The Plateau Story
The following is a short history of the game Plateau. It covers the period from 1984 to 2011 as told by Jim Albea, Plateau's inventor.
The impetus for Plateau came from a dream in 1984. For two years after that the game changed and matured, reaching its final form on May 12, 1986. Since then it has steadily gained a following among strategy game players worldwide.
It Started With A Dream...
Plateau started as a dream. As dreams go this one was pretty typical, lots of going to and fro, with no apparent point. In this particular dream I happened to walk through a room in which a game was being played. The game looked more like a toy train set than anything else. It had a mountain, trees, tunnels, and all kinds of other stuff. It was on a table about five feet square and extended about three feet high. Somehow, in the dream, I completely understood the rules of this game. The object was to move a character up to the top of the mountain. On its way to the top the character had to avoid various obstacles and make moves to prevent other characters from reaching the summit. In fact, Summit was the first name given to the game.
When I awoke the next day I immediately set out to try to codify the "rules." As invention goes it was sort of cheating because I was merely noting down what had come to me from the ether. It turns out that I wasn't really that clear on what the rules were, and the more I worked on it and thought about it, the murkier the rules got.
After a few days I completed the first version. It was a grid of sixteen by sixteen squares with steps going up to form a four-sided pyramid. The top was a single square. The object was to move your "guy" to that top square. The rules were a Byzantine mess of pieces, playing cards, and dice throws. The game was awful. I thought it just needed a few "adjustments." I thus embarked on a year of game design. The year was 1984.
The first thing to go was the cards. Then the dice. The number of pieces in the game went from a high-water mark of about 30 for each player to occasionally only one piece as I churned through version after version. The size of the board swelled and shrank. For a while there was a football type object which the pieces carried and passed back and forth in the quest of landing it on the top square. As time went by the single square at the top grew to more and more squares and the rest of the mountain shrank down to one row all the way around -- eventually to go away altogether. That's the rationale for the name Plateau. The entire game is played on the flat top of what was, in an earlier stage, a mountain. The football object went away along with the concept of a single character making it to the mountain top. The object became the construction or coalescence of several pieces.
At last I thought I was done and now the world could gain the benefit of this wonderful new game called... Pinnacle (later changed to Plateau). It was a grid of six squares with an "onboarding" ring going all the way around. To win, you formed a six-stack of pieces. Pieces could be dropped of and picked up while moving. There was diagonal, straight, and "dogleg" movement. Captured pieces were simply removed from the board to be onboarded again later. Pieces had two sides which could be flipped to change direction. Flipping a piece was a move unto itself and occupied an entire turn, ensuring that any surprises came at the speed of cold molasses. The game was ready for serious playtesting.
The Lion and the Unicorn. Friday September 13, 1984.
The Lion and the Unicorn was a game shop in Birmingham, Alabama. They specialized in Fantasy and Role Playing-type games but carried a variety of other types of games as well. Every Friday night they held a playtesting session there in the store usually attended by twenty or so rabid gamers. I arranged to be the game-du-jour for the evening of Friday, September 13, 1984. It was a big success. The participants may have just been trying to be nice but they genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. The playtesting format was a single elimination tournament. Even those who had been knocked out of the tournament continued to play. When the event was over I was sure that I was on the verge of mega gaming riches. (Ho, Ho, Ho.)
Game Company Rejections
In between selecting the name of my future yacht and picking the best locations for my various future vacation homes, I worked on selecting which major game company to award Pinnacle to. I selected Parker Brothers. I had warm regard for several Parker Brothers games and felt they could best handle the world wide-flood of sales that were sure to come. Big wheels turn slowly so it took several months to get a carefully worded rejection letter which took great pains to explain that for legal reasons they would not even review the game. I got more or less the same story from every other game company except for a small politically correct outfit in New Jersey that suggested that I try redesigning the game without any nasty old capturing. Thus Pinnacle died its first death, buried under a pile of rejection letters. Pinnacle had been rejected by dozens of game companies almost all of which never looked at it. I resolved to produce it myself someday.
May 12th Revision, 1986
As another year passed, I continued to work on it, occasionally hauling it out and making friends and family play me a game or two. With the idea of instant wild success a distant memory, I settled down to some quiet tinkering. I changed this and that aspect of the game but it never seemed to be perfectly right. I fiddled with the shape and size of the board. I tried out different set-creation goals, changed the capturing rules, added pieces, flip flopped on flipping rules, . . .. One change would make the game go too fast another would make it never ending.
On the night of May 11, 1986 I was over at a co-worker's house who had expressed an interest in the game and we played a couple of rounds. He was only mildly impressed and I headed home very discouraged.
I just knew that there was a good game buried somewhere inside this concoction of rules and pieces. I had seen glimmers, every now and then, of a really good game. At times I could almost taste it but it remained just out of reach, just out of focus. I went to sleep that night feeling that I should just throw the whole thing out and start over, ...or, even better, just forget it.
The next morning, when I awoke, May 12, 1986, it was there. Somehow it was all worked out. The board should be a 4x4 grid--prior to this the board had been no smaller than 6x6. The set creation goal should be a six-stack. There should be a dual goal of capturing six pieces--also a first in my experiments. There should be a total of twelve pieces for each player. Onboarding should be the simple rule of "anywhere"--prior to this, onboarding was a complex procedure filled with special rules and exceptions. Flipping and moving should be combined in one move. Why that had not occurred to me before, I do not know. There should be only one of each type of flipping pieces (the ones with different markers on their two sides). I had tinkered with the mix of pieces endlessly to no useful conclusion. Captured pieces should be prisoners to be exchanged using a point value system--a first. The point values were worked out as a tiered system ranging from one to 21 points--this too was a first.
It all worked as a whole. It was fast-paced while allowing for long-range strategies. There was surprise and intrigue. The game had drama; it had tension. Players exhibited cries of anguish and danced victory dances. At the end of games I heard those magical words: "let's play another."
The game was complete on that day and it has not changed in any significant way since. I considered naming the game the "May Twelfth Revision."
The Complete Form
So here's the summary of the final form of the game. It is played on a 4x4 square board with twelve pieces for each player. The pieces are stacking disks and have different colored markers on their two sides -- some have no markers. The game starts with all of the pieces off the board. For a players turn he can put a piece into play, called Onboarding, or he can move pieces already on the board. The object of the game is to make a stack of pieces six tall or to capture six opponent pieces.
Pieces are captured by moving a weapon piece on top of them. A weapon is any piece with a colored marker showing on the top side. The pieces can move either straight, diagonal, or dogleg (one straight, one diagonal) depending on the color of marker showing on the top side. The distance a piece can move is determined by the height of the stack, one high moves one space, two high moves two spaces, etc. As a piece moves in can pick up and drop off friendly pieces from the bottom of the stack as it passes over.
At the start of a turn a piece can be flipped over which could reveal a different direction that it can travel. This ability to flip a piece over at the start of a move is source of the intrigue in Plateau. There are just a few of these flipping pieces, that have different markers on their two sides, and they are highly valued.
And the thing that ties it all together is the Prisoner Exchange. Instead of Onboarding or Moving, a player may give up his turn and Exchange Prisoners. Prisoners are exchanged using a point value system which is reflective of the value of the pieces in the game. This Prisoner Exchange creates a perfect balance between the desire to get power pieces in the game and the danger of losing those high point-value pieces in a capture.
Here are the rules to the game as defined in the May 12th Revision with only
...back to the story...
Playtesting at The Mill.
It was time for playtesting again so I headed to the nearest game/science-fiction store. The owner of the store didn't have a playtesting group like the Lion and the Unicorn but he pointed out a sign-up sheet on the wall for folks interested in Dungeons and Dragons. I copied down all the names and called them all inviting them to The Mill restaurant to playtest my new game. Over the next several months we gathered at The Mill about once a week. The May Twelfth Revision held together except for one change: The Twister Revision. It became apparent that the Twister was dominating the game so its path was restricted from a full dog-leg motion to the present: one straight then one diagonal movement.
The Mill playtesting gang introduced me to the "Con" (Science Fiction Convention) scene. I took Pinnacle to my first Con in October of 1986. Although abstract strategy games are not usually found in Con game rooms, it was well received. I made game pieces out of checkers and drew game boards. At this and many other Cons to come it was gratifying to see a couple of guys play the game for hours on end, teaching others how to play, asking where could they purchase this game, and genuinely having fun.
Based on the encouragement I got from the Con scene I launched into the first real version of Pinnacle to be ready for Christmas 1987. Custom molds were made for the pieces, boxes were produced and rules were printed for a complete shrink-wrapped run of 500 game sets. Each set was individually numbered and signed.
My plan of part-time bootstrapping Pinnacle into the annals of game history didn't really work out. The wary game buyer was reluctant to buy a largish black and white box of an unknown game from an unknown game company. The ever profit-minded retailer was reluctant to give shelf space to a somewhat bulky product that wasn't exactly jumping off the shelves. My devoted public, the penniless young teenage guy, was, well, ... penniless. Pinnacle had finally had its chance. It crashed and burned, taking the family finances with it. If you happen to ever run into one of those old black and white Pinnacle games sets -- buy it; they're already quite the collector's item. If you're interested, I've still got several (still shrink wrapped) and I'll sell them for $50 each.
To buy one of these vintage Pinnacle sets send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Somewhere along the way the name changed to Plateau but it didn't matter because the game was dead. It was worse than dead; the corpse was still hanging around. A good portion of those five hundred game sets was still filling up closets and stacked in corners. Several dozen were destroyed, thankfully, by a window leak.
New Years Eve
Plateau was down for the count and stayed down for three years.
Then at a New Year's Eve party, ringing in the year 1990, someone
hauled out one of those old
Pinnacle boxes. I played a few games with a co-worker. (Some party, with a
couple of nerdy guys off in a corner playing an obscure abstract strategy game.)
The New Renaissance
That computer version was never completed but the rebirth of Plateau
was on. Postings appeared on rec.games.board and rec.games.programmer.
An email list was started. Guess what you got (free) if you joined the
email list? ...one of those old Pinnacle sets. A new local player group was
launched at -- where else? -- The Mill. A computer-animated video was produced
that explained the rules:
During this time, the early 90's, I was working at a computer hardware and software comapany (Intergraph) where I was able to work on an animation and some computer generated images. It came to pass that some of the images and animations were good enough to use to showcase Intergraph products. Example Image So Plateau was selected as an example product for a major computer industry trade show. Two thousand game sets were produced to be given away at the trade show Siggraph in Las Vegas in the summer of 1992. Family finances took another rough hit but Things Were Really Rolling. It was time to strike. It was now or never. This time I was going to do it right. I put together a business plan. Using the video and nice Intergraph game set I attracted several investors. I quit my job and devoted full time to the effort. By the Christmas of 1993 Plateau would be In Stores All Across America!
The game business is hard. The abstract strategy game business is harder. And the abstract strategy game business by an inexperienced lone operator with one product and no ad budget is murder. Oh, the perennials do fine world-wide, year in and year out. Occasionally, something cute or flashy comes along, has a good year or two and then goes back into obscurity. But a game that has more than 2 (two) rules, whose pieces sorta look like checkers and is backed by a one-guy-one-game game company with zero ad budget is... well you know the story... dead... again. Plateau didn't manage to get on the any of the standard "best ofs" lists in the game industry. It didn't get picked up by any of the major distributors. It didn't jump off the shelves at independent game stores because it was mistaken for a VHS video, and no one had heard of it. Distributors and stores stopped returning my calls. This time a second mortgage on the house got sucked into the Plateau abyss. The investors took a 100% loss. This time it really, really, really was over except the corpse was nine thousand game sets out of a 10,000 game set run. Tends to fill up the closets. Thousands of printed game rules and box wraps were dumped for recycling. The recycle place wouldn't take the nine thousand game boards (thank goodness) because they didn't want the gray chipboard.
So that was the end of the story. From inception to final emphatic rejection had been over ten years. I had seen the game played continuously through the night at science fiction conventions. I had friends around the Internet who told me it was their favorite game and were astonished that it wasn't available in stores. I had seen it falter only to come roaring back as if it had a life of its own. And, I had seen rejection by the high priests of The Game Review Establishment such as Mensa and Games Magazine, and had finally given up trying to get game distributors to stock and sell it. I also had my pile of haughty rejection letters from game companies, and a nice big 2nd mortgage to pay off. Time to walk away....except...
The Beating HeartSomewhere in the debris of the final collapse, the web site at plateaugame.com stayed in operation. It was a simple site with a little bit of info on the game and an email address, if anyone might want to order a set.
Then an interesting thing started to happen. Orders started to trickle in. And I got these strange emails from people, happy to have found me, and expressing superlative reviews of the game.
With little to no effort on my part and at a cost of less than ten dollars per month this was tolerable and even slightly encouraging. The year was 1993.
During the mid 1990's it became a regular occurrence for a computer programmer to announce that he was going to herewith launch into a bold and amazing computer implementation of Plateau. My regular response was "yeah, right." The year of 1995 rolled around and a summer intern, who was kid just out of high school, authoritatively announced that he wished to write a computer implementation of Plateau during some of his lazy free-time summer hours in order to acquire some experience programming in Visual Basic. My response was "Sure, knock yourself out." But it really stuck in my craw. If this kid could do a VB implementation why couldn't I? So, with no prior knowledge of computer programming (my background is Architecture) I launched into a bold and amazing computer implementation of Plateau. The high school kid followed the typical path and never started.
A year and a half later on March 22, 1997 Virtual Plateau Version 1.1 was released to the world. Six hours later it was withdrawn because a fatal bug was discovered. So, a week later on March 28, 1997 Virtual Plateau Version 1.2 was released to the world. Since then only minor updates have been made. Virtual Plateau has an entertaining help system with animated diagrams and it has a computer player. You can also set up and export games to play by email but I recommend one of the online services, listed below, instead. However to this day Virtual Plateau is still the best way to get going with Plateau.Download Virtual Plateau
The Steady Climb
From the release of Virtual Plateau onward Plateau has been on a steady climb and orders for games sets have steadily rolled in.
In late 2004 Plateau was added to BoardSpace.net, the online player
web site for abstract strategy games, created by the great
To this day (Summer 2011) Plateau is the only boardspace.net game
that does not have a computer robot player. That's because the
game decision tree expands so quickly and because of the difficulty of dealing
with hidden information.
If you would like to try your hand at writing a computer robot
for Plateau, Dave would be happy to provide the necessary technical
Plateau's Double LifeThroughout Plateau's travels through obscurity it has experienced a weird double life. It routinely gets accolades by those who have played the game-- there are many who have played it continuously for over 15 years-- and confusion by the Official Reviewer Corps which would include most game companies. You've all read the start of almost every review of any abstract game which goes something like this: "I tend to like abstracts that that take me but a minute to learn while accommodating a lifetime to master." That makes perfect sense to the reviewer sitting there in front of a stack games to review.
J. Mark Thompson did a thoughtful analysis of these review criteria in this article in the Games Journal: How Important is Elegance?Heres an excerpt:
"Elegance, in games as elsewhere, is only a conditional merit; a mistaken mathematical proof may be exquisitely simple, but does not earn the epithet of elegant. Woody Allen's movie Sleeper, in which Allen's character awakens in the far future, includes a delightful sight-gag illustrating the point: Allen approaches an ultramodern and supremely elegant "chair" consisting of an S-shaped strip of metal projecting from the floor, and spends most of a minute attempting to sit on the thing without falling off. Beautiful form only counts if the required functions have been fulfilled.
Furthermore, a game can be good to play without being elegant. In the mathematical sense, my single-speed bicycle is more elegant than a Rolls Royce: look at all the unnecessary machinery it dispenses with! But the limousine is superior in many other ways. The rules for entering, moving, and capturing in Jim Albea's fine game of Plateau might require half an hour to learn; but the players who have taken the time find the game well worth it."
I like that, comparing Plateau to a Rolls Royce.
To SummarizeSo that's Plateau's story to date (Summer 2011). It started with a dream and reached its final form over a couple of years. Since then it has experienced rave reviews from those who have played it, and yawning disinterest from game publications and companies. For all practical purposes it was dead in the mid-1990s only to begin a steady climb via word-of-mouth on the Internet. Since the late 1990's and through the Oughts it has been picked up and promoted by other web sites and seen a steady rise on BoardGameGeek.
While not a success, yet, in the commercial world I can truly claim that Plateau is a success in the ways that really count for a game. It has strategic depth, nerve racking drama, and is great fun to play. Most of all, it is the type of game that can be played for years, possibly even a lifetime.
The FutureI have no definite plans for Plateau other than continuing to send mail-order sets around the world. There are several other game community web sites in which I would like to help get a implementation going in any way that I can. If anyone would like to include Plateau in a tournament I would be happy to facilitate that. A mobile app would be cool, as would a Facebook game.
I, of course, would entertain any licensing opportunities. The 4x4 grid presents some real opportunities for packaging and portability.
So any game companies out there, send me an email. Please refer to the plateaugame.com website for current contact information. The P.O. Box information printed on some of the older game sets is no longer valid.
I want to thank all those who have lent aid and encouragement throughout this whole saga, especially my investors and those who helped test Virtual Plateau (you know who you are), but most especially my wife Lisa who had to put up with the whole thing.
TrademarkThe Trademark name Plateau(tm) has been used in commerce for this game throughout the world since the early 1990's and I intend to assert my Trademark rights.
Copyright © Jim Albea 2011