In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
In the late ’70s and ’80s, game manufacturers began trying to monetize the mixer. Simple party games like Pictionary and Taboo provided a structured way for a large group of disparate people to interact without requiring much in the way of explanations, set up, or strategy. The genre was shaken up in 1999 with the release of Apples To Apples, which made victory based on the subjective whims of a round’s judge rather than the ability to come up with a set answer. While laughs were a typical side effect of older party games, Apples To Apples made the ability to make the judge giggle nearly the whole point.
That was only truer of its dirty successor, Cards Against Humanity, which has become so ubiquitous that it’s spawned numerous parody games like Crabs Adjust Humidity and improv shows based on the game’s simple idea of making a match between two cards. Other designers have taken note, releasing a recent stream of party games meant to make people laugh.
Of the games we’re sampling here, Red Flags, which was released by the creators of Superfight last November, is the most similar to Cards Against Humanity. One player is “the single” and everyone takes turn proposing the perfect match for them by playing two cards from their hand with positive attributes like “you’ll never have to work as long as you’re with them” or “is the most attractive person you’ve ever seen.” Once those are all on the table, each person gives a “red flag,” like “on death row,” to the player to their left. Then the single chooses their best match, awarding the player who designed the date they chose with a point. Everyone draws a new hand and the process repeats with a new single.
While success in Apples To Apples and Cards Against Humanity is often based on how well you know the judge’s personality, here it’s about their interests and pet peeves. A date proposed for me was looking pretty good until my husband, who knows my hatred of fast food, played a red flag that said it would have consigned me and my fictional partner to eating off the dollar menu so long as we were together. There are also cards with blank spaces that let you get even more specific, like enticing a Star Wars fanatic at the table with the chance to ride in his date’s Millennium Falcon. Red Flags’ first expansion, Dark Red Flags, adds some dramatically worse options like “thinks Hitler had some good ideas” and “shouts fuck at any baby they see.” Despite the expansion’s name, the cards have the same color backs so they can easily be shuffled into the regular deck, but given how much they changed the tone when they appeared, we preferred to keep them separate and let each single opt for what form of flags they wanted.
Because of its similarity to Cards Against Humanity, Red Flags also suffers from one of that game’s biggest weaknesses: replayability. After just a few rounds, our table of eight players started to see the same cards again. A few house rules could improve things. Keeping your hand after every round, with the exception of providing some way to get rid of cards you don’t think will work for anyone, lets you strategize by saving cards for certain players while also making the cards recycle less often. Another idea would be to let players put their red flags on anyone, loading up a date that seems particularly appealing with flaws and possibly allowing someone with simpler perks to squeak by.
Punderdome posed the biggest challenge in this batch of post-CAH comedy games. Based on Brooklyn’s “Punderdome 3000” competition, it asks players to come up with the best pun they can in 90 seconds based on randomly selected cards, at which point a judge picks their favorite. A lightning round, where you’re asked to come up with a pun as an answer to a question like, “Why are trees such good friends?” awards one team with bonus time. Each of those questions has a suggested answer but the first person to come up with something gets the time, even if it doesn’t quite make sense like the “because they never leave” answer that induced groans in my play test.
You might want to give everyone some extra time if you’re not playing with a bunch of writers, comedians, or serious pun lovers. It’s far too easy to have someone get nervous and stuck, leaving players or a team feeling bad about not coming up with anything at all. But with the right mix of people you’ll be rewarded (or punished, depending on your tolerance for puns) when the mix of “Beatles” and “diner” leads to people singing lines like “I want to hold your ham…” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Sandwich…” the fusion of “dessert” and “fraternity” leads to suggesting college students with a sweet tooth rush Kappa Theta Apple Pie and avoid hazing-nut ice cream.
Galactic Sneeze’s Spank The Yeti, which completed a successful Kickstarter on June 18 and is accepting preorders now, has the vulgarity of Cards Against Humanity but a higher level of replayability thanks to its structure. Developed by the team behind Schmovie, Spank The Yeti is a riff on the game “kill, marry, fuck” containing one deck of actions like “suckle the teat of” and another of targets like “the Wu Tang Clan.” Each round, one player lays down three actions and three targets and then stacks a set of lettered cards to indicate their matches of choice. All the other players get their own cards to stack and earn points based on how well their guesses match up with what the player picked.
The game is a bit too reliant on contemporary celebrities, which has the potential to date it quickly or make the less pop culture savvy feel left out. In our game, we gave people the chance to just trade out cards if they hadn’t heard of the subject or just didn’t have a strong opinion about someone. But beyond that one weakness, Spank The Yeti provided fodder for some hilarious arguments about the merits of various choices. There was a hot debate about whether you’d get to choose your spot in the human centipede since that really changed the decision of whether or not it was a good idea to share it with Sarah Palin. Sometimes victory came down to understanding a player’s priorities and knowing they’d be willing to deal with some particularly unpleasant options to preserve the delight that would be singing karaoke with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
Formal Ferret Games’ Bad Medicine was released last November and is already out of print, though it’s available in print-and-play form and a reprint is in the works. The game puts players in the role of employees at a big pharmaceutical company, developing drugs to treat the round’s chosen malady. The game has rich replay potential as each card has three parts and can be used to represent part of the drug’s name, how it works, or its side effect.
There are two versions of the rules, meant to customize it for groups of varying sizes. For groups of three and four, all players take turns pitching their drug, playing three cards that spell out the drug’s hard-to-pronounce name one syllable at a time and two that list an effect in vague terms like “body temperature” or “finger nails.” With those pieces in hand, you give a pitch, explaining how the medicine works, perhaps warding off nightmares by keeping your body temperature cool so you can get a good night’s sleep while also ensuring your finger nails never get so long that you could injure yourself and others with nocturnal flailing. Then each player hands you a side effect card. You choose one to attach to your drug and try to explain why it’s not that bad. The process repeats around the table, and once everyone has made their pitch, every player votes for their drug of choice (you’re not allowed to vote for your own). Each vote you receive is worth two points, and the side effect of the drug with the most votes serves as the next round’s malady.
We didn’t play that version both because we had eight people and the section rule set seemed like the better version. With five to eight players, you have a randomly assigned partner each round and alternate between developing the drug—choosing all the various factors from the solo version, including your side effect—and pitching the drug to the table. Unfortunately, the company you work for is so big that the scientists don’t talk to their pitch people, who must improvise their spiel while flipping cards off the top of a pile handed to them by their partner.
Formulators can choose strategies like picking the least awful side effect or going for something totally ridiculous that they think their partner can spin and might crack everyone up. One drug had the unfortunate effect of making a demon burst from your head, but a fast-thinking friend noted “we’ve heard no complaints from patients about that.” Other times it’s worth it to just go for a fun name—one drug won its round largely on the strength of ending with the word “porn”—or weird effects like “pavement” that your partner will have to struggle to integrate. While the drug makers are choosing, clever players in the PR role brainstormed ways to sell whatever they get handed, sometimes going so far as to script a cheesy infomercial. The side effect from the chosen drug still becomes the next malady, so you can wind up with minor afflictions, like “your urine turns pink,” being treated in the next round with medications whose own side effects were way worse. There’s nothing stopping voters from purposefully picking drugs with nasty side effects for the fun of watching everyone in the next round struggle to develop the best cure for a sentient yeast infection.