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.
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.
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.