One of my early gaming experiences as a child was shooting marbles on the playground at school. Someone would take a stick and drag it in the dirt to create a wide circle, while someone else created a billiards-esque pocket in the center of the circle. Agreeing to play a game of marbles felt like entering the Thunderdome. Everyone at my school played for keeps, which meant that whoever won got to keep all of the marbles, and watching someone scoop up my marbles at the end of a lost game absolutely felt like a punishable crime. Just writing about it makes that old roaring sensation tingle in my bones, and I can see how that high pressure adrenaline rush could lead to other gambling games later in life. Fortunately (?) for me, I was terrible at shooting marbles, and that minor trauma of losing my favourite yellow Cat’s Eye drove me away from anything involving marbles for a long, long while!
Restoration Games brought marbles back into my life in a big way, with their 2018 take on the classic tabletop game, Fireball Island. As a hobby gamer, I’d long since written off marbles as a worthwhile component in my games (and now that I think about it, it maaaaay have been a bit of passive aggression against those backstabbing spheres from my childhood). Mass market titles like Hungry Hungry Hippo and Ker-Plunk seemed to be the pinnacle of a marble’s usefulness in gaming, which wasn’t terribly appealing to the game snobbery stuffing up my thoughts. Other recent releases such as Potion Explosion and Gizmos gave me a bit more of a shake, and inspired me to hunt down some other marble-based games that have flown under the radar.
So for my first entry into this new Rule of 3 series, we’re going to explore three marble games that you may want to add to your own wish list!
(Players: 2-4, Time: 60 min, Design: Charles Chevallier, Arnaud Urbon, Art: Michael Menzel)
Brought to North America by Z-Man Games in 2011, The Secret of Monte Cristo is a relatively straight forward area control game, wherein players take on the roles of sneaky smugglers trying to steal some of the fabled treasure from the popular Alexandre Dumas novel. Mechanically, the game is primarily an area control experience, with majorities of colourful wooden workers controlling many of the scoring opportunities. However, the game’s spice comes in the way of a sloping marble chamber, which powers the specific actions players may execute. Whichever colour is at the bottom of an action’s slide indicates the active player responsible for that action (gathering cards, placing workers, discovering treasure). After the action is completed, that marble is placed to the top of a different slide, setting up that player for another tactical opportunity down the line. Although it’s an undertaking of light strategy, The Secret of Monte Cristo allows for plenty of meaningful decisions, and the manner in which the marbles are integrated is very low on the chaos meter. The game hasn’t been in print for many years, and the demand for its return is low, but second hand copies are available on the BGG Marketplace.
(Players: 2-6, Time: 20 min, Design: Frank W. Sinden, Art: Uncredited)
First published in 1965 by Parker Brothers, Avalanche is an exciting romp of a game, reminiscent of The Price is Right’s famous television mini-game, Plinko. The mostly vertical contraption of the game hinges on a series of swinging gates. Each turn, a player drops a coloured marble into the top of the device, and everyone watches as the marble attempts to weave its way to the bottom. If any marbles reach the bottom of the Avalanche tray, the active player claims them all, which may help them complete their goal card. While the game is largely about watching for patterns and capitalizing on them to collect your prescribed palate of marbles, the real fun is in plotting with other players to block someone else. Watching an opponent be forced to collect a massive windfall of wondrous spheres is a giggle-worthy experience well worth the price of admission. Avalanche is near impossible to find in the wild, but is an absolute treasure of a game to put on your thrift store wish list!
(Players: 2-6, Time: 15 min, Design: Greg Zima, Art: Uncredited)
One of the world’s largest producers of toys and games is Spinmaster, and rarely makes the list of a hobby-focused board game list, but one exception is 2010’s Stomple. A tactical abstract strategy game at its core, each turn of Stomple involves removing marbles of a matching colour by “stomping” them under the board with a peg-shaped playing piece. If your peg is stuck with no adjacent marbles to take a turn, you are eliminated from the game, with the last player remaining claiming victory. The stomping action is extremely satisfying, and combined with its visual appeal and abstract gameplay, Stomple is easy for casual players to quickly grasp, which still leaving plenty of tactical opportunities for veteran gamers. Marbles make this game an ease to play (and reset for multiple plays), which is almost counter-intuitive to the traditional hassle of playing many games with this runaway component. Unlike the other two games on this list, Stomple can occasionally be found in big box stores at an affordable price!
Who knew that old childhood microtraumas could be worked through by exploring tabletop games?! While I may never fully erase the pain of losing those special marbles as a boy, I’m thrilled to be able to replace some of those associations with positive spherical strategy endeavours!
Is there a hidden gem of a marble game that we should know about? Let us know, and perhaps we can explore them a follow-up Rule of 3 article!