W. Eric Martin
I wrote several articles and short pieces for GAMES Magazine (R.I.P.) in the late 1990s and early 2000s with topics covering international game shows, chess boxing, the Spiel game convention, the Annual North American Wife Carrying Championship, and more.
One of those articles explained the origins and nature of the piecepack, a game system created by James Kyle in 2000. That article ran in the July 2004 issue of GAMES, and sometime after that I got the semi-bright idea to pitch a Klutz-style collection of piecepack games — with the piecepack to be included with a book of rules — to a few book publishers. No one ever bit, so that query joined dozens of others in the file of unsold ideas. Such is the life of a freelancer.
Funny thing — in late 2013 someone from Workman Publishing contacted James Kyle about publishing a Klutz-style collection of piecepack games, and James passed that person's request to me, and (umpty-dumpty-um as seven months pass) I'm now working on that collection of piecepack games with a planned release date of late 2015. Woo! Working the long game here; yep, that's just what I intended when I first wrote that proposal so, so long ago.
Given that news, I thought that I'd take a moment to reprint that GAMES article and invite anyone who's designed a piecepack game to contact me via email (through the address in the BGG News header) for consideration of their game in this book. Note that Workman publishes titles for a mainstream audience — as with its Kids' Book of Chess and Chess Set (now entering its third decade) and The Book of Cards for Kids — so I'm looking for rules-light games that can fit on a two-page spread at a decent font size while still leaving room for game diagrams and an illustration. If you have something (or several somethings) that fits the bill, please drop me a line and we'll take things from there. Thanks!
"You Want a Piece of This?"
(from GAMES, July 2004)
Whenever you play with a standard deck of cards, you're playing with more than a mere game — you actually have your hands on an entire game system. After all, the cards themselves aren't the game; they're only tools.
But combine the tools with a set of rules, and suddenly you have a game, be it Spades, Bridge, Go Fish, Piquet, or any of the hundreds of other card games created over the past millennium.
Another familiar game system, whether you've thought about it as such or not, is an 8x8 game board and a set of tokens. If you label 12 tokens as one color and 12 tokens as another, you can now play checkers; label them king, queen, knight and so forth, and a chess set magically appears; label one side black and the other white, and you have Reversi (Othello). The number of games you can play is limited only by your imagination and willingness to try something new.
James Kyle, creator of HellRail (published by Mayfair Games) and owner of Glastyn Games, liked the idea of generic game systems but couldn't find one that matched his ideal. "I wanted something that was like a deck of cards, but designed for family-oriented board games," he says. "The Icehouse set [Looney Labs' square pyramids that come in three sizes and multiple colors] is a great system and has a number of games written for it, but I think if I were to take it to my grandmother's house, it wouldn't immediately say, 'I'm a family game system.'"
Generating the Generic
What's a game designer to do when he doesn't find what he's looking for? Go off and create his own naturally. Thus was born the piecepack, a set of tiles, coins, pawns, and dice in four suits. (See "Make Your Own Piecepack" at the bottom of this page for a detailed description of the components.)
"I modeled the piecepack on a deck of cards, and a lot of it is fairly obvious," says Kyle. "Suits came from there, and then extrapolating from games on the shelf, you find basic components like pawns and dice. If anyone else had tried to do the same thing, you'd probably get the same result."
Modesty aside, Kyle experimented with numerous suits and values to determine what combinations offered the most possibilities while remaining within the family-friendly model he desired. He thought about using the binary values 2, 4, 8, 16 and so on, but considering how baffling the doubling cube is for casual backgammon players, Kyle wisely opted for more familiar values: null, ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
"The big challenge was the board," says Kyle. "In order to make the system compact enough to carry around, it couldn't have a set board, which is how I ended up with tiles, making it more flexible." He considered different shapes for the tiles, such as hexagons, but stuck with squares to make it both easier for those who wanted to build their own and less expensive for those who wanted to manufacture piecepacks.
That last part was especially important because Kyle didn't plan to produce the piecepack himself. Instead, in late 2000, he released the design into the public domain, inviting anyone to create games, produce sets, add elements, and explore.
"The grand hope is for ubiquity," says Kyle, "and although I don't expect it, that's the only thing to shoot for. Every house in the world has a deck of cards, and the only way to potentially match that with the piecepack is through a distribution model similar to that of a deck of cards. If one company manfactured it and didn't make money, that would have been the end of it."
Now, says Kyle, "I don't have to worry whether I'm making money on it or coming up with cash for the next print run. I get to watch people who are inspired create games just for fun without the commercial overtones."
Designing Games, New and Old
"The piecepack is portable, fitting into a VHS cassette box, and there is a variety of games available, but I was mainly drawn to it as a game design tool," says Phillip Lerche, designer of six piecepack games, including Black Pawn Trucking, Sarcophagus, and Kingdoms of the Middle Sea. "The challenge for me is to try to create good games within the confines of the components, or to use the piecepack along with other generic playing pieces, such as money."
More than one hundred piecepack games are currently available on piecepack.org, a support site maintained by piecepack publisher Mesomorph Games, and the creativity of the games is astounding. In addition to translations of existing games such as Reversi and Mancala, designers have created games about building skyscrapers, racing worms through a maze, delivering food to picky customers, escaping from prison, and exploring a funhouse. Games exist combining the piecepack with Icehouse pyramids, dominoes, a candle(!), a Go set, and — as might be expected — a deck of cards.
Kyle, for one, isn't surprised by the breadth of game topics or melding of materials. "The piecepack is great to experiment with because you can release a rules set without worrying about whether the game is commercially viable. When you're trying for commercial success, you can reach only so far or else people won't buy it."
No single term can sum up the multitude of piecepack games. Some have puzzle-solving aspects, while others require memory, deduction, or strategical tile placement. Dexterity games also have a presence, such as Mark A. Biggar's Ppolf, a version of Frisbee Golf, and Kyle's soccer simulation in which the tiles form the boundaries of the field and players flick coins that represent their kickers.
Bryan Kornele lacks any published games to date, but he's found the piecepack easy and fun to fiddle with. "Consisting of just a few bits and tiles, this compact system allows me to use any small table as a playing surface," he says. "I very much enjoy playing some of the games with my seven year old, and some of my game ideas come from him. I'm well on my way to becoming a piecepack evangelist."
A driving force behind piecepack game design have been regular contests initiated by Kyle and organized by Mesomorph Games. Each contest involves a different focus — solitaire games, historical themes, boards that change shape during play, the use of other generic game bits — and the winner of each contest sets the rules for and judges the next. "People who design games often wait for something to strike and inspire them, and the contests have been great from that standpoint," says Kyle.
"The latest contest, Solitary Confinement, was one of the more productive," says Karol Boyle, co-owner of Mesomorph Games. "There were only a handful of solitaire games before, and now there are more than twenty."
"Our first set in 2001 came out with seven games," says Boyle. "Within three years, there are more than one hundred, and a few years from now there will likely be hundreds more."
Picking Up the Pieces
While game design is a fun option, many piecepack users simply enjoy the large number and style of games. "At first what seduced me was the elegance of the concept," says Michel Fortin. "The game designing aspect was attractive, too, but I soon found that creating a new game was not as easy as I originally thought. However, what makes me rate the game so highly is the quality of the available games, including the originality, the game mechanism, the rules clarity, and the humor. I firmly believe that some piecepack games could easily be produced as successful commercial games."
"One of the main aspects I consider when judging a game's worth is what it asks of me. A game like Ricochet Robot requires a good understanding of spatial relationships, quick thinking, and careful planning, while a game like Fluxx requires merely a tolerance for change and a sense of humor," says Paul Blake. "Piecepack rates highly with me largely because it allows for and encourages any and all levels of thinking. To me, it's a game with lots more games inside it, a tiny package with immense possibilities."
Wei-Hwa Huang, who regularly finishes near the top of the standings in the annual World Puzzle Championship, rates games solely on his estimate of how long, as he puts it, "I'm going to enjoy playing the game until I get bored of it and feel that it is a waste of space. Since a piecepack set has enough components for lots of possible games, it gets a high rating."
Although he's found a fair share of klunkers among the gems, Iain Cheyne says, "I like the piecepack most of all because of its flexibility and portability. No matter where I am or who I'm with — even if I'm alone — I always have a suitable game."
Feedback from both designers and players has led to expansions and changes, such as Mesomorph's 4 Seasons, which adds four more suits and colors, and its Playing Cards Expansion, which adds the familiar suits hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Says Kyle, "I didn't have any specific mechanics in mind when I created the piecepack, and I take a hands-off approach to it at this point. I expect it to evolve as people try things out and like the changes enough to make them standard."
That long-term approach to evolution is essential to Kyle's quest for piecepack ubiquity. "Most of the card games we know and play were transmitted to us orally, not by Hoyle's," he says. "It may not happen in my lifetime, but I'm interested to see in the future whether more families pick up the piecepack and play with it so we get designs that can be passed on."
Make Your Own Piecepack
For those with the skills, tools or moxie who want to create a piecepack from scratch, here's all you need to know:
The four suits of a standard piecepack are Suns (red), Moons (black), Crowns (green or yellow), and Arms (blue, and typically represented by a Fleur de Lis).
There are 24 square tiles, with 6 tiles in each suit, and the values null, ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5 included once in each suit. The face of the 2-5 tiles has the numeral in the center and a small suit symbol in the upper-left corner, both in the color of the suit; the face of each ace has only a large suit symbol in the center, while null tiles have only the small symbol in the corner. The back of the tiles are divided by a cross into four equal squares.
To match the tiles, there are 24 round coins, again with 6 coins per suit, and the values null, ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in each suit. The coin faces are marked in black with the numeral (for 2-5), with a spiral (for the ace), or with nothing (for the ace); the backs have the suit in the appropriate color. Both front and back should have a hash mark near the edge to indicate direction. Coins should fit within a small square on the back of a tile.
Finally, there are four six-sided dice, one for each suit with the values null, ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the sides in the appropriate colors and four pawns with bases no bigger than the coins, again in the appropriate colors.