Looney Labs Icehouse Mailing list Archive

Re: [Icehouse] Multiple Colors vs. Monochrome Treehouse

  • FromBrian Campbell <lambda@xxxxxxx>
  • DateWed, 25 Jan 2006 17:51:39 -0500
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 your conscience?

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 to you.

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 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."

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 well.

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.

Happy gaming,