On Jan 25, 2006, at 5:28 AM, Andy Looney wrote:
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).
One of the things I have always thought would be good for the
Icehouse game design competition is to have theme or mechanics
restrictions for each competition. Having a competition for single-
stash games specifically was one that I always thought would be good,
because single stash games are just so convenient. Another one would
be to have a competition for one stash per player, non-stackable,
which would work well for people's custom stashes. I think it would
be great to have a competition for one-two treehouse stashes, to see
what people can come up with. I've already discovered a public domain
tic-tac-toe variant that would work with a treehouse set (actually,
all it needs are two nests of different colors). I'm sure that with
some creativity, people could come up with all kinds of cool games
with treehouse sets. It's similar to how some card games require
decks with different sets of cards, like pinochle.
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.
Yep, just a week or two ago I was hoping for something like this,
because I thought I had lost a piece or two in a couple of colors (I
ended up finding all of them but a small green, and my green stash is
already damaged, so I can just replace the whole thing). Buying
replacement pieces would have cost a few bucks, which doesn't quite
feel worth it when a whole stash is $8, but buying a treehouse set
would (hopefully) give me all the replacement pieces I need for a
while. Also, I do hear a lot of complaints about how there aren't
quite enough pieces in Zendo, so using a treehouse stash to augment a
Zendo set would work really well.
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.
I think this is the biggest problem, and I think if you found a way
to deal with it, Icehouse games would become a *lot* more accessible.
I completely understand why you want to keep manufacturing them in
the USA, but they really are a lot more expensive than they ought to
be. If I had the money, I would love to lend you what you need for
the new Icehouse mold, which could hopefully make the pieces a lot
cheaper, but sadly I'm a poor college student. Is it at all possible
to find a cheaper way to manufacture the pyramids without sacrificing
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?
This is a problem for the casual shopper who just sees it on the
shelf, but I think that given the growing network of Rabbits, it's
becoming a lot easier to explain the concept to people. The thing is,
I can explain the idea in just a couple of sentences, and most people
nod and understand. I just say "These are Icehouse pieces. They're a
generic game system, that you can play a lot of games with. You know
how you can use one deck of playing cards to play lots of different
card games, like Poker, Bridge, and Rummy? Well, you can use Icehouse
pieces to play lots of different board games." I then go on to list a
few games, and teach them an introductory game. I've found that
Blam!, Volcano, Torpedo, and IceTowers are the best introductory
games, though if they seem like the right type of person I teach them
Zendo, and if they're a gamer I teach Homeworlds, RAMbots, or
Gnostica. This works pretty well for me to introduce the concept of a
game system to people, it's just that you do need someone to teach it
Honestly, for me, the fact that Icehouse is a game system is what got
me into it. I understood the concept as soon as I read the stash
tube, looked up the rules, fell in love with Zendo at first sight,
and have found that I love a lot of the other games, too. I'm
obviously not your typical customer, being a gamer to begin with and
a math and computer geek who groks the elegance of efficiency of the
reuse and modularity of Icehouse, but even still, I think the idea of
a game system is reasonably accessible, if explained properly along
with teaching a couple of simple games.
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.
It's really sounding to me like the price is a large part of what
makes it hard for Icehouse to sell. I think that if the price were
significantly lower, say $25 or less for Zendo/IceTowers, people
would be a lot more willing to try out a new game or a new concept
like a game system. I don't know if it would be possible to lower the
price that much, but if it's at all possible, I think it would make a
huge difference in sales.
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.
I guess the main concern here is what message are you trying to get
across? The real appeal of Icehouse pieces, to me, is the fact that
they are a game system. While it's also true that some Icehouse games
are my favorite games (Zendo and Gnostica), that's not what's unique
about Icehouse; it would have been possible to design these or
similar games with other components, and there are lots of games
available with custom components. If you're trying to get the
Icehouse game system to take off, having a message that ignores that
it's a game system might not be the best way to go about it. Note
that I'm not against the idea of Treehouse or the way you're
packaging it, I just don't want the idea of Icehouse as a game system
to be forgotten.
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
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."
Wow, that's one of the saddest things I've heard in a while. I really
wish it would be possible to get Icehouse to be more well accepted by
the stores. Of course, they need to sell well for the stores to want
to carry them, and they probably need fresh ideas and lower prices to
sell well, but I would really hope that it will be possible, at some
point, to have pyramid stashes widely available in stores everywhere.
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.
Man, this is making it sound like the Icehouse system is dying. Is
there really no way to keep Zendo and IceTowers in print, or release
the other boxed sets that are planned?
Here are the main issues I see for adoption of Icehouse. Forgive me
if I repeat myself, I'm thinking as I type, and so might rehash some
of the issues I discussed earlier. For one, Icehouse games are
generally abstract strategy games, and are at the very least all
abstract. Abstract games aren't a huge market, so you're already
fairly limited by that, and I'm not sure if there's much you can do,
though you might be able to add some good theme and artwork with a
Gnostica or Zarcana set (I'm personally in the Gnostica camp, but I
think either would help).
The second is the price. I think the price just has to come down for
Icehouse to be successful. Selling a completely self contained single
stash game like Treehouse can help, but to fully realize the
potential of the Icehouse system you still need to by several
stashes, and the price for 4 or 6 stashes is just too high. The new
mold that you want to make would probably help considerably with the
price, manufacturing in China would help a lot (you could probably
sell 4 stashes for the price that you sell 1 for now, given the quote
you list), or maybe there's an alternative manufacturing method that
would reduce the cost. I just think that bringing the cost down,
especially all the way so you can sell sets of 4-6 stashes for under
$25, would help a lot.
Another problem is getting people to get the idea. Focusing on a
single, simple game at a time is one way to do that. Having rabbits
go out and do demos and convince people is another way. And just
making Icehouse more accessible financially would help a lot, because
people would be a lot more willing to try something new.
A final problem, that applies to lots of games, is that games have
sort of a negative network effect. If someone else I know owns a
game, I am actually less likely to buy the game, since I know I can
just play it with them when I want to. This is a problem that Magic:
The Gathering solved very well, as you can see based on its success.
Here are various ideas that I've had for helping with some of these
issues. One alternative to Treehouse, or something that you could do
along with it, would be to sell two regular stashes together in pairs
of colors, along with rules for a game that can be played with them.
That sort of setup would still be reasonably affordable (under $20),
could be used for more existing games than a Treehouse (Pikemen,
Branches & Twigs & Thorns, Martian Backgammon, Blam!, 2-player
Icehouse, and so on), and would be able to have a little more space
for rules on the outside of the packaging than Treehouse. You could
sell various different pairs of colors; black/white (Yin/Yang), red/
yellow (fire), green/blue (water), orange/purple (zany), cyan/clear
(ice). You might include the same rules with each set, or maybe roll
them out on a regular basis (once a quarter?) with a different set of
rules for each one.
Something that you mentioned on your WWN article about Zendo going
out of print was having Icehouse fans contribute to a fund to help
buy a new mold. I would definitely support this, and contribute to
it; it would also help give lots of people a sense of investment in
the Icehouse game system. Would this be at all a feasible way of
raising money to be able to reduce the price of Icehouse pieces?
Another idea I had was of a different way to manufacture Icehouse
pieces. I don't know if this would be cheaper in the end than the
plastic pieces, but it might be something to consider. I was
wondering if it would be possible to cut the sides out of a thick,
high-density cardboard or other such material, and glue them
together, like the way the hollow stone Icehouse pieces are
constructed. Generally, gluing things together out of cardboard is
cheap, although such odd shaped pieces might be too labor intensive
to be viable. It's something to consider, anyhow.
Another approach it to try and look at different venues for selling
Icehouse pieces. Right now, you generally find Icehouse pieces in
specialty gaming stores. There may be other markets that the pieces
would sell better in. Have you tried selling the pyramids in New Age
stores and catalogs? They tend to have an obsession with pyramids,
and the Zen theme of Zendo would go over well. Or maybe sell the
pyramids at Think Geek, where there are a lot of shiny, overpriced
toys that appeal to computer geeks, who tend to be the type of people
that also like Icehouse games. I'm sure there are other untapped
markets, where a new, quirky sort of idea like Icehouse could go over
Anyhow, I think I've gone on long enough. I would really like to make
sure that Icehouse remains in print, gains popularity, and becomes
more accessible to new people. Sorry if I rambled a bit in trying to
offer advice on how to help all of this happen.