The Flexible, Portable, Affordable Board Game System

by James Kyle (jdroscha@att.net)

[Originally published in Grampa Barmo's Discount Game Magazine #1, Summer 2001]

When I was a lad, my folks used to visit my aunt and uncle to play cards. When I asked my father what games they played, he informed me that they usually played Hearts. One evening in my teens, he taught my siblings and I to play Hearts, and it remains one of my favorite card games to this day.

But I'm not a fan of Poker, though I give it a limp attempt now and then. I absolutely loathe Euchre (knowledge of which is a prerequisite for acceptance to every university in the state of Michigan). Spades looks fun, but I've not yet taken an opportunity to try it. Bridge appears too complicated for my weak faculties. Pinochle sports some interesting twists which seem a bit much to remember between games unless you play regularly. I've had something of a yen to learn Whist ever since I enjoyed "Around the World in Eighty Days".

Now, you may agree or disagree with my taste in traditional card games, but it is certain that you know each of them by name, and you likely know the rules to several of them. And they all use the same game equipment, namely a deck of playing cards, which I would give good odds that you own. In fact, playing card decks are so common, and rules to traditional card games are so well known, that if you were to ask any random group of four individuals, the chance is good that they could sit down together and play at least one traditional card game.

But what if that same group of individuals wished to play a board game rather than a card game? Their choices become much more limited, perhaps Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Scrabble, or Pachisi (Parcheesi) if you live across the drink. It's not that there aren't plenty of more interesting choices, it's just that the set of multiplayer boardgames known to the general population is rather small. Take note that each game they might consider would require a different set of equipment (i.e., different board, tokens, etc.) And even if the group were to settle on one of these games, the probability that the hostess owns that particular game is much lower than the chance she owns a deck of playing cards.

So there seems to be an unfilled niche for a single set of playing pieces able to be enjoyed with a multitude of boardgame rules. The first question that presents itself is whether anything appropriate already exists that might simply need popularizing (though this would be no trivial undertaking). Candidates must be examined for suitability with regard to both flexibility (including genericy, adaptability, and variety) and availability (including cost and distribution), since these are the primary traits of playing cards which led to their ubiquity.

One such possibility is the marvelous Icehouse set designed by Andrew Looney. The Icehouse set is a group of stackable, colored plastic pyramids in three sizes. The set was originally designed as a single game (called Icehouse) which is played in real time without a board. Because the game is abstract, and because the pieces display multi-tiered variance (differing in size and color), several game designers have found it well suited for the development of other games. Dozens of games have been designed for play with Icehouse pieces. But for the purposes of a universal boardgame set, it has a few drawbacks. Since it is produced in relatively small quantities by a small (but growing) publisher, Icehouse is not yet popularly priced. An inexpensive "origami" version is available, but lacks the durable, tactile nature required for a universal boardgame set to become popular. Also, the lack of a board reduces versatility, though some of the games designed for the Icehouse set utilize other common game equipment, such as a chess board or tarot cards. Ultimately, as a universal boardgame set, the flexibility of Icehouse is moderate, and availability is inadequate.

Another option to consider is the traditional chess set. Chess sets are widely available in myriad sizes and prices. Though the game of chess is intended for only two players, the pieces show acceptable variance except in color; for example, one could design a four player game in which each player uses four pieces (rooks, knights, bishops, or pawns). Adaptability is possible, though strained; you could play checkers with a chess set, but certain aspects would prove inconvenient. Also, the board is fixed and there is no inherent method of displaying token status, such as stacking or flipping. In short, chess possesses excellent availability, but rates poorly in flexibility.

A few more contenders can be found, but each falls short of the ideal universal boardgame set in some respect. Of course, no set can be perfect, but if materials were to be designed specifically as a generic, universal boardgame set, what features would be expected? How would one go about designing such a set? It seems reasonable to look toward the traditional playing card deck for inspiration, given its indisputable success in a related role. But while designing a set cast in the shadow of traditional playing cards, care must be taken not to lose sight of the fact that it is intended to be utilized for boardgames, rather than card games.

Blending all of the ingredients set out before us (namely flexibility, availability, classicism, a nod to playing cards, acknowledgment of board game necessities), some ideas come into focus: tiles (able to be configured into a multitude of boards), suits and values, tokens, probably dice, and likely pawns. From these raw materials, the piecepack was forged. Although it is by no means perfect, it is the first set of components, to the best of my knowledge, that has been designed specifically as a universal boardgame set.

A piecepack consists of the following:

24 square tiles
obverse marked with suit and value, both in color matching the suit reverse marked with two lines forming a two space by two space grid one tile per suit/value combination
24 round coins
obverse marked with value, in black reverse marked with suit, in color matching the suit both sides marked with one directional indicator (tick mark) at the edge one coin per suit/value combination
4 (six sided) dice
faces marked with values, in color matching the suit (ace icon indicates suit) one die per suit
4 pawns
one pawn per suit, in color matching the suit

The piecepack suits are suns, moons, crowns, and arms (fleur-de-lis). The piecepack values are 5, 4, 3, 2, ace, and null (blank).

So, how does the piecepack fare against our test of flexibility? Well, the tiles can be configured in many different board shapes. Face down, with the spaces showing, the tiles lend themselves well to classical, abstract application, including the traditional 8 space by 8 space chess board pattern (4 tiles by 4 tiles, face-down). Face up, with the suits and values showing, the tiles can be used as individual spaces with game-mechanical significance implied by the suit, the value, or both. Also, since the suit is marked in one corner of the tile, the tiles can clearly show orientation if needed.

The coins are equally versatile. Since the suit and value are marked on opposite sides of each coin, and since values of ace are all represented by the same symbol on coins (instead of the suit icon used to mark aces on dice and tiles), a game design can take advantage of hiding either suit or value. If coins need to be picked at random without prior knowledge of both suit and value, they can be drawn from a bag or cup. The tick mark (pip) can be used to show direction or rotation if a game design calls for such.

The values used in the piecepack were selected in particular for their flexibility. Having both nulls and aces offers game designers two values to potentially take on special meaning. Alternatively, they can operate in their default roles of zero and one, producing a simple, flat range of values 0-5 for each suit (and on each die). The range of 0-5 also has an advantage over the natural 1-6 range (albeit a rather insignificant one) in that the roll of 3 dice covers all possible totals of tile values or coin values within a suit. That is, given a random subset of the tiles (or coins) within a single suit, the total value of those tiles will be in the range 0-15, which is the same range achieved by the roll of 3 dice.

The flexibility of the piecepack has lived up to its expectations. So far, games have been written for the piecepack that include a wide variety of styles (chance, manual dexterity, memory, tactics, and strategy) and genres (fantasy, finance, history, science fiction, and sports). It has adapted acceptably to themed games as well as abstract. A few games have even take advantage of the 3-dimensional nature of the tiles, making them visually appealing and sometimes challenging in ways previously unexplored. Games have been written to be played with as few as 1 player and as many as 6, and more players could easily be included by a game design with the addition of a second piecepack (just as with decks of playing cards).

As with any other candidate for universal boardgame set, there is no need to limit designs to piecepack components exclusively. Jim Doherty of Eight Foot Llama (publishers of "LifeLinks" and "Who Stole Ed's Pants?", http://www.eightfootllama.com) has devised an excellent baseball game for the piecepack in conjunction with a deck of playing cards. Imagine the chess variants possible if a set of chessmen were let loose on the vast array of board shapes possible with a piecepack. What new challenges would be introduced to Scrabble if the players first formed the board with piecepack tiles, then populated it with suit-side-up coins with each suit designating a different Scrabble scoring bonus? What designs would become possible by combining a piecepack with an Icehouse set?

But we must also test the piecepack for availability, clearly the piecepack's greatest challenge. In response to this, the piecepack was made international public domain in October of 2000. This means that anyone may freely craft themselves a piecepack; downloadable images and instructions for doing so are available at the websites mentioned at the end of this article. Indeed, any manufacturer may publish piecepacks and owe no royalty or commission of any kind. The piecepack specification outlined above is materials independent; piecepacks could be manufactured from wood, plastic, cardboard, ceramic, or even metal, and are fairly economical to produce. Also, anyone may design games for the piecepack, and may distribute the rules to these games in any manner desired (though designers are encouraged to distribute the rules free of charge). The distribution model for the piecepack, therefore, matches that of the traditional playing card deck.

Will the piecepack ever take off and become a household item? Will the set gradually evolve as playing cards have? If four random individuals are stranded on an otherwise deserted island some day in the future, will they be able to share a piecepack game to alleviate their tedium? Only time will tell.

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Page content last modified on: 03/06/2004