Its not a game! (But its still fun)

When talking about board games, one that gets brought up often and often riles me up is Apples To Apples.  A huge commercial success and a requirement for every floor of every dorm of every college campus, it’s not surprising that it comes up as often as it does when what I want to talk about is which specific Dominion cards I enjoy (Menagerie and Horn of Plenty).  One of the things I find myself saying is “It’s not a game!”, which is technically untrue.

It is extremely difficult to define what a board game is, but an essential component in my mind is competition (The most important component in my mind is that it is fun, but fun is a lot more nebulous. Also finding the balance of fun and serious competition is tough).  And while winning isn’t everything (there are games I have not enjoyed despite being ultimately crowned victor), it is important. Behind that large and potentially obvious statement is something a little more nuanced: not only does there have to be competition, but players need to feel like they have some stake in and influence over the outcome.

Here is where Apples To Apples (and the recently released Cards Against Humanity, or Apples to Apples rated R) falls apart for me.  Technically, it is a game: it has a set of rules,* you sit around and play it and there is a winner. And unless you’re playing with a bunch of assholes, it is generally pretty fun. But the winner doesn’t matter.  I say that not (only) as a competitive person that cares about who wins enough to have it be a column in the Standings, but also because I’ve seen “games” of Apples to Apples continue long after a winner was declared by the rules.

“That’s great!” you might say “It means everyone is having so much fun they wanted to keep going!”  And I agree, it IS great, but it also means that it isn’t really a game, it’s an activity.  AND THAT’S OKAY!  Gamers are defensive about their subculture and can be pretentious about it, so don’t take the label of activity as a bad one; some of the best things in life are activities** that in no way should have competitive parts to them.

But for it to be a “game”, you need to have competition, and for it to be a good game, you want to have both stake in and influence over the outcome.  So we hit the “stake in” part, lets move on to the “influence over.”

“I’m great at Apples to Apples, its all about knowing what sense of humor the other players have.”

Well, yes and no. If everyone is playing to have fun and be silly, then yes, the tools you use to win would be figuring out what other people might find funny. Except that not everyone plays that way (theres always one person who takes everything literally), and not everyone plays the same way throughout the game.  In fact, the biggest chance to effect the outcome is when you are the judge, and then you could turn the game into “which of these cards belongs to the person who is losing?”  But then you’d be playing like an asshole.

But in truth, I come here not to bury Apples to Apples, but to celebrate it for what it is: A really fun party time activity.  In fact, let’s go ahead and talk about fun party time activities, because they’re great!

The Drawing Game

This has been monetized recently as Telestrations, but I remember playing this game in highschool with pieces of paper and loving it.  The idea is simple: Everyone sits in a circle and writes a sentence.  They pass that to the person on their left, who draws a picture to convey that sentence.  They fold the paper so the next person can only see the drawing. The next person has to write a sentence to describe the drawing.  This goes until the person who wrote the original sentence ends up with their paper back.  What you get is a game of Telephone only with drawing and with 8 things going around simultaneously.  It’s hilarious, it’s easy, it’s relatively low investment with a whole lot of payoff at the end.

Brandon’s take on “Deformed Mexican Squirrel”

1000 Blank White Cards

I can’t remember how I found out about it, but 1000BWC has been a favorite small group activity for years.  This link will tell you all the rules and the suggested set up better than I could describe it, but for those who don’t feel like clicking: You have to make your own card game while you play.  Every card must have three things: A title, a picture, and what the card does.  New cards are made before each game and during each game and at the end of the game everyone gets together and decides which cards were the most fun and will get used in the next game.

Improv Games

Alright, so these take a little more bravery, but who doesn’t want to play a round of Busted Tee?*** or Bad Raps?  OK, so it may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for funny non sequitors, you could do worse.

In sum,

If you’re looking for a silly game with a winner, go with something like Balderdash.  If you want a fun activity, feel free to suggest Apples to Apples, but don’t pretend it’s deeper than it is.  It’s fun, and that is enough.

——————————————————————————————————————–

*I’m not going to go into too much depth on this, because I don’t want to write three or four more paragraphs on it, but another major gripe I have with A2A is that whenever I see it played in a group of 5 or more, there’s a disagreement on whether or not you’re allowed to lobby the judge, and how much, and what exactly you’re allowed to say.  Games with that much disagreement on the rules are bad games.

**Singing, grilling food, drinking beer, comedy, sex, watching TV, catching up with old friends, exploring a new place, building sandcastles, spending time with small children

***For the non improvisors in the audience, Busted Tee works like this: you stand in a circle and everyone chants “Whats on your Tee? Whats on your busted Tee?” One person describes an image “Okay, so its a clock, but instead of hands its got sharks” and the next person says the words that go underneath it “Every week is shark week” or “Ridgemont Highschool class of 1977” or something that either makes sense or doesn’t. Then the chants starts up and the person who was putting the tagline on the image says the next image.

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11 thoughts on “Its not a game! (But its still fun)

  1. I think you’ve been playing with the wrong people. Whenever I play Apples To Apples, we care who wins. 🙂

    And while it’s definitely about knowing what people like, it’s definitely not strictly “sense of humor.” It’s all about gauging which interpretation the dealer is likely to take. Out of curiosity, would you consider Diplomacy a game?

    • I think there are competitive games with a similar amount of silliness to A2A (Balderdash for instance), but for me, the way to play competitively for A2A is that the dealer should be trying to guess what the person with the least amount of points played. And that sucks all the fun out of the game (and if everyone played that way the correct play would be to play your cards randomly, which is a super boring strategy).

      As for Diplomacy, I’d definitely call it a game, although I’ve never played it.

      • I’ll grant you that the dealer doesn’t have much opportunity to compete, but reducing the game (or activity) to just the dealers moves doesn’t take into account the competition between the remaining players. IMO, that’s one of the reasons that the dealer rotates. Being the dealer is the least fun part of the game – it’s basically just a pass.

        In my experience, Diplomacy has similarities. It’s a game about gauging other people and playing accordingly. Sometimes, there will be no (realistic) moves that will directly improve your ability to win the game, so your turn will either be a pass or a very indirect move towards improving your situation.

    • Having Josh’s permission, I’d like to weigh in here.
      I’ve played Diplomacy exactly once. It was an unpleasant experience, the details of which are for another time (I will write a post if people are interested). But it is absolutely a game. It has rules, a goal, obstacles in the form of player conflict and board position, meaningful choices, a clear cut metric for victory. It is not unique, but rare, in its mechanics; there are no random components, only player choices and outcomes. And while certain scenarios do not allow for immediate gain, all decisions are meaningful, and do directly affect your chances to win, be it long term or short term.
      I’m sorry, but A2A’s decision process is mostly bogus. You play the best card in your hand based on your knowledge of the judge, true; that’s not reading, that’s speculation, and it doesn’t affect other players’ plays. You don’t know what their cards are, you only have your cards and your impression of the judge. And if you purposefully play an inappropriate card hoping it will get picked, that’s totally arbitrary. It’s different from the type of gauging/play/response you use in Diplomacy.
      The players are in competition, yes, and the dealer rotates to allow equal opportunity for all players to score (we always played with the winner becoming the judge). FWIW, the judge was always the most fun in our group, not the least. And that was largely because the judge’s social component is the largest (she’s the arbiter, everyone talks to and potentially lobbies her, and she decides who lives, who dies), and her ability to score points is negated, which was usually the least interesting part of our games.
      To conclude: I play to win, all the time, all the games. And the reason I enjoyed A2A is because I can turn that part off and not give a care, because concern over the victor is needless stress in a game where victory has always been arbitrary.

      • Brandon, you don’t need my permission to comment, but I appreciate the thought 🙂

        Maitland, I do see similarities between A2A and Diplomacy in that they are both based heavily around social elements, but I think their differences are far more important than how they are the same. Yes they both involve a lot of lobbying (and technically Brandon, A2A does have rules and a goal and a metric for victory, although I agree that decision making is basically arbitrary), but the amount of information known is extremely different.

        I think there are skills you could take from one game to the other, but I think the point of Diplomacy is very much to win and the point of A2A is to have fun.

      • Josh: “I think the point of Diplomacy is very much to win and the point of A2A is to have fun.”

        I think we all know what you mean when you say this, and obviously I can’t disagree, but this way of phrasing things, I think, makes it hard to think concretely about how each game works. The point of every game – even Diplomacy – is to have fun, unless you’re playing in a professional tournament. I guess I’d say that the point of Diplomacy is to demonstrate that you have a better theory of mind, while the point of Apples is to be funny. Of course what we all know you mean is that in Apples each optimal individual play is the one that’s the most fun for everyone at the table, while in Diplomacy that is… rather not the case.

        (Although, of course, people do very often play Diplomacy “perversely,” screwing other players over because they think it’s hilarious, even when it’s suicidal. And it’s a very easy game to add a role-playing dimension to, even without sacrificing an inch of the orthogame aspects – and I suspect the popularity of this may have to do with the obvious difficulty most people have when attempting to play Diplomacy optimally “as themselves.” Some mental distance can be healthy there.)

  2. Richard Garfield (who came up with Magic: the Gathering, among other, less famous things) coined the term “orthogame” to refer to games where players are competing to determine winners and losers at some determinate endpoint – so football, Go, and Settlers are orthogames while D&D, Pandemic, and Apples (as it’s actually played) are not. This seems like a useful concept because sometimes when discussing and theorizing about games you want to talk about this more restrictive category, while other times you want to talk about “any set of rules people adopt for a limited time for recreation.”

    • I am interested in hearing more about orthogames. From you, not Richard Garfield. Would you be willing to write a guest post to anygamegood?
      Alternatively, we could have a discussion on D&D5e (A.K.A. D&D Next), its potential merits and downfalls.

      • I’ve not yet had a chance to playtest Next. (Were I still in Boston I’d probably pester you to join in yours.) But I think I can do a riff on orthogames, sure.

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