Hierarchy First Impressions

Hierarchy is on Kickstarter through the 18th

I was talking to a game designer the other day about microgames, and he commented that often finds that microgames would be improved by simply having more cards. Design constraints can be a wonderful tool for creativity but sometimes they just constrain. Hierarchy, the new game from Button Shy, does not have this problem. It would completely overwhelm with more than 14 cards. Rather than trying to bring a larger game down to size, Hierarchy is built to be a microgame without compromise.

It’s being marketed as an abstract game, but I don’t necessarily see how it’s more abstract than most microgames. I mean, there’s an assassin that kills people, an imposter who imitates them, and the knight kills the dragon. That’s at least marginally thematic. Regardless, it’s a perfect information 2 player game with lots of sitting in silent contemplation, so it’s got that going for it.

I like sitting in silent contemplation. Not just in real life, but during games, too. The kind of games that create those moments of mutual musing can be thrilling; two minds silently working to outsmart each other. It can also just be silence. Hierarchy tends towards the latter experience.

It’s not that Hierarchy is a bad game. In fact, it’s quite a clever design. The idea is that the deck is randomly divided between the players, and each person must lay down one of their cards on their turn. A card can be placed if it has a higher number than the previously placed card or if the rule printed on it allows it to be placed. Every card is different, and the interactions between all of the card effects create the bulk of the game’s interest.

The point is to put your opponent in a situation where they are not able to play a card. The effects are powerful enough to make computation difficult, hence all of the contemplation. Unlike more complex perfect information games like Chess or Go, where possibility space quickly spirals out into the infinite void only a few turns in the future, the branching choices in Hierarchy feel within grasp. If I play this card, you might think, they have three possible responses. One of them is too powerful to play at this juncture, and between the other two I could respond with this or this…

I’m not saying that I’ve solved Hierarchy, but after only a few plays it feels solvable, and the path to mastery doesn’t present itself as particularly compelling. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s more subtlety here than I think and two dedicated players will be able to wring out a lot of fun as they explore Hierarchy’s depths. The bigger problem is that I don’t care to find out.

Hierarchy is clever, but its appeal is in the form of appreciating its cleverness rather than enjoying the process of play. Last year Amber and I explored Western Massachusetts for our anniversary and we found ourselves at the Museum of Contemporary Art (which I highly recommend). It had a massive exhibit dedicated to wall art by a man named Sol LeWitt. Sol explored what could be done with the very simplest artistic tools: lines and colors. There was a mathematical completeness to his work, where he’d take a very simple concept and demonstrate all permutations of that idea. For example, the instructions for #95 say, “On a wall divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, vertical lines, not straight, using four colors in all one-, two-, three-, and four-part combinations.” The result is both sterile and alive, a kind of artistic experiment in color, texture, and perception.

One I couldn’t get behind was #289, a visually striking composition of lines arranged according to the geometry of the wall. What does it illuminate? What’s the point? Contemporary art can be hard to grok, but I do make an effort. I couldn’t see 289 as anything more than some lines.

In a similar manner, I can’t see Hierarchy as anything more than a clever design (and let me re-emphasize–it IS clever!). Playing it doesn’t make me feel smart, it makes me think the designer was smart. I try to find some pull, some hold to keep my interest, but I find my mind wandering instead. Maybe there’s something here, I think as I explore an unusual move. Nope, the game has accounted for my unorthodoxy and summarily punished it. Stay in line. Play the reasonable move. Cunning is for people who spend the time and work thinking this thing through.

Review copy provided by publisher.



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Score: 5.5/10

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