7: Black Ice

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From here on out we’re talking about fantastic games. All of these stand head and shoulders above most other games on store shelves today. I genuinely believe that any one of them would see success if sold individually, and the fact that they’re all bundled into the arcade makes this box feel like an embarrassment of riches.

Black Ice completely replaces Treehouse in every way. The additional deductive element and implementation of lightning dice to allow for multiple actions per turn is inspired. Once you’ve got a game under your belt to nail the rules, switch to expert mode and never look back. The bluffing and deduction opens up beautifully once it becomes harder to actually know everything. The dice are flexible in what they allow you to do and yet you’ll constantly feel the pressure as you and your opponent race to fix your keys first. It’s basically head to head Mastermind where you both get to play the code cracker, and that was a game I never thought I’d see.

We have one house rule for this game that I highly recommend implementing. When your keys are set and you’re ready to declare a win, you have to say “I’m in” in a gravely movie hacker voice and then reveal the code. It dramatically improves the experience. Hack the planet.

6: World War 5

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This surprised me. A game inspired by Risk and Diplomacy that fits easily into a lunch break is a pitch that sounds too good to be true, but when played with 4p WW5 actually delivers on it!

The genes of its parent games can very clearly be seen in its offspring. Dice combat is plentiful in WW5, with ties going to the defender. When a piece is defeated it gets to retreat rather than be eliminated outright if it has an escape route. What WW5 does to keep things brisk is only allow one action per turn. Making/improving a unit is your turn. Moving a unit is your turn. Attacking is a gamble – you essentially get to do two actions at once as you shove them out of the way and take their spot, but if it fails you get nothing. You will be fighting often of course, but always selectively.

There are parallels to be drawn to Sandships here, but I prefer WW5 due to how constant the threat of conflict is and how that incentivizes negotiation. Everyone can reach everyone else from the word go. Alliances aren’t just a good idea, they’re necessary in order to not get locked into an endless turf war with a neighbor. Once again elimination is present, but it often requires a several step coordinated assault to bully someone out of their home continent so there’s plenty of time to strike up a bargain and defend yourself. Play aggressively and you’ll win the day, but over-aggression will leave you impotent and beaten down as your stronger opponents overrun you. Positioning, board awareness, and the gift of gab will carry you further than blood lust. I was honestly surprised at how much I like this one, folks. Do give it a shot.

5: Ice Towers

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Of every game on this list, this was by far the one I debated the placement on the most, and not just because I didn’t put WW5 in the 5th slot. I’m actually still not 100% sure how I feel about it and its placement. Let me try to elaborate through some stream of consciousness writing and make some sense of that for you and me.

I like Ice Towers. Like, REALLY like Ice Towers. It’s got so many elements that I enjoy: real time, stacking, direct conflict, even a bit of haggling over splitting towers! It’s a blast from start to finish, and since it’s so short you can play over and over in a single sitting with no issue.

But. BUT. This could very well be the most divisive game on this entire list. There are going to be a lot of people who absolutely loathe this game. You will introduce it to people who think it’s just a stupid speed game and refuse to give it any more thought than that. And perhaps even more importantly, playing with that mentality can actually make the game worse for everyone else. That’s a crappy thing to do, but if they truly don’t see what else they should be doing besides chucking pyramids around at mach speed you won’t get much more out of them. Your eurogame friends probably aren’t going to want to give this enough plays to “get it”, and that makes me sad.

That said, Ice Towers deserves to be this high. Maybe even higher. Played with a group that’s willing to give it the attention it deserves there’s a really great tactical game here. If you can convince people to dig into this you won’t regret it.

4: Martian Chess

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One of the very first pyramid games I ever played, and one that deserves its lofty reputation. There isn’t actually a lot to be said about Martian Chess: It’s an incredibly simple abstract, played on a half chessboard (assuming you’re playing at 2p with the included board) with half as many types of pieces as vanilla Chess. And yet from that comes a really interesting tactical game with arguably the coolest hook of all of its ilk in the arcade: you only control pieces on your half of the board.

At first this translates to sending long bombs back and forth like a weird game of Pong, then fighting your chess instincts to immediately take your opponent’s queen as you realize wait, no, that’s my queen now. Once you get past the mental blocks and see how to approach without immediately getting assaulted the game develops into a devilishly clever skirmish. Like Chess, it can end in stalemates sometimes, but I fail to see the issue with that when we accept it in so many other games. Consider that match well played between two evenly matched opponents and go again. Games of this are so quick that it’s a non-issue, and repeated plays bear significant rewards as you grow as a player. I look forward to more plays of this and possibly assembling a multiplayer board to introduce it more often.

3: Volcano

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If Color Wheel has any competition for the “prettiest game” award this is it. Volcano is a behemoth of a thing, with setup consisting of assembling a layer cake of pyramids and topping it with little frosting caps. If this thing tasted as good as it played it’d win plenty of bake-off awards. Metaphors!

Volcano is the puzzliest of the puzzle games by a long shot. It’s perfect information and hoo boy is there a lot of it. In order to capture pieces you need to leapfrog them over the maneuverable caps, have them match sizes, and hopefully do that multiple times in one move. You’re given a tremendous amount of flexibility in how you approach this as it’s relatively easy to shove caps around without erupting, but setting up a mighty chain that snatches you a fistful of plastic is still a serious challenge. If there was ever a game that’ll set off your analysis paralysis it’s this one.

Don’t let that scare you though. Volcano is worth the work, and the actual rules are simple as anything. Scoot a cap, jump the pieces, take some home, pass. If you’re feeling particularly fancy you can drop a piece on the board in order to set up chains or eruptions that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to pull off, but that’s the extent of it. After a couple plays the maneuvering of the caps will be second nature, and with that comes some of the most satisfying puzzle action Pyramid Arcade has to offer. Combos galore, blocking maneuvers that’ll make you pull your hair out as you try to solve how you’ll get to a key piece before your opponent, and figuring out when to pivot between going for 3 monocolor trees VS 5 of any trees will keep your head buzzing well past the end of the game. If you enjoy a bit of brain burn this one’s for you.

2: Twin Win

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When I mentioned in the intro that some of these games have been played dozens of times I was mostly talking about Twin Win. This thing has gotten its hooks in us something fierce and quickly become a default “let’s play something” choice, and once it comes out it always gets played at least three times. I’m going to try to be concise as to why it works so well.

Twin Win has each player drawing two secret objectives that depict a nest or tree of a color. If either is assembled at any point during the game you immediately reveal the card and declare victory. All you can do on your turn is hop pieces around twice and the board restricts movement, so each player’s moves are very predictable. This works to the game’s benefit as it’s laser focused on two things: bluffing and deduction.

Let’s set a scene. You win on a purple nest or an orange tree. You could just dig up the relevant pieces and scramble to set them in advantageous spots, but it’ll be transparent as to what you’re doing and disrupting a shape is much easier than assembling it. Your opponent could ruin that for a couple turns with a single action if they’re paying attention, so it’s probably not going to work. Instead you skirt around the edges and spread pieces out. Your opponent, unsure as to what you’re going for, starts moving some purples towards the center as they cycle through stacks for their bits. You can’t win on this turn, but there is something you CAN do – assemble 2/3 pieces of a purple tree.

Obviously you know that’s not going to win you the game. But your opponent can’t let you get away with that in case you DO have that card and would need to waste their time disassembling it, which would actually set you up for a nest! It’s brilliant! You’re a genius! Unless of course they have the purple tree goal, but there’s no way that’s what they’re going for…right?

These are the moments that make Twin Win so memorable. Choosing when to clear the smokescreen and call the other player out is critical, as is their response. It’s a top-class game of double bluffs and bamboozlement that fits into 5 minutes. I couldn’t ask for anything more. What a fantastic game.

1: Homeworlds

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A confession, dear reader: this list was rigged from the start. When I started working on it the very first thing I did was put Homeworlds at the top. Homeworlds is the best game in this box, and that’s not just my opinion: Andy Looney declared it his favorite game of all time. After several sessions of it I’ve begun to see why, and it’s deserving.

Homeworlds is a perfect information 4X strategy game. I’m not even slightly exaggerating. It’s a spacefaring epic of massive scope where entire galaxies will discovered and annihilated in equal measure. It’s got a brutal economy that you have to manage at all times. Its rules are relatively simple yet incredibly broad in scope, allowing for a massive range of actions to be taken on any given turn. It tells incredible stories of empires being built and obliterated in mere moments, and it does it all with 36 pyramids.

I can’t even begin to explain all of the mechanical intricacies that Homeworlds offers here. What I will say is this: of all the games I have on my shelf, there is no other game I would sooner drop everything else to play right now than this one. I don’t just want to play it, I want to master it, and it supports that level of dedication. There’s a reason why Looney offers an honest to god medal to anyone who beats him at it – getting to the point where you can take on a veteran player is an undertaking.

2p games of this depth are incredibly rare and I’m increasingly convinced that this is one of the best. If Homeworlds was the only game in this box it’d be worth the price of admission. You owe it to yourself to play this game. It’s a masterpiece, and the crown upon the magnum opus that is Pyramid Arcade.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As this was a ranking of the games included in the arcade I couldn’t cover things like Zendo, which is phenomenal, as well as several other games mentioned in the back of the book. This was pretty exhausting to work on; adding even more games to it seemed beyond reasonable. Yet despite all this I’m not remotely tired of pyramids. If anything I’m even more excited to play games that aren’t in the rulebook and further explore the favorites I’ve already found. This project has been one of the best board game experiences I’ve had in a long time.

But I’m tired. My brain is pudding. Thanks so much for reading! Go play with some pyramids.