Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Defense of Party Games

Party Games get a pretty bad rap, but often for good reason.

Every holiday season, Calendar Club opens up a store in every mall in North America and suckers the general populace into overpaying for crap board games based on cool licensed properties.  Before torch and pitchfork-wielding villagers swarm the store with their sales receipts, they quickly ditch their questionable wares, pack up their tents and clear outta Dodge.  This shady practice never fails to do immeasurable damage to my beloved hobby every single year.

This is the kind of dreck these snake-oil salesmen try to pawn off on the unsuspecting masses:



Frankly I'd rather nail my nuts to a stump and try and catch anvils then play some of these barkers.

Mercifully, all is not lost for the party game genre as evidenced by our gathering last Saturday @ Casa del Andrew.  Here's his invitational email:

Greetings y’all.

(We're) looking to have a party game night at our place this Saturday.  Not sure what time yet…but it will be in the evening.  Alcohol is recommended but not required.  It seems that I have a lot of party games so you don’t need to worry about bringing a game.  If you can’t make it then no worries, I know it’s short notice. If you wish to get fall down sloppy drunk (Chad I’m looking at you) then you are welcome to sleep on one of our sofas.

Games that must be played:

The Resistance

Crappy Birthday

Chad's reply pretty much summed up all of our collective thoughts:

Awesome!  I like the list of “must plays”!

PS – Andrew will you be providing puke buckets or should I bring my own?

To which Andrew replied:

Bring your own Beer / Bring your own Bucket

All of us silently hoped that the games themselves wouldn't trigger our gag reflexes, but since Andrew's acquisitions are usually well-researched we were pretty confident that fun times were imminent.

First up was Crappy Birthday, a pretender to the Apples to Apples throne.

Players get a mitt-ful of five illustrated cards, each representing what a crappy or (relatively) cool birthday gift might be.  Some examples: "European Soap for a Year from Five-Star Hotel, Slightly Used", "Pet Tarantula: Keep this Docile Spider for it's Entire Lifetime!" or "Running with the Bulls: Bring your Nikes!"

On any given player's turn it's considered to be their "birthday" so people around the table submit a card which they hope that player will choose as THE WORST BIRTHDAY GIFT EVAR.  We also played the speedy variant whereby the birthday boy/girl also picks their favorite gift out of the bunch.  The person who's card is selected gets a point.  The first player to five points wins!     

That's it, folks.  That's the entire rulebook summarized.  Okay, so it's not exactly Twilight Imperium, but you're also 98% more likely to pee yourself laughing while playing this.   

I wasn't on anyone's wavelength at all in Game One, scoring my one and only point on the very last hand with a "Co-operative Bicycle" gifted to Dean.  I knew that, being a cyclist, Dean really wouldn't care very much for such a contraption.  Plus, he really hates to share.    

Chad, on the other hand, alternately kicked ass and/or took names.  In an amusing twist, it seemed as if 80% of the so-called "crappy" birthday gifts sent his way he absolutely loved! ("Ooooooo!  A Two-Week Stay in Antarctica!")  He also did a boffo job picking gifts for everyone else, including "Live Music for the Summer: See This Local Metal Band Every Weekend!" for me.  What can I say, I'm a slave to my passions.

In Game Two, I got into the zone, scoring four points in quick succession.  Cheryl picked my "Camp in Paris Catacombs: Spend the Night With Millions of Bones" as a good gift (!) and Chad selected my "Grandma's Collection of 25 Favorite Records This Year" as one of his worst.  Dean also had me pegged for a "Star Wars Themed Wedding".        

Some other memorable kick-backs included Andrew's adamant refusal of a "24-hour Silent Film Festival", my horror at the prospects of a "Three Hour Friday Night Winter Knitting Club" and Audrey wrestling with the lesser of five evil decor options including a "Barbed Wire Fence" and a "Peeing Statue".    
As soon as we finished the first game I knew immediately that it had supplanted Apples To Apples for me.  I'll always have a soft spot for A&A because I've seen it result in so many non-gamer epiphanies, but the images alone in Crappy Birthday really makes it a winner.  I also think that the "love it / hate it" variant speeds the game up nicely by doling out two points per turn.  My only demerit: there aren't very many cards so repetition's prolly gonna set in pretty quick.   

Next up: The Resistance

At the beginning of the game, players are dealt secret role cards that define them as either Imperial Spies or members of The Resistance.  In order to win the game, players must determine where their opponent's loyalties lie, protect their own identity and foster their secret cause.  Bluff, beguilement and deductive reasoning are the order of the day here.

Over the course of three to five rounds, players alternate leading a "mission".  They first select players around the table as team members, the number of which is determined by what round you're currently in. This team composition is then approved or vetoed in a secret vote by everyone at the table.  If the the team is sanctioned it then moves into the mission phase, where success or failure is determined by an internal vote submitted by the team members themselves.

If the mission succeeds, it's a point for the Resistance.  If it fails, the Spies get the duke.  The first team to get three victories wins the game.

I'd like to preface this by saying that I'm pretty crap when it comes to bluffing, lying and intimidation.  Even when I play a video games that encourages some ethical wiggle room, Chaotic Good seems to be the most anti-social behavior I can muster. My idea of concealing evil intent in games is just to go mute, which as you can imagine, instantly casts aspersions on me.

So when I drew the "Spy" role card I kinda cringed.  It's challenging enough to wrap your head around new game mechanics let alone promote some sort of secret Machiavellian agenda by acting like Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart.  This often resulted in me keeping my snack-hole suspiciously shut and vainly attempting to strangle any behavioral tells.  It's a damned good sight that the Spies scored a couple of quick points under the veil of first-game confusion.

Andrew, on the other hand, has a weird affinity for games like this.  It wasn't long before he started calling me out in heated, court-room style exchanges like:

Andrew:  I'm not going to pick you for my team...SPY.    
Dave:  I am not a spy!  You're the spy...

Needless to say, I tanked out on that first game and the Resistance was victorious.  Andrew, Dean, Audrey and Chad shared the win and Cheryl, Claudia and I were laid low. 

In Game Two I was relieved to pull a Resistance loyalty card, which meant that I didn't act like a coke mule trying to clear customs.  But Andrew, damn his hide, was now cast in the role he was born to play.  Despite the fact that I was outwardly thrilled by the early victories of the Resistance, within minutes Andrew had cast doubts on my loyalties amongst the group.

Andrew:  I think you're a SPY.      
Dave:  I am not a spy!  Honestly, I'm not a friggin' spy!  Really!  Guys, c'mon.  I'm not a...oh, fuck it.   

So again, despite a quick lead, the infiltrators quickly puzzled out who everyone was.  When this happens there's not much you can do to avoid an inevitable result since you can just pick the team-members you know you can trust.  The Spies surged back with an unstoppable win, which I still maintain wouldn't have happened if Andrew wasn't so friggin' adamant.

He shared his ill-begotten win with Cheryl and Claudia who both did a solid job in deflecting suspicions.

This is a tremendous game, perhaps my favorite of the night.  It does a fine job taking the tone of games like Ultimate Werewolf, Shadow Hunters, and Battlestar Galactica and wrapping them up in a light negotiation-style party game which is easily playable in thirty minutes. 

The final game of the evening was Telestrations:        

Honestly you'd be hard-pressed characterizing Telestrations as a formal board game.  It's more like what results when a company realizes: "Hey, why don't we take this cobbled together pen and paper public domain party game, copyright it, package it up all slick-like and then sell it in every Borders/Chapters/Indigo store on the planet."

Remember when you were a kid some teacher/scout leader/wise-ass authority figure would try and teach you about the dangers of gossip by playing the Telephone game?  You'd be sitting in a circle with about twenty other twitchy kids and the teacher/scout leader/wise-ass authority figure would whisper a word like "Race Car" into the ear of the first kid and then tell them to pass it along.  By the time "Race Car" got around to the last kid it had somehow morphed into "Purple Monkey Dishwasher".

In the late 80's / early 90's some anonymous and clever little jobber decided to add a Pictionary-style component which required that the next person (and ever other person) in line had to interpret the word in a sketch.  This home-made concoction went by many names, the most resilient of which being Eat Poop You Cat, based on one of the game's more bizarre interpretations.  Needless to say, much hilarity ensued.

Pity that the creative but otherwise myopic fuck who came up with that idea didn't copyright it.  Sensing an opportunity to quantify the hilarity at a retail price of $29.95, USAopoly (who apparently have no qualms naming their company after a shitty Calendar Club game) snatched up the concept and made a formal boxed party game out of it.

The funny thing is, it was never meant to be a game.  Any attempt to "score" the resulting drawings and guesses is about like trying to drink beer out of a cullender.  So, we always ignore the stupid scoring system.

The game begins when you're handed a mark n' wipe sketch book and a card with six words or phrases on it.  A random six-sided die roll determines which word to write on the front page (along with your name).  You then pass your book to the person on the left who tries to interpret your clue in a sketch.  In order to make the game even more frantic, a 90-second sand timer to also used.

So, just to show you how this works, here's what resulted from the keyword...

Now, although Andrew might be a fucking savant when it comes to games requiring strategy and subterfuge, he's strictly clown shoes when it comes to stuff like this.  Here's my boy's  Magritte-style interpretation of "Psychologist":

Needless to say, when I was handed this abstract, minimalist masterpiece I know that no court in the land would convict me if I guessed creatively:

Then, somewhere along the line, "Head Ache" got twisted into "Hairspray", which Cheryl brilliantly interpreted thusly:

Needless to say this one went completely off the rails thanks to Andrew's brain cramp.  But given the fact that we were all laughing like a bunch of YouTube babies, we really didn't care too much.

Next up I was pretty hard-pressed to illustrate the sexually suggestive "Shrimp Cocktail":

In retrospect, I really should have gone with a more phallic rendition since this was understandably mistaken by Chad as:

Yeah, it never really recovered from that...

Another one of my clues was the seemingly innocuous:

This one had a couple of really cute renditions:

Note unmistakable, cat-like whiskers and evocative speed-lines.  Unfortunately after the following Parkinson's-stricken feline was sketched:

 It became:

 And then, after Andrew's decidedly Lovecraftian rendition:

Dean had no choice but to go literal:

'Nuff said.

Then things took on a decidedly macabre bent when Audrey's version of "Rubber Gloves":

Was translated into the following by Claudia:

Which, in turn, was interpreted in increasingly ghoulish ways:

By the time the book got around to me I just guessed "Accident" since it looked like a still from Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive.

And finally I'll show you what happened with Dean's "Diaper":

Here's Cheryl's fantastic translation:

But then Audrey froze up like a deer in headlights and could only produce this:

But what's really funny is that Chad manged to take the completely inexplicable image above and pull this even more inexplicable guess out of his anus:

Oblivious to the unknown detour, I gamely tackled my new assignment with vigor:

Hey, at least my "dead-eyed-baby-as-Jennifer-Beals-in-Flashdance" is wearing a diaper!

So, as you can see by these example, Telestrations resembles a board game about as much as Rebecca Black resembles a singer/songwriter.  Nevertheless, I really firmly believe that even the most hardened grognard and game snob needs a break from playing Agricola and Drang Nach Osten! and just have a spot of mindless fun.

I just hope that these humble suggestions will prevent players from suffering needlessly with the sort of crap that seasonal shopping mall hucksters try to peddle on unsuspecting folk.    


Crappy Birthday:   

The Resistance:


Additional photos by Claudia Langley.


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