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Games of interest: Binary Homeworlds

May 7, 2014

A few months ago I discovered a game called Homeworlds, and have fallen deeply in love. Homeworlds is a game of intergalactic conquest where ships of differing capabilities battle for supremacy in star systems…. or rather, it’s a Looney Pyramids abstract strategy game invented by John Cooper 1 (a designer whom I admire greatly) akin to Chess. It’s a great game.

In this post I’ll talk a little about the rules of the game, some basic strategies, and wrap up with some miscellaneous thoughts.

Caveat emptor: I am a rank beginner at Homeworlds. My goal with this post is to expose a great game and hope others find it compelling enough to explore themselves.

The rules of Homeworlds, in brief

Homeworlds is a game for 2-6 players, but since I’ve only played the 2-player version (called Binary Homeworlds) I’ll focus on the rules for that. This is just an overview of the rules. A more comprehensive rule-set can be found on Looney Labs’ Homeworlds page.

What you need to play

The setup

Select any two pieces of any sizes and colors to represent your homeworld, and a third piece of any size and color to represent your first starship. Place your two homeworld pieces in an upright stack in front of you. Place your ship next to your homeworld, lying down and pointing directly away from you. The remaining pieces not used in the initial setup can be placed to the side.

It will look like this:

During the game, upright pieces will represent star-systems, and pieces that are lying down will represent starships that occupy these systems. Additionally, starships that face away from you are yours and those that point at you belong to your opponent.

The goal

There are three ways to win in Homeworlds:

  1. Eliminate all of your opponent’s starships
  2. Eliminate all of your opponent’s starships in their homeworld
  3. Destroy your opponent’s star-system

To achieve these goals you’ll need to move, create, and take control of starships using the rules described briefly next.

The gameplay

On each player’s turn they can take a single action consisting of the following options:

  • Perform an action pertaining to the color of one of your ships or an occupied star-system
  • Sacrifice a starship for 1-3 extra actions pertaining to its color

As you see, all actions are color-specific. The actions associated with each color are as follows.

Color actions

  • Blue – trade a starship of a certain size for another starship of the same size of a different color, as long as the starship you’re trading is in the same system as a blue color and the wanted color is available in the global inventory

  • Yellow – Move a ship to a connected star-system, as long as the starship you’re moving is in the same system as a yellow color. Star-systems are only connected if they have pyramids of different sizes.

  • Green – Build a ship of the smallest size for any color of a ship that you have in the target star system, as long as the starship you’re building is in the same system as a green color and the wanted color is available in the global inventory

  • Red – Attack an opponent’s ship in the same star-system as the red color, as long as the starship you’re attacking is the same size or smaller as a starship that you control in the same system

As shown, most of the actions associated with the colors directly depend on and manipulate the global inventory. That being the case, most games of Homeworlds revolve around the players trying to gain control of one or more colors and sizes in the global inventory. While eliminating your enemy is the ultimate goal, that goal cannot be met if you’re unable to perform certain actions.


The final rule to mention is called the catastrophe rule. On their turn, a player can declare a catastrophe in a star-system if there are 4 or more of the same color in that star-system. When a catastrophe occurs all stars and starships of that color are removed from the system and returned to the global inventory. This is a powerful technique that is critical to keep in mind lest you find yourself with less ships or a missing start in your homeworld.

Simple strategies and observations

I mentioned in the beginning of this post that I have fallen in love with this game. Sadly however, it seems as if my love is an unrequited love indeed. Since my first game in January 2014 I managed to lose in every conceivable manner. Perhaps this speaks to the depth of Homeworlds that a person can play a dozen times and never lose the same way twice.

The first thing that a player realizes when starting to play Homeworlds is that at any given moment there are a dizzying array of options available. However, there are a few general principles to keep in mind in the early games that will help.

  1. The first few moves for both players will tend to be exactly the same, every time (i.e. build a small green, then trade it for another small of a color not in your homeworld).

  2. If you do not start the game with the color blue somewhere in your homeworld then you’ll experience much pain in your game. This especially holds true for beginners.

  3. If you do not start the game with the color green somewhere in your homeworld then you’ll probably lose your game. This especially holds true for beginners.

  4. Try to get at least one of each color in each system that you occupy. This will help you to diversify color, avoid being shut out of colors, and to avoid catastrophes.

  5. It seems to be a game where it would be difficult to develop a personal style. From what I’ve seen, the choice of homeworld sizes and colors and the played pieces in the early game tend to dictate how the rest of the game will play out.

  6. It’s a shame that the black pyramids (in the Treehouse colors) are not used. My son and I have toyed around with using black as black holes and cloaking devices, but neither has stuck and both add extra-fiddly to the game.

  7. The players on SuperDuperGames (SDG) have been playing this game for many years, so it’s tough coming into that community as a n00b. That said, there are many helpful players, but if you plan to learn how to play on SDG, prepare for a trail by fire. (or ping me, username: fogus)

  8. Playing the game on SDG feels very different from using actual pyramids on a tabletop. For me, using real pieces makes the options much harder to visualize.

  9. That said, if you plan to learn Homeworlds then SDG is a great place to learn if for no other reason than the system will not allow you to make illegal moves. Because there are so many options in Homeworlds, it’s easy to do something wrong when learning. My first tabletop game was a disaster of rule breakages, but after 7 or 8 games on SDG I feel much more confident in the rules.

  10. The first few losses were demoralizing because I couldn’t see anything. It would have been easy to give up and never play again, but I’m glad that I stuck with it. I’m starting to recognize threats (more) easily and have started to get a feel for how to respond.

  11. Resource management is the core of the game, never forget that… though it’s easy to know that and hard to manage the global stash. This is definitely a weak point in my own game, and I suspect it’s the same from most beginners.


Homeworlds is easily one of the best games designed for the Looney Pyramids game system. Indeed, the ecosystem around the pyramids has inspired many interesting games. If you manage to get a set of pyramids, then a universe of games will open up to you.2 I hope that this post has piqued your interest in Homeworlds and the pyramids.

Feel free to email or comment below about Homeworlds or to note corrections in the rules described.


  1. John Cooper is also responsible for an interesting game (that I’ve not played) called Zarcana that uses Looney Pyramids and Tarot cards to evolve an ever-changing modular world. 

  2. Another game in the pyramid ecosystem that I love is called Zendo. Alex Payne wrote about Zendo as did Chris Okasaki and Nick Bentley

3 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. I’m also a big fan of Zendo. Haven’t played Homeworlds in quite some time (2004 maybe?). I’ll have to remember to pack more games for my next conference.

    Have you discovered Hive yet? That’s my favorite zero-chance, transportable and visually attractive game.

  2. @Howard

    Zendo is amazing and I play it every chance I get. I do know Hive and although I might be the worst Hive player in the history of Hive players I still like it. The next time we’re at the same conference let’s get a few of these games in!

  3. Matt

    You forgot to change the 2nd half of the “Green” rule from the “Blue” one ;)

    Thanks for introducing me to these games though, we constructed 72 pyramids from coloured card and have been enjoying Zendo

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