Yesterday I picked up Pyramid Arcade, which is Andrew Looney's Magnum Opus with his Pyramids Pieces. What's in the box is a collection of Pyramid Pieces, some game boards, a deck of square cards, some other cards for various games, dice (both traditional d6s and dice for other games) and a turn marker coin. On the surface it seems kind of daft: basically you get a bunch of pieces that can be used to play 22 games. How good could those 22 games be? What's interesting to me is more what's not in the box, or at least isn't stated in the box contents. That piece is what you bring to these components.
Andrew Looney's Pyramid Pieces are an amazing feat of engineering. On the surface their either opaque or translucent pieces in various colors. They can nest like Matroyshka dolls (with smaller pieces nesting inside of larger pieces) or they can stack (with smaller pieces sitting on larger or similar-sized pieces). They have a number of pips on them, from one to three with one pip being the smallest pieces, and three pips being the largest pieces (it's an exercise for the reader to figure out what goes on the medium pieces). Each pyramid has four triangle sides and one empty fifth "side" that they can stand on. These versions have rounded points, but there are versions that have very sharp points at the top.
So what? What's the draw of these pieces?
One of the games in the box is called "Homeworlds" (written by John Cooper), which is a 4x game where you are competing with another player to destroy their homeworld. I won't go into details, but the main things to take away are that it only uses four of the pyramid colors for four different functions (Grow, Move, Capture, and Transform) and is one of the most brilliant games I've ever seen. With these pyramids there's a complex and deep strategy game that unfolds. There's no predefined map, and no predefined planets, and yet it simulates terraforming, ship building, combat, and many other functions with simple rules and complex interactions.
That's just one of the games in there. There's others that range from silly, surreal, cerebral, and simplistic.
But again, what's in the box isn't the biggest draw. What's more interesting is how they can be used to create your own games.
This is something that I've come to appreciate in role playing games. It's that sense that you're not just buying (or downloading) a rules set, but you're also giving yourself a toolkit that can be used to augment your imagination. Some rules are better about being amenable to adaptation. At their core most rules are just a way to answer questions: Do I make the jump? Do I hit my target? Do I get information from the surly librarian who doesn't trust me? But more importantly the rules are your interface to imagined worlds. They complicate, confound, and conspire to keep you from your goals. Good rules make failure interesting, or at least keep things moving. The worst of these rules make it so your only option is to try again, but with a penalty.
What's the connection between Pyramid Arcade and these rules? They get me to think about how to use them in other contexts. Last night my mind was wondering if I could make a dungeon crawler with Pyramid Pieces. Ironsworn and Mythic have made me start thinking about how to incorporate these into solo roleplaying experiences and how to make those experiences more interesting for myself and other players. Each of these pieces have made me think deeper about what I want out of games and gaming and how best to translate that into deeper experiences for myself and other players.
This is why I'm starting to once again prefer toolkits over games. Toolkits that support games are very cool to me because if the games aren't good I have a baseline for how to make them better. The fun for me is thinking about what makes them good, what doesn't work, and what could be improved.
I don't know what they might look like. They might even be crap. But I do know that they're expressions of myself and my creativity. To me the best gift a game can give is the desire to tinker with it and see what else you can make with it. That modularity is a huge gift from any designer.
(Another great resource is The White Box by Atlas Games, which is literally a box of game components and a book of essays on game design).