Review: Balls!

As a fan of abstract games, it would be astonishing if I didn’t have many of Gigamic’s wooden abstract games in my collection. Pylos was one that I’d only recently had a chance to break out and try playing, and found myself quite taken with.

Like most abstracts, Pylos has a very simple set of rules, but enough to generate a deep enough game to have interest. Played on a wooden board with a 4 x 4 grid of pits to stablise the balls, the goal of Pylos is to be the player who places one of their (light or dark) wooden balls on the top-most point of the pyramid.

Each player receives 15 balls, exactly half the number required to construct the pyramid. Without special rules, the game would be straightforward, players would place their balls in turn and the second player would always win. Fortunately, Pylos adds a couple of additional rules. Instead of taking a normal turn, players have the option of moving one of their existing free balls (which doesn’t yet have anything on top of it) to any stable space (supported by 4 other balls) on a higher layer. In addition, if a player creates a 2 x 2 square consisting of only their own balls, they take back 1 or 2 of their free balls from anywhere the board.

These two rules allow a player to save 1 - 2 balls in a turn, leaving them with more balls in their supply. An additional rule notes that a player who has no balls to play automatically loses, so the first level of play is a simple scramble to have the other player run out of balls completely (or at the very least, be forced to play out of turn and lose). In this phase, players usually struggle to block their opponent’s formation of 2x2 squares while trying to avoid creating next-level opportunities for movement, meanwhile t-shaped forks can be created that can force squares if not blocked.

The more subtle interactions arise from the rule that only free balls can be moved. A ball at the next level neatly pins the 4 underlying balls, ensuring they can’t be taken back into supply. Once this is taken into account, pinned balls, possibly without any opportunity to take 2 back becomes the norm. Finally, traps can be laid, tempting an opponent to jump a level with the ball you desperately need moved so you can move forward.

Pylos is not deep engine-building game, but the rules as written (as well as some more complex variants) make it a cute and fast abstract to spend some time trying to figure out with other folks. I enjoyed figuring out how the simple rules interacted (and why some were there) and as always, thought the Gigamic presentation was fantastic. In these respects, I think it’s a lot like Inside (although much less safe to leave around set-up, as the balls on my floor can attest)