My kid can play IceTowers!!!

My five-year-old son has learned several new things this month.  He learned how to ride a bike in an impressively short time, and he learned on the same little bike I rode as a kid, so that was a proud and sentimental milestone.  He taught himself to make pizza box stained glass.  But last weekend, at the Origins game convention, I taught Nicholas something I didn’t think he was ready to learn, and he caught right on: He learned to play IceTowers!

IceTowers is a strategy game using Looney Pyramids that is played without turns–all players play at once.  That means it’s impossible to play while distracted by a young child.  It’s also a game for 3 to 5 players, unless you want to play multiple colors or play with Gus the Friendly Ghost.  That means it’s not much fun for two parents who have finally gotten the kid to bed.  Therefore, although IceTowers is one of my very favorite games, I have played it very little in the past five years.  Every year I’ve looked forward to Origins as an opportunity to get my IceTowers fix, but because Looney Labs is now focusing on Treehouse as the pyramid game to promote (it’s easy to learn and can be played with one set of pyramids) there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities and I’ve typically played just one or two rounds per year.  Before I explain how this changed, let me tell you more about these wonderful pyramids.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an employee of Looney Labs.  I promote their games because they’re great games!  Looney Labs makes 90% of the games I most like to play, and it is an environmentally responsible company that has great values and a great sense of fun.  Over the past decade, I have worked many hours for Looney Labs as a volunteer, although I have been compensated with some free convention badges, hotel stipends, meals, free games, and hugs.  I was not asked to write this article.

Looney Pyramids originally were developed for a game called Icehouse, but there are now at least 323 different games you can play with these appealing little pyramids, available in 12 different colors.  (There are also giant cardboard pyramids, used to play the games on a large scale to attract attention at conventions, or just for fun!)  Some of the games are very simple and quick; others provide hours of brain-cracking intensity.  Some of the games use just a few pyramids of any color(s); many require 15 pyramids in each of 4 colors; a few games need 6 colors.  These pyramids also can be used as playing pieces or point-counters for other games, as a stacking toy, and as sun-catching art on the windowsill.  They are beautiful, fun, versatile, surprisingly durable, and well worth the money.  If you are thrifty and skeptical, start with one stash, which lets you play at least 4 different games and have some stacking fun.  To play IceTowers, you will need 5 multicolor stashes or the out-of-print IceTowers box set or some other way of getting 15 pyramids of one color for each player.

UPDATE: In 2011, safety testing determined that Looney Pyramids cannot be marketed to children in Europe because of their sharp points.  This means that I am now not supposed to promote IceTowers as a game for children.  Please read the details and make an informed decision about your family’s safety.  Looney Pyramids are, in fact, pointy and hard; they can hurt you if you step on them or poke your eye with them or otherwise use them irresponsibly.  In our family, we treat them with respect.

Of course, we introduced Nicholas to the pyramids at an early age, applying the tips for playing Looney Labs games with kids that I wrote before he was born and learning more from our little gamer geek as he grew.  He’s been playing Treehouse for a few years now, started on Zendo before his fifth birthday, and has made many attempts to invent his own pyramid game or play-test his parents’ ideas.  I tried a couple of times to interest him in IceTowers using simplified rules, but no dice–I mean, no ice–he just wanted to stack pyramids for fun.

Well, on our first morning at Origins this year, another player was needed to start a game of IceTowers with giant pyramids to attract customers, and I was very eager to play although I was the Parent On Duty at the time.  Nicholas wanted me to play something with him and was very grouchy when I insisted on playing IceTowers and then ignored him as I hopped avidly amid the giant pyramids.  He hovered nearby, sulking conspicuously.

But over the course of my three games in a row (some customers were showing up, but most of them wanted to watch a full game before attempting to play), Nicholas became more interested in what I was doing.  However, he could see that if he jumped into the fray with the giant pyramids, he might get stepped on by the larger players.  He asked me to teach him this game with small pyramids.  I did, playing two colors myself while he played one.

I taught him the full rules this time.  He caught on as quickly as the slower adults I’ve taught, and all of his “Can I do this?” questions were intelligent ones.  He won his second game.  That got him pretty interested, and we played about 8 rounds of IceTowers over 3 days, some of them with a third player.

The only problem we’ve had is that Nicholas playing against two experienced players (like his parents) tends to lose.  He spreads his pieces too thinly, getting one in every tower instead of two per tower, so when he is capped he can’t mine and winds up controlling few towers.  After several such experiences, he began asking us to let him win.  Now, in general I’m not the sort of adult who lets a kid win just because he’s a kid, but when he asks politely after losing several times in a row, I’m willing.  The trouble is, I can’t figure out how to throw a game of IceTowers! I’ve tried dialing down my strategies in several ways, but none of them seems able to guarantee an advantage to an inexperienced opponent.  If anybody knows how to do this, please tell me!

Meanwhile, I’ve explained that the way to get good at IceTowers is to practice–that when I first learned it, I was 26 years old, but I lost every game for quite a while as I learned the tricks.  I’ve been coaching him on those tricks, but he doesn’t always take my advice; he needs to learn through experience.  He’ll get it, now that our family of three can play IceTowers together!  I had not expected that Nicholas would be able to play this game so well before age 7 or 8 or even older.  I’m so happy!!  I added a “grade-schooler” tag to my site so I could tag this post with it, because this is the point at which I feel he’s moved beyond “preschooler” skills.

To me, this is a much more valuable skill than riding a bike.  Don’t get me wrong–I am very proud of his bicycling and thrilled that my dad fixed up my old bike for our visit.  But since I had to stop bicycling at age 11 due to knee problems and we don’t own any bikes, it’s not something we can do together.  IceTowers is not only something we can do together; it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time!

Playing IceTowers with my kid works for me!

8 thoughts on “My kid can play IceTowers!!!

  1. It’s not possible to throw an Icetowers game reliably. Icetowers is basically a decision making game, so if opponents continue to make worse decisions, you may still win.

    That said, it’s easy to dial back your level of play. Simply come up with “rules” that define the way you play (I call mine SOP’s), then violate them.

    For instance, if you know that having 2 pyramids in a tower is better than having 1, deliberately limit the number of towers you double occupy. If capping a tower will give your opponent a mine, normally you would want to avoid that tower, but you can deliberately help your opponent by capping there anyway.

    Coming up with SOP’s will also improve your game, because you will be able to figure out what needs to change. For instance, if having 2 pieces in a tower is better than 1, what about 3?

  2. I was going to say, “Whatever you’ve identified as the flaw in his strategy, imitate it.” I note that Eeyore has come up with a more comprehensive approach.

    Personally, I was pretty impressed with his Zendo chops. Maybe I’ll be giving him the medallion in a few years.


    P.S.: Why knock bike-riding? Hey, now. ;-7

  3. The decision whether to handicap versus play poorly comes down to the personalities involved. I agree with David Willson that IN GENERAL handicapping is preferable to playing poorly. For one, it’s more honest. Also, there’s no problem with possibly “getting caught”. And lastly, by forcing the better player to actually play well in order to come close to winning, it gives the weaker player a way to see good moves in action.

    The only time you’d want to play poorly on purpose is if A. the weaker player is overly concerned with the possible stigma of admitting to needing a handicap, and B. the people whose opinions matter don’t notice the poor play. That might be the person himself or maybe friends.

    As for the exact handicap, you might want to over-compensate to begin with so that the kid has some wins under his belt before dialing in on the exact level of handicap. You might even go a little further than David’s suggestion of two smalls and a medium just to make sure.

    By the way…
    IceTowers? How many players are you playing with? I’m not a fan of two-player IceTowers, even with the “friendly ghost” rules.

  4. [Apologies to subscribers who may see this comment twice.  I had to take it down and then re-post it because the formatting came out all wacky the first time, and I thought it was going to appear as a reply to Eeyore’s comment but it appears after Ryan’s.]

    Thanks for the advice!  (Eeyore is the illustrious winner of the 2010 IceTowers Tournament!)

    I articulated some of my how-to-play rules to Nicholas and then tried to resist following those rules myself.  You’re right, it’s not reliable–so much has to do with timing.

    Kristin kindly posted my question to the Icehouse games discussion list, and people have been CCing me their replies.  David L. Willson said I could post his:

    I find that handicapping works better than strategizing to lose when playing withlittle people. A handicap allows the big person to try hard, developing winningstrategies, while the little person does the same. True that the strategies won't becompletely identical to those used in the "real" game, but they'll at least be verysimilar.  Here are a couple ideas for IceTowers.   1. Have the big person remove 2 smalls and a medium from the table.  2. Give the little person 2 black smalls and a black medium with special ruleslike "black pieces cannot be capped". Technically, the 2nd one is more of a game-mod than a handicap and defeats the"learning this game" goal I described so carefully, but it sounded like fun to me.

    I like the idea of handicapping. Nicholas will be very aware of it and able to tell me when he doesn’t want it, and I’ll be able to play well instead of trying to enjoy the game while playing badly! I’ll try it this weekend.

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