PuzzleNation Product Review: Homeworlds

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

One of the coolest moments in a board game player’s life comes when you’re immersed in a game, and someone walks by, stops, and simply must ask, “What is that?” Because you’re showing them something new.

Homeworlds got that reaction the very first time I played it at the office. A coworker walked by, saw what is essentially an array of colorful triangles on the table, and asked the question. They didn’t know what it was, but they were intrigued.

Honest praise doesn’t come much higher than that, does it?

Homeworlds is a difficult game to review, because there’s so much to cover. The rules are expansive and complex, even though the elements are simple. It’s three sets of Looney Pyramids each in four different colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. And yet, it might be the most involved, complicated game we’ve ever reviewed on PN Blog.

And to be fair, we’re going to spend way less time than usual covering the rules. There’s simply too much to explore, and to be frank, throwing a novella of rules at you doesn’t tell you about the game and why it’s worth your time.

So let’s try it a little differently today.

Homeworlds is chess plus Risk set in space. But unlike those games — or basically any strategy games with territory control and resource management elements — which require lots of different pieces and a host of tabletop real estate to enjoy, Homeworlds can easily be toted around and played on any flat surface. And it still manages to encapsulate all the complexity, variety, and tactical planning of those games.

You and your opponent are both playing spacefaring races that are trying to wipe the other player’s influence from the universe. You can do so by eliminating their fleets (through capture or destruction), destroying their Homeworld, or forcing them to leave their Homeworld defenseless.

There are specific rules governing how you build your fleet, how you travel to different star systems, and what you can do when you arrive there. These are all dictated by the colors of the ships in your fleet, which allow you to build new ships, travel, attack, or transform ships (swapping them out for ones with different abilities).

Any pieces not currently in use by the players sit in a communal bank, waiting to be pulled and deployed as either new star systems or new ships. (I love this aspect of the game. It’s like every time you travel to a new star system, you pull that place out of the ether and place it onto the table in front of you. You essentially make each game space you need to use.)

The communal bank adds a third player of sorts to the table, since you must always keep an eye on the bank to not only manage your resources but prevent your opponent from capitalizing on your moves. For instance, you must pull the smallest sized pyramid available for a given color. But size of the pieces does matter. So if you impulsively pull the last small green pyramid, you’ve left the bank open for your opponent to grab a medium or a large pyramid, leaving them with a more powerful ship than you.

Trust me, it’s a lot to take in at once, like the first time you play chess and you’re overwhelmed trying to remember how the little horse-shaped ones move while all the other pieces are doing their own thing. Unless you watch a detailed how-to video, your first few games of Homeworlds are going to be a wash. Because, like chess or Risk, there are important steps you need to take first before you can really get into the game.

But those early learning sessions are still great fun. You slowly drink in all the rules. You figure out choosing your Homeworld can affect the entire scope of the game (by determining how many or how few spaces away your opponent’s homeworld is). You puzzle out devious little tricks like sacrificing one ship in order to take multiple actions, sometimes even undoing that sacrifice in the same term, like you’ve built a perpetual motion machine or found a loophole in the rules.

As the game progresses, what was an overwhelming jumble of complexity becomes an elegantly balanced logic tree of possible options unfolding in front of you.

Catastrophes you might have accidentally caused in earlier games — or studiously avoided in later ones — become tactical moves you intentionally inflict in order to tilt the battle in your favor. Any reader who has sacrificed a piece in chess in order to capture a more important piece from their opponent knows exactly what we mean here.

That fluidity of play, the endless potential to affect the game, makes Homeworlds as exciting and dynamic as possible. In Risk, for example, one country is always the same number of moves from another. But in Homeworlds, an aggressive play can make the trip from your Homeworld to your opponent’s Homeworld perilously quick.

This game will undoubtedly be daunting at first. The instructional booklet alone is two or three times bigger than that of any other Looney Labs game I can think of. But when you get past that, you’ll find a game that is endlessly rich, challenging, and satisfying, one where every new game feels like a positive step forward.

You get to look out at that same eye-catchingly baffling array of colors and shapes that made someone stop and ask you “what is that?” and in an instant, you see moves, countermoves, chances to be taken, and gambits to be foiled.

And that’s pretty cool.

I don’t think there’s another game in the expansive Looney Pyramids library that gets so much out every aspect of the pyramids. The color, size, and arrangement of each is absolutely essential to the gameplay, and choosing the wrong pyramid at the wrong moment could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Homeworlds perfectly captures everything great about strategy games, tosses aside extraneous game boards, tokens, and pieces, and delivers a killer play experience at a fraction of the price.

[Homeworlds is available from Looney Labs and select online vendors for $20, and is part of PuzzleNation’s 2020 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, so be sure to check out this game and other offerings from Looney Labs in this year’s edition of the Gift Guide!]

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PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Martian Chess


[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

There are an unbelievable number of chess variants out there.

You can play with narrower boards and fewer pieces (TrimChess), or wider boards and additional pieces (Capablanca Chess). You can play All Queens chess, 3-person chess, or that multi-level chess game from Star Trek. In previous posts, we’ve discussed variations like ChessPlus (with pieces that merge and can move like two different chess pieces) and Tour de Force chess (where pieces can be recovered after being captured, or beheaded by a guillotine).

After years of writing this blog, I felt fairly confident that I’d seen pretty much everything that could be done with chess.

And then Looney Labs introduced me to Martian Chess, and showed me that the iconic piece-capturing strategy game has plenty of gas still in the tank, especially where creative game designers are concerned.


Martian Chess only employs three types of game pieces — a large pyramid, a medium pyramid, and a small pyramid, based on Andrew Looney’s infinitely adaptable Looney Pyramids — and each piece moves a certain way.

Small pyramids (or pawns) move diagonally like a bishop, though only one space at a time. Medium pyramids (or drones) move vertically or horizontally like a rook, though only one or two spaces at a time. Large pyramids (or queens), just like queens in Earth chess, can move in any direction any number of spaces.


You maneuver your pieces in order to capture whichever of your opponent’s pieces you can, and that goes for any piece. Martian Chess does away with the concept of checkmate, since there is no king to capture here. No, Martian Chess is all about scoring points (1, 2, or 3, based on which piece you capture) and outmaneuvering your opponent. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Oh, there’s one more important wrinkle here: you can only control pieces in your zone.

Each player in Martian Chess has a 4×4 game board in front of them. You can move pieces from your game board to your opponent’s board, but as soon as you do, that piece becomes theirs to control.


[Two possible moves. On the left, I move a drone one space and retain control. On the right, I move a drone two spaces into my opponent’s zone, and it becomes hers to control.]

This absolutely changes the way you approach the game. In Earth chess, you’re encouraged to push forward and press your advantage. In Martian Chess, though, you have to be far more strategic, because as soon as your piece crosses the canal into the other player’s zone, they can use it however they like.

I confess, my brain melted during my first few games of Martian Chess, because I had to deprogram myself from years of previous chess playing. It completely changes how you look at attack and defense. Sure, if you’re going to cross the canal and lose control of a piece, you probably want to do so while capturing one of theirs for points. But sometimes, that sacrifice can serve to block one of their upcoming attacks, or provide a screen for one of your own.


[We’ve each captured one pyramid, but mine is valued 1
and hers is valued 2, so she’s ahead on points.]

The game ends when one player has no more pieces in their zone. This adds another fresh element to the game, because you’re managing both your resources in terms of game pieces in your zone and the number of points you’ve scored.

If you’re ahead in points, but low in game pieces, it might be strategically worth it to push those remaining few pieces over the canal and empty your board, cashing in your lead early.

Other times, you’ll want to play it slower, looking for opportunities to zoom ahead in points and then take advantage.

One of the things I like about Martian Chess is that it feels like you’ve immediately been pushed into the tense second-half of a chess game. In Earth chess, the early rounds can be a little drab as players start pushing pieces into position for bigger moves down the line, but all the action comes later. In Martian Chess, you’re immediately in the deep end. I really dig that.

Easy to learn but hard to master, Martian Chess is a sharp reimagination of a game we all know, but one that feels intriguingly unfamiliar each time you break out the box and give it another go. It really does feel like chess from another world.

[Martian Chess is available now from Looney Labs as part of their Pyramid Quartet, and will be part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching next Tuesday, so keep your eyes peeled for all sorts of puzzle and game fun!]

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!