Review: Pyramids

Designers: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert
Publisher: IELLO
Category: Filler Game
Player Count: 2-5 
Price: $19.99 MSRP
As I’ve played more and more (hundreds!) of board games, I’ve noticed two recurring themes: ideas often come independently to different designers around the same time, and designers often plagiarize themselves. Neither of these things are inherently bad or good, but certainly give me a frame of reference when such a game appears. And Pyramids exemplifies both themes.
In Pyramids, players draft pairs of cards that score points, using a variable turn order system. This should sound very familiar to a game about pairs of tiles (dominoes) that we recently reviewed. However, the turn order mechanism works a little differently in Pyramids, but it should still seem familiar to those who have played Elysium by the same duo. By choosing to go later in turn order, players get more benefits for the current round. Furthermore, Pyramids separates itself with an extreme reaction to what I found lacking in Kingdomino—there are a multitude of ways to score points in Pyramids. Is the end result sufficiently different? Let’s find out!

Content Guide

There are glyphs and names of ancient Egyptian gods as well as a pyramid, tomb, and an obelisk for each player. However, other than the names of the gods, the rest of the art is simply a bunch of stones. 

Review

First, let’s put Pyramids in context. This game comes in a small, magnetic-lid box similar to several other IELLO boxes, and is fairly inexpensive ($19.99). The game says 30 minutes on the box, but with four or five players I think it’s more like 45 minutes. The box also says 10+, and while I haven’t played it with ten-year-olds, it did take the thirty-somethings who hadn’t read the rulebook a few turns to fully grasp the system. The art is fairly nondescript (which isn’t surprising, since it’s mostly just pictures of stones), but it’s very clear and functional. No one was ever confused by similar icons or colors. You’re getting quality content for the price, at least physically. Now on to the game itself.
The basic premise of Pyramids is simple: draft a pair of cards, adding them to your pyramid, tomb, and/or obelisk to score points. Going later in the turn means you can play more cards into those three areas, but you get a worse choice of cards. What ramps up the complexity of the game is the scoring. Each of those three areas has a completely different primary scoring mechanism. The pyramid also has two types of bonuses, and the glyphs provide even more bonuses across all three areas. No individual scoring mechanism is that complex (there’s no squares or arithmetic sequences like in 7 Wonders), but it all adds up pretty quick. 
Despite this higher buy-in, I find the variety of nearly-orthogonal scoring opportunities, angled just right, provide a perfect amount of angst in the turn order decision (which is the main decision that players make each round). There’s the smallest smidge of hidden (or forgotten) information, but for the most part, you can get a feel for who might want what and how you should play around the odds of you getting good cards later in the round. Furthermore, players are actively competing not just for the cards that help them, but also for actual majorities against other players in some of the scoring mechanisms. Once understood, the system has a wonderful rhythm to it that flows smoothly and provides the perfect amount of thought needed for gamers at lunchtime.  
On the other hand, an attempt at keeping things simple somewhat hinders the turn order mechanism. While Eurogames commonly set up next round’s turn order as a consequence of the current round’s choices, Pyramids foregoes that option. The first player to pick turn order each round is simply passed clockwise, and sometimes this leads to “welp, I’m stuck” situations that are unavoidable for the player who thought such a phrase. I would have much preferred some sort of synergy across rounds, e.g. the turn order of the previous round determines the order in which players pick their place in turn order for the following round. Yes, that’s convoluted, but if you can follow the scoring rules in this game, you can follow that too. As it stands, it’s a minor gripe, and not as big as my other one: is there a more generic name than Pyramids in all of board gaming? At least you know going in what the theme is going to be, I guess.
Speaking of the theme, I was pretty impressed, given the nature of the game. This is very much a thinky, abstracted game, yet the theme comes through the best it can. It makes sense that the tomb is a pile of face-down cards, and the pyramids and obelisks make the shape they should, due to the clever graphic design on the cards. This generally isn’t something that people who really like Pyramids are going to value anyway, but I appreciate the effort.
Pyramids is not a game I would use as a gateway for new players, but one I would happily play with gamer friends at any time. Its fast and smooth gameplay combined with key tough decisions make it a joy to play.

Comparison to Kingdomino

The question, when similar games come out simultaneously, is whether the marketplace has room for both. In this case, I say yes. I plan on keeping both games for now. Kingdomino can’t be beaten for its cutesy art, accessibility to gamers and non-gamers alike, or its snappy, brisk pace. However, serious gamer friends of mine found Kingdomino too shallow and much preferred one game of Pyramids over two games of Kingdomino during lunch. You could even view Kingdomino as a stepping stone to Pyramids. And to be fair, my analogy is somewhat loose—there are spatial considerations that are much different in each game, and the sundry scoring mechanisms in Pyramids render it a very different beast. Although my opinion is irrevocably shaded by playing both games back-to-back as they arrived, I am confident that both stand on their own, but for slightly different audiences.
 
Thank you to IELLO for providing a review copy of Pyramids.

The Bottom Line

Despite a nondescript cover and title, Pyramids is an excellent card-drafting, tableau building game. It takes a lot of what makes advanced Eurogames so great, and boils it all down to an easygoing, one-hour affair.

 

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