17 December 2016

Board Game Review: ...and then we held hands

Most board games fall into one of two categories: fiercely competitive or humorous (sometimes both). Even in the case of co-operative games like Pandemic, Lord of the Rings, Hanabi, or Ghost Stories, there's still a strong component of competition. Although the players are not competing against each another, they are competing rather intently with the game itself, leading to strong feelings of tension. A handful of games are more story-oriented, where players are trying to tell amusing stories rather than to laugh or compete.

Another interesting phenomenon is the scale of how many players can play in a specific game. Seldom do I get to play two-player games any more. The Dork Spouse doesn't generally like the same sort of games I do, so there are few two-player games on which we can agree, and when I'm playing with friends, there's usually more than two of us there. Even on those few occasions in which I am playing with a single other player, we almost always end up playing games designed for 2 to 4, or 2 to 6. So the number of games I have that were designed specifically as two-player games almost never get taken off the shelf.

And when you combine these, the phenomenon gets even more interesting. By which I mean: when's the last time you heard of a two-player co-operative game?

Sure, most of the co-operative board games mentioned above can be played with two players, but they can handle up to 4 (Pandemic, Ghost Stories) or 5 (Lord of the Rings). It seems that co-operative games are not intended to be limited to 2 players.

...and then we held hands turns all of these ideas on their heads.

A game of ...and then we held hands, ready to begin. The board is in the centre, made up of three concentric rings made up of dots in blue, green, black, and red. On each side is a five-space sliding scale of negative two to positive two. There is a red glass bead on the centre space of the left scale, with another red bead on the space of the outermost ring closest to that scale. Two blue beads are arranged in a similar fashion on the right side. On both the right and left side are six emotion cards, each of which covers half of the card below it, and the top card half-covered by a plain white and grey cover card. On the far side of the board are three stacks of eight goal cards, with one card turned face up next to the first stack to show the red 'anger' icon.

...and then we held hands is a two-player co-operative board game that is neither intense, humorous, nor story-based. The mood of this game is, in some ways, almost more akin to psychology games such as The Ungame. That's not really a fair comparison, because The Ungame really isn't a game at all. ...and then we held hands, however, is. Unlike The Ungame, ...and then we held hands has distinct and specific winning conditions.

Before I palaver any further, let's get to the ratings.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2*
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: Low
   Conflict: Low
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

This game is about emotions. More specifically, it's about two people trying to balance their emotions, both within themselves and with each other, so that they may come together in peace and harmony.

I know, it sounds corny. It's not as bad as it sounds though. Don't get me wrong, this game is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. A lot of people won't like it. Many board gamers, especially the serious ones, will be turned off by the lack of direct or indirect conflict. You're not fighting to kill off enemy soldiers, or save the world from invading aliens, or conquer the universe, or defend Minas Tirith from armies of orcs.

But you might enjoy it, if you give it a try. Certainly, this game (both in theory and in practise) is a bold departure from the norm in the gaming industry. But it works.

Here's how: the game board is made up of three concentric rings of dots in one of four colours. Each dot is connected by paths to the adjacent ones. Each colour represents one of four basic emotions: red is anger, blue is calm, green is happy, and black is sad. To move from one node to an adjacent node, you must play a card of the appropriate colour. So to move from the blue node you're currently occupying to the adjacent red node, you must play an anger card. You're allowed to use cards from the other player's hand as well as from your own, but you must be careful not to cause the other player to become stuck as a result of your actions.

There are two twists on this, however. Each card in your hand represents a more advanced emotion, usually made up of two of the basic emotions. For example, the 'betrayed' card is a combination of red and black, whilst the 'manic' card is made of green and red. Some, like 'carefree,' have two of the same colour (in the case of 'carefree,' both blue).  There is a bar on each side in the appropriate colour, like so:

seven of the game's cards shown as examples. From left to right, they are: carefree (a painting of a fish swimming happily), with blue bars on both sides; manic (a painting of red, yellow, and bronze streamers emerging from a volcano) with a green bar on the left and a red bar on the right; ambivalent (a painting of a black and a white cat facing away from each other on a black-and-white chequered floor) with the left bar green and the right bar black; content (a painting of a teddy bear hugging a small baby) with the left bar green and the right blue; resigned (a painting of a child sitting on a bed in a jail cell with the door open), the left bar is blue and the right is black; betrayed (a painting of a single small flower in a vase with the shadow on the wall appearing withered), the left bar is black, and the right is red; euphoric (a painting of a happy-looking woman on a cloud in a rainbow-coloured sky), with both bars green.

You don't hold the cards in your hand, but rather array them in front of you with one half of each card covered by the card on top of it. The top card is half-covered by a 'cover card.' This way, only one of the coloured bars is visible at a time. When your piece is on the left side of the board, your cards are displayed with the left half covered. When your piece is on the right side, you must rearrange them so the right half is covered. In this way, your current position determines which half of the card is available at any time.

The second twist is that whenever you play a card to move to an adjacent node, it affects your emotional balance. Each player has a five point scale on his side of the board, which runs from -2 to +2. You start at 0, but every time you play a blue or green card, you move your token one space to the right, and every time you play a red or black card, you move it to the left. If you end your turn with the marker at 0, you can draw back up to six cards. Also, you must be at 0 to move into the centre space, which is the ultimate goal. If you are at either end of the spectrum, you cannot play more cards of those colours. So if you're on the +2 space, you must play a red or black card to move you back to +1 before you can play any more blue or green cards.

Finally, there are 24 goal cards. Each one has one of the four colours on it (anger, happiness, sadness, and calmness). These are divided into three stacks of eight cards. The top card of the first stack is turned face up. A player reaches this goal by ending his turn on that colour. This allows that player to discard that goal card and turn up the next one. Until the first stack is exhausted, players must remain on the outermost ring of the board. Once they get to the second stack, they may move to the second ring. Goals in the second stack must be reached on a node of the second ring. Once the second stack is gone, players may move on any of the three rings, though goals from the third stack must be reached on a node of the innermost ring.

Once the third stack of goal cards is exhausted, players may move into the central space. They must be at 0 on their balance scale to do so, however. If the players are able to move into the central space within one turn of each other, they claim victory. If ever a player is unable to move, either because he's at one end or the other of his balance scale and doesn't have cards available to move him towards the centre, or because he is not adjacent to a node of the colours available to him, the game ends in defeat.

However, there is one final permutation: players are not allowed to talk about the game in any way. They can discuss the weather, catch up on their lives, talk about movies or TV, or else just sit in stoic silence staring into each other's eyes. But they can't discuss strategy, analyse potential moves, or communicate about the game itself at all. This rule is lifted for the first time you play the game, to make it easier to learn. But after that, talking about the game itself is off limits.

All of this makes the game, in some ways, feel like new-age pop-psychology claptrap, which can certainly turn off some players. But if you're able to handle this sort of non-standard game format, it can be really rewarding.

One final point: I put an asterisk on the Complexity category of ratings. This is because the rules of the game itself are quite simple, once you understand what it is you are actually doing. But the complexity involved in playing a game without discussing the game you are playing is a different kind of complexity altogether.

So that's ...and then we held hands. A unique game, to be sure. But not without its merits. I certainly won't rate it as one of my favourites. But I'd definitely be willing to play it on those rare occasions when I'm sitting alone with one other friend, if that friend is up for it...

Anyway. That's it for this week. I won't be posting next week, as it's Christmas weekend. But I will probably be here again the week after. Until then, remember to

Game on!

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