Looney Labs Icehouse Mailing list Archive

[Icehouse] Multiple Colors vs. Monochrome Treehouse

  • FromAndy Looney <andy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • DateWed, 25 Jan 2006 05:28:37 -0500
Some have said it'd be better to do Treehouse as a single-color stash game, in green perhaps, expressing concern that the multi-color stash would be a dead-end purchase, not a gateway to more Icehouse games. Like many of these topics this has already been widely discussed, but I figured I should offer my input anyway.

First and foremost, Treehouse is just plain better with multiple colors. Certainly it is playable with a standard stash, just as it's playable with a regular 6-sider and a lookup table. But it's nicer having your own color.

Secondly, it's all about breaking out of the rigid "a stash must be 15 pieces" mindset. I don't see Treehouse as a dead-end at all; it's just a new way in. Consider this: my favorite Icehouse game right now is Binary Homeworlds. With the existence of Treehouse, you'll be able to buy all the pieces you need for BH just by getting 3 Treehouse sets. And other games will come, too, I'm certain that the Treehouse set will inspire other games that use just a Treehouse set (or 2).

Thirdly, Treehouse also makes it easier to try games that need more pieces than just a standard stash's worth. I remember some while ago hearing about a new game that required 6 trees of each color; I remember getting a letter from the designer suggesting we change the standard to 18 pieces per stash, to accommodate his game. Well, now with Treehouse, that game becomes far more accessible! Who knows what other games will come along that require other non-standard pyramid counts?

Fourthly, sometimes people just want to get extra pieces without having to buy a whole stash's worth. We sell a la carte pieces at our website, but those are really intended as replacement pieces for those who've lost one. But hey, plenty of people might enjoy having Treehouse as a way of getting smaller amounts of Icehouse pieces right from their local store. Indeed, one of the inspirations for this product was the requests we've often gotten to make "sampler" stashes available, in particular for Zendo fans who want more than the standard 60 pieces to build koans with.

Fifthly, it's about narrowing the focus to something cheap, basic, and simple. Since some readers here may not know this, I'll be blunt: Icehouse is a problem child. We love it like any parent loves their eldest child, but Icehouse has also been a giant pain in our butts in many ways. It's what got us started in the game-making biz, but it ain't what's been paying the bills. (For that, we have Fluxx.) We've evolved and re-invented the Icehouse system repeatedly over the years, and with each beautiful new edition we win awards but garner disappointing sales.

Understanding the problems we've had before is vital to overcoming them, so let's look at what we know about what has failed in the past. Our biggest problem is always sticker shock. Since we insist our manufacturing our pieces here in the USA, they cost a lot more each than people expect, and the fact that so many are required makes them "way too expensive" in most people's eyes.

The next biggest problem is that of complexity. The whole "it's not a game it's a game system" concept is a blessing and a curse (much like Icehouse as a whole). It's a great idea, but it's so annoyingly hard to explain! We ourselves didn't figure it out until after 8 years of playing the original Icehouse game! When did you grok the concept?

With Icehouse: The Martian Chess Set, our idea was to pitch the Game System concept by packaging the pieces with rules to 4 different games. It won us our first Origins award, but from a sales perspective, it was a disaster. Partly this was the sticker shock problem, but people also just didn't "get" it. They were confused by the product, and they thought it was way too expensive.

And thus were born the Zendo and IceTowers boxed sets. Since people seemed to want one game in a box, we gave them one game in a box, with info on the other games included inside, like a seed waiting to sprout later. This seemed like the perfect solution! But again, while Zendo won both an Origins award and an Mensa Select award, actual sales were disappointing.

Obviously, price continues to be a big problem. Unfortunately, instead of minimizing the number of expensive, custom game pieces in the box, Zendo amplified it, requiring as it does 60 small stones in addition to the 60 pyramids. So even pricing it at $40, our profit margin was so slim on the boxed sets that we just couldn't justify doing a reprint.

Moreover, Zendo just isn't as broadly appealing as we thought at first it would be. Certainly, there are those who love it, but even the biggest fans of Zendo will concede that it can be a real brain-burner sometimes, and that some people just don't care for it.

OK, with all of that background clearly understood, let's look again at Treehouse. Obviously, we're excited about it because it gives us a whole game, complete in one package, using a bare minimum of both pyramids and other specialize components. But we're also excited about it because the game that comes with it is incredibly easy, and yet fun, unique, and different. It gives us a starting point to focus our energies on, something to say "Here, start with this."

The idea of putting lots of games on stash tubes goes entirely against this thinking. Talk about confusing the consumer! The idea here is to lure them in with something cheap and easy that they're sure to enjoy. Our target customers are easily frightened by daunting rules and information overload, so we want to focus the attention on one game, something easy, cheap, and complete. And Treehouse gives us all that: It's a simple little game which a store owner could have set up on the counter for demoing in mere moments, and if we focus our energies on this one game, there's a much better chance said store owner will actually learn the game and thus be ready to teach it to customers. If instead we're pitching lots of single-stash games, then store owners probably wouldn't learn or demo any of them.

There's a maxim of advertising which we've been gradually understanding the importance of, but which I still can't eloquently state because I'm a programmer by trade, not a marketer. But the point of it is that ads should have a single, very clear message, not try to say lots of things at once. Don't dilute the message.

Treehouse gives us a single point of focus for the entire complex and confusing mess that is the Icehouse system. It's fun enough to feel complete and worthwhile just on its own, yet it can easily be expanded into a full blown Icehouse obsession worthy of anyone on this list.

I have one more story to tell here before I close this message and start yammering again on another thread, and it's the story of how I came to invent this game.

A couple of weeks ago (on January 7th, to be exact), Kristin was messing around with one of our POP displays, and she had this idea for removing one of the 2 pegs on which Icehouse Pieces can be hung, putting pegged Family Fluxx decks on the other peg, and suggesting this new configuration to stores, shrugging off the downside of there being no spot at all for Icehouse in the display, saying things like "These pyramids are the #1 reason stores give for NOT wanting to use our store displays."

Obviously, I didn't like the idea of Icehouse being taken out of the display completely, and quickly had the idea of distilling the Icehouse system down to just 2 types of stashes, which could slide into the slot on the far right side of the display. An hour and a half later, I was saying to Kristin & Alison, "All I need to do now is to invent a game I can call Treehouse... and I already have some pretty cool ideas..."

Now, I'm not saying we're going to discontinue the standard stashes -- we're definitely going to keep those in stock. But I can easily imagine some retailers choosing to carry only the Treehouse sets (since those will be the only pyramid product sold in the new POP display configuration), and I'm comfortable with having Treehouse represent all that is Icehouse.

As for Zendo and IceTowers, well, those are going out of print for now, and the other 3 boxed sets we've talked about are staying on the back burner.