Icebreaker: An excuse to talk about Icehouse

Something must be said about the game’s origins, about Andrew Looney and his obsession with pyramids. This is all well-documented elsewhere on the web — that is, after all, how I came to know everything I’m about to say — so I’ll be brief.

It started with a self-published novella called The Empty Citythe full text is now available online, if you’re curious. In this story, Looney described a tabletop game called Icehouse, and the ethos of cool that had developed around it. Icehouse, as described in the story, was a peculiar thing: a board game without a board, a strategy game without turns. If you saw an opportunity in the way the pyramids were arranged, you grabbed it before someone blocked it. Understandably curious about whether such a system could be made to work in real life, Looney decided to develop the in-fiction descriptions into a game that people could actually play. And thus began his career as a game designer.

But not, it must be said, a videogame designer. Icebreaker was and remains his only credit on Mobygames. He mostly does card games — his best-known work is probably Fluxx, a game where the basic conceit is that the cards you play change the rules (albeit only in specific ways, like how many cards you draw at the beginning of each turn and which combination of cards you need to win). I’ve played much of the Looney Laboratories catalog, but I have to admit that his games generally aren’t what I want from a game — too much alea, not enough agon. Usually the winning move comes as a surprise, which means there’s no opportunity to strategize against it. But tastes differ. Some prefer the beer-and-pretzels school of design, and I’ve noticed in particular that the people who like Fluxx the most are people who don’t usually like games. Anyway, Icehouse doesn’t fit this pattern at all. I find it almost unbearably stressful to play. Perhaps this is part of why people who bought Icehouse sets immediately started inventing other games to play with the pyramids — although aesthetic appeal of those pyramids also played a role, of course. If there’s one thing that the original Icehouse has going for it, it’s that every session results in a unique tableau that looks like the skyline of a Martian city.

Knowing all this, Icebreaker feels a bit like a game from an alternate universe where Andrew Looney’s life went differently. But my first exposure to the game came years before I had any other knowledge of the man or his works: I saw it reviewed in a gaming magazine or two on its initial release, where it was praised as new and different, but apparently not considered important enough to merit anything more than a few sentences in a sidebar. I remember seeing the comment in Electronic Gaming Monthly expressing confusion over the fact that you’re a pyramid blasting other pyramids, and thinking what a weird thing that was to find confusing. I mean, there are plenty of games where you’re a spaceship blasting other spaceships, right? It’s true that pyramids in real life don’t usually come equipped with blasters, but then, neither do real spacecraft. (Come to think of it, the ships in Spacewar are about the same shape as Icehouse pieces. Perhaps they were really pyramids all along!) But I suppose the confusion is more understandable given the blurb in the manual:

Icebreaker is about destroying pyramids. Pyramids are bad. They are evil and nasty. You’re outnumbered and alone. All you’ve got are our wits and cunning… Oh yeah. And a real big plasma blaster.

That’s as much story as you get in this game — yet another way it resembles the coin-op games of yore.

Some time after this, I learned of Icehouse and became intrigued enough to try it. When realized that Icebreaker was by the same person, I naturally wanted to try that too. And so, when I found a bin full of original Icebreaker boxes at a computer show, selling for cheap, I snatched one up. I really should have snatched up more than one, for distribution to the Interactive Fiction community, because the disc contains, as an easter egg, a text-based adaptation of the game by none other than Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin, author of such works as So Far, Shade, and Spider & Web, and a personal friend of Looney. It’s not much of a game — more of a joke, really — but it’s a text adventure, by a prominent author no less, published on CD-ROM and sold in stores, and that makes it a rarity. Really, I think more games should ship with text adventures as bonus items, and there are people who agree with me and are willing to make it happen. I suppose the biggest obstacle is getting approval: games are big business these days, and big business doesn’t like content that hasn’t been vetted by legal.

It’s a little eerie how I was led toward this obscure title by three different channels — computer game magazines, tabletop gaming, and IF. Or was it only two? I don’t remember where I first learned of Icehouse; it could have been from the IF community.

2 Comments so far

  1. josh g. on 23 May 2010

    Did you know about the text adventure easter egg included on the CD for Privateer? It actually ran as a set of DOS batch files.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 23 May 2010

    I did not! I’ll have to give it a look when I get around to covering Privateer.

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