Strat-o-Sphere Limited, from £8
Designed by David Royffe
2 players, 2-10 minutes
Reviewed by Richard Breese
In true Sumo style, I need to declare at the start that whilst this review is entirely objective, it is not completely independent. I first met David, part time games inventor and full time chartered engineer, at the ill fated Mind Games event in 1990. I was exhibiting my Chamelequin game in typical hobbyist fashion next to David's stand. David was promoting his first game, Strat-o-Sphere. Strat-o-Sphere was, and is, a beautifully produced game consisting of a wooden base onto which 92 marbles, in four different colours, are placed sequentially by either two or four players. The marbles are placed into thirty six indentations on a wooden base and the game is won by the player placing the last marble on the top of an aesthetically pleasing pyramid shape. It is still my favourite after dinner game for complete non games players but it does suffer from giving too much of an advantage to the player playing second (or last in the four player game). Three years later Strat-o-Sphere has been developed into a 'brilliantly simple' two player game in the true, 'why didn't I think of this first' mould. It has also been renamed Elevation.
In October I shared a stand with David at Essen and had the pleasure of demonstrating Elevation to an enthusiastic German public, non stop, for four days. My position as full time demonstrator arose as a result of a visit on day one of the show by Ms. I.I. Continuo, Maureen Hiron. Maureen was appointed agent and disappeared with David for much of the rest of the show to negotiate worldwide licensing deals. As Essen demonstrator I have probably, at the time of writing, played the game more times than anyone else in the HotW. Despite this obvious qualification to review the game, as a loyal Sumo reader, I secured MS his copy of the game, only to learn shortly afterwards that Mike was playing Carrom (or was it Subbuteo?) with the marbles and had lost one down the drains of the Messe. The task of the review therefore reverted to me.
The game still consists of spheres (marbles) and a base, the latter is available in three sizes, in wood or in perspex. In each case the marbles, fifteen of each of two different colours, are of a size to match the board. The base supports the building of a pyramid, four marbles by four on the bottom layer. Again the winner is the player to place the final marble on the pyramid. Play alternates between the two players and the rules are simply as follows. One, a marble can be placed anywhere as long as it is supported by either the base or by four other marbles. Two, a marble already in play can be 'elevated' to any higher level. Three, whenever a player completes a horizontal square of four marbles he may remove either one or two marbles from the pyramid. Four, no marble can be elevated or removed if it is supporting another marble. The current version includes a couple of additional minor rules but I confidently predict that these will disappear as the game goes into full production.
The number of decisions which need to be made are surprisingly varied. The location of the first few spheres does make a difference. Inexperienced players often allow their opponent (player B) to create an 'L' shape using three of their own spheres and a space. Depending on player A's response, player B is immediately offered the opportunity either to complete a single colour square of marbles or, if a single colour square has been prevented, to allow a marble to be elevated. In any event, one player will quickly (the thirteenth marble at latest) create an opportunity for the other player to elevate a marble. There is then a choice as to whether to elevate or whether simply to pin down your opponent's marbles by adding a new marble. The relative strengths of the marbles is interesting, is it worth forgoing elevations in order to secure the central position on level two for example. When is it better to play low, enabling a marble to be subsequently elevated, or when is it better to play high and pin your opponent down? My favourite feature is the number of times a seemingly lost pyramid can be retrieved right at the death.
I suspect that eventually a dedicated player could find a way to win when playing second, I anticipate however that solving Rubik's cube for the first time would be easier. More importantly, I genuinely enjoyed playing the game for long periods of time. It is quick, simple, and as no pieces are captured or collapsed, it avoids the negative vibes associated with many similar games. Serious play could also easily be accommodated by playing the best of an even number of games, with points scored for each marble held by the winning player after the losing player has played all of their own marbles.
The game is currently on sale at the Covent Garden market (by Melvin Taylor cabinet maker and woodworker). If you want to secure a first edition copy you will probably need to move quickly. An ideal Christmas present and a game which looks great on the mantlepiece. As a footnote, I should add that the game is also available as a five by five and a six by six based pyramid, the latter utilising the old Strat-o-Sphere boards. Both these sizes allow for two and four players. It is the smaller four by four game however which I expect to become a classic.
On to the Inside Pitch or back to the review of Men of Iron.
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