Friday, May 29, 2009


Looney Labs sounds like the lair of a mad scientist you might find in a pulp sci fi or spy novel. The kind where all sorts of bizarre events with unexpected consequences might occur.

Well, you will find bizarre events with unexpected consequences in all the games from the fertile mind of Andrew Looney, whose name would surely make a good case study for the proposition that your name may influence your life choices.

My first introduction to Looney-ness was with the card game Fluxx, which set the pattern of a game with a very simple premise and rather sparse rules that ends up having a surprising amount of fun play with surprising twists and turns. The one thing Looney games do NOT reward is the kind of meticulous planning and optimised play that euro gamers seem to love. In spirit Looney's games are closer to wargames or traditional family games where luck can upset, or at least complicate, the best-laid plans.

In Fluxx the basic rules to start with are just two. On your turn you draw a card and you play a card. There isn't even a "victory condition" to start with, which is perhaps unique. Among the cards that you can play are "Goals" which specify what the winning conditions are. In most cases these comprise holding a specified pair of "Keepers," which are another card you can play. For example, in the Goal "Winning the Lottery" a player wins by having the Keepers Dreams and Money in play on the table in front of you.

Along the way the rules of the game can change through the play of "New Rule" cards, which might change the number of cards you draw, how many you play, how many you can hold in your hand or other aspects of play. And just to boost the level of chaos, there are also Acton cards, which are one-off special events such as "Jackpot!", which allows you to draw three more cards or "Steal a Keeper" which lets you take a Keeper that's in play in front of another player and put it in play in front of yourself.

While most goals involve having a certain pair of Keepers, there are also goals that revolve around different things such as having 10 cards in your hand or "Peace (no War" where a player with the Keeper "Peace" wins so long as the Creeper "War" is not on the table. Oh yeah, Creepers. These are a fairly recent addition to Fluxx, having first appeared in Zombie Fluxx but now migrated into the main game. A Creeper is sort of an anti-Keeper, which generally prevents a person from winning. So, for example, even if you had the Keepers Dream and Money on the table you wouldn't win with the goal Winning the Lottery if you also had a Creeper (say, the "Radioactive Potato" in front of you.)

And there's more, but you get the idea. Obviously long-term planning is not feasible in this game. There's little sense in plotting a clever plan to meet some goal that's on the table when it's likely to change several times before it's even you turn to play again. Instead the game rewards opportunism and a general tolerance for chaos. Often enough one of your plays will cause someone else to win. But it is great fun and a game that's very accessible to younger players and people who don't play a lot of games.

The basic Fluxx game has spawned a whole line of expansions and themed decks. There's Zombie Fluxx, with its undead theme, Eco-Fluxx, Family Fluxx and even, in a truly inspired match between game play and theme, Monty Python Fluxx.

Looney Lab's other games show the same kind of chaotic sensibility. For example, there is Treehouse, which uses simple pyramid playing pieces in three sizes to create an intriguing game of pattern matching. Player's try to arrange their three pyramids to match a black "House" set of pyramids. They aren't completely free to do so, though, because they have to act according to the roll of a special die, which tells the player whether he can Tip, Dig, Hop, Aim or Swap pieces. The sixth face of the die is Wild, which allows the player to choose any of those actions. If a player can execute an action with his own pieces he must, even if it's a disadvantage. If he can't perform the action with his own pieces he can choose to do it to the House configuration, which could mess up someone else's plans. A player can also choose to leave the House pyramids be and pass. If, however, it's not possible to use the rolled action with either your pieces or the House pieces then you have to roll again until you can act on your own or the House pieces.

Again, there's a lot more going on this this game than it first appears. Even though there are just three pyramids in a player's formation and just five possible actions the possible combinations add up and there are a lot of choices to be made. Again, however, long-range planning is difficult and the most important thing is to try to keep your options open so you can pounce when the opportunity for a win presents itself.

Those same pyramids feature in a number of other games that Looney has designed. For example, World War 5 is a Risk/Diplomacy-style game of world conquest that uses three Treehouse sets-worth of pieces and a world map. Players control armies of small, medium and large pyramids. During his turn the player can increase the size of an existing army, create a new small army, move an army to an adjacent territory or across a sea lane or launch an attack against an enemy occupied territory. Battles are resolved by a simple comparative roll of the dice. A large army rolls three dice, a medium one two dice and a small army just a single die.

The game is won by occupying all three territories in a single continent outside of your home continent. A player can be eliminated if he has no pieces left in his home area. The game has just one page of rules, and not in small type either. Yet again there's a lot of interaction and a game full of twists and turns. It all happens fast, so there will be plenty of time to start a new game and seek your revenge!

Looney's approach isn't for all tastes. Players with a low tolerance for luck or who derive their satisfaction from seeing carefully crafted plans bear fruit will find the games very frustrating to play. But those who enjoy a more free-wheeling style of game will like any of Looney's designs.

1 comment:

  1. I introduced my students to Fluxx during the week of testing for something to do during downtime. They loved the game!