abstract.
The thing with Pyramid Arcade is that it may well be some kind of gaming nirvana for designers, but that there are better versions of every game in there. Want a great two-player abstract? Try Yinsh. A quick solo game? How about Hostage Negotiator? Epic and gritty four player? Yay for Tigris (and throw in the ziggurat if you cannot get enough of pyramids!)…and so on. That you could buy probably up to five really great games for the cost of this box really highlights the core problem, that Pyramid Arcade is about possibilities rather than realities, about quantity rather than quality. It is all good stuff, but even with a rather tight game collection by some standards I have never found myself hankering to play Pharaoh or Petal Battle, and am even more aware that what a system needs is the killer app, and you won’t find it here. Pyramid Arcade is a great idea, and some of the games are pretty good, but in the cutthroat gaming world that is within a whisker of damning with faint praise.
Color Wheel is a decent solo option.
Twenty two games? But are they great?
So how to rate this box? It looks and feels great and has most of the components a player will need to create and play a lifetime of games, but for me it all comes down to whether you would rather play one great game twenty two times or twenty two sort of ok-ish games once each. In terms of the possibilities it offers, especially to aspirant designers, this is at least an 8 out of 10, but I need to review this as a game, and it is too expensive (at least in the UK) for what it offers in terms of quality, certainly good but emphatically not great. When I asked my fellow gamers to hazard a guess at how much this box costs they came in at around the £40 mark, but Pyramid Arcade has a recommended retail price of nearly twice that, significantly more even than current darlings Terraforming Mars and Scythe and more than half a Gloomhaven!
If Pyramid Arcade were a car it would be a Fiat Multipla – versatile, practical, admirable and able to accommodate pretty much every eventuality..but dull. If, however, you are fortunate enough to have something like a BMW E30 Baur in your drive, and only use it for a third of the year and never for transporting anything bigger than a box full of board games you’ll likely treasure every moment you spend in that effervescent machine. It is utterly impractical, but for sunny days and country lanes there is little that is better.
Full of possibilities but never at the top of what I want to play.
All the colours of the rainbow? Or just too grey?
So, greyish versatiliy or fine-tuned specificity? You will need to make up your own mind, but if I had £70ish burning a hole in my pocket Pyramid Arcade would sit behind a Madame-Tussauds-on-a-Bank-Holiday length queue of shinier and better games and barely register on my radar unless I was a dyed-in-the-wool games designer, and, having played many of the games in the box, there is nothing here that has convinced me that I would be wrong. It may well be the result of years of development and input, and it certainly has some strengths, but for all aspirations its aim is fixed on a very narrow section of the gaming market and the games in the box, with a couple of exceptions, just do not hold up for the long run. As a result, in good conscience I cannot give Pyramid Arcade more than 6 out of 10 and it is telling that I will be moving it on and reinvesting any money it raises into one or two games we really want to play.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.