Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Five Innovative Party Games

Nothing turns me off quite so much as party games. I like mingling with folks at parties and engaging in intelligent conversations, but if I’m going to play a game, I don’t want to waste my time with some knowledge-based diversion presented as an excuse to get people to mingle or otherwise occupy uninterested partygoers. So I’ve considered five innovative games suitable for small social gatherings that still engage everyone and remain accessible to most people while offering slightly more intelligent gameplay and an overall sense of enjoyment.

I’m tired of the mundane gaming pabulum served up at friendly gatherings, knowledge-based games that certainly engage everyone on a social level but offer little else. I’ll admit that, by catering to the lowest common denominator, such games as Trivial Pursuit, Loaded Questions, and The Logo Board Game seem appealing to the broadest spectrum of party guests; but to those of us who’ve enjoyed some of the more sophisticated Euro-style games on the market today (let alone more esoteric material like roleplaying or war games), these offerings seem annoyingly bland. (Now that I think of it, I’ve never really cared much for parlor games like charades or 20 questions…in many of these cases I’d rather chat with someone and get to know them over a drink than pursue a superficial interaction over a “party” game.)

So I browsed my board game library and racked my memory for interesting games I’ve played that fit several criteria essential for a more sophisticated game to seem acceptable among party-goers:

Number of Players: The more the merrier, but as a rule my party game recommendations take a minimum of four players.

Playing Time: Short and sweet games allow people to to opt in or out and quickly test different strategies…and if a game doesn’t take, it’s easy enough to swap it out and plug in another with enough time to play a few times.

Broad or Appealing Theme: Even knowledge-based games appeal to a broad audience, but so do abstract games that focus on innovative mechanics or games built around a culturally popular theme…the key being that theme, however superficial, shouldn’t distract from gameplay.

Interactivity: The games should create inter-player challenges without conflict becoming a central theme of the game, requiring players to interact with each other as well as with the game. (Many knowledge-based party games have little player interactivity -- beyond playing in teams -- other than the direct competition they foster. Player actions don’t affect other player strategies other than the push to win.)

Availability: At this time these games remain available through most retail outlets…ideally one’s friendly local gaming store followed closely by many retail chains -- particularly Barnes & Noble and Target (both of which have recently begun carrying more games suited to longtime gamers) -- followed last by online internet retailers.

Having an enjoyable game experience remains inherent in these despite their labels as intelligent, quirky, oddball, or innovative. After some consideration -- and in no particular order -- I’ve chosen five more sophisticated games I’d consider suitable as party games:

ZombieDiceZombie Dice: This doesn’t seem like an “innovative, sophisticated” game suitable for parties, but it’s an engaging push-your-luck game with a popular horror theme. Roll dice and collect brain results before rolling three shotgun blasts. Easy to learn, with the different colored dice -- green, yellow, and red -- offering players some strategy as each has different probabilities of rolling a shotgun blast. With a short play time and suitability for innumerable players, Zombie Dice works as a nice ice-breaker game with easy rules and lots of tension.

SetGameSet: Players seek sets of similar and dissimilar symbols on 12 cards arranged on the table. Each card has one, two, or three symbols of the same type and one of three different shapes (ovals, diamonds, and squiggles), colors (red, purple, and green) and shading (outline, shaded, or solid). Players watch for and collect sets of three cards each that are either all alike or all different in each attribute. Players remove the three cards in sets they successfully identify, replacing them with new ones drawn from the 81-card deck. The game claims to handle up to 20 players, though arranging the cards on a table might even engage casual partygoers just passing by. Set’s a game with a very cerebral angle, visual challenges, and fast-paced group play.

Bananagrams: This word game focuses on players drawing letter tiles from a common pool to create their own crossword arrangements of words, each vying to be the first to use up all their letters by the time the pool disappears. Players compete against each other in a race to finish, yet must still complete and cross-link valid words with the letter tiles they draw. The lack of a central board, gruelingly slow individual player turns, and tedious scorekeeping makes Bananagrams far more engaging and faster-paced than that other word game. A round can take as little as five minutes, so players might run multiple rounds and new players can easily jump into the action. 

Rory’s Story Cubes: The faces of these nine oversized dice contain iconic symbols one can arrange and interpret differently as prompts to create story elements or entire tales. Although designed to inspire people in solving problems, breaking up writer's block, and enhancing imagination, they also come with instructions for “games” including those for improvisational storytelling. Use the included game outlines within or divvy up the dice among party-goers and work out a framework for a group story. Give each player a die to roll and have them start and add story elements based on the icon they roll; roll and order them to challenge a player to weave a tale based on the symbols and their sequence; give three players three dice each to roll, with each one charged with creating a character, setting, and conflict based on the images they roll…then pass the dice to the next players to use new die rolls to tell the first, second, and third acts of a story involving the foundation elements. 

Tsuro, The Game of the Path: Packing a very Asian Zen feeling, this somewhat abstract game puts the players in the roles of dragons flying through the sky, following their own paths and avoiding others. Players start their tokens on the board’s periphery, play tiles from their hands that advance their pieces across curving paths, and try maneuvering other players tokens off the board by careful placement of tiles whose paths divert them. Each tile has two entry/exit points on each side, but the curves, straights, and loops -- which vary on each tile -- can lead tokens in unexpected directions when linked up with other tiles. Tsuro provides a visually engaging extreme challenge for up to eight players, with a short enough playing time for people to opt in or out and quickly test different strategies.

International TableTop Day

TableTopDay_logoLooking for an excuse to gather some friends to try these games? Set aside March 30 and join the legions of gamers participating in Geek & Sundry’s International TableTop Day. From the site:

On March 30th, 2013, premium YouTube channel Geek & Sundry (The Guild, TableTop, Written By A Kid) asks all of our fans to go to their friendly local game store, community center, or host an event at home and play more games. International TableTop Day is a reminder to spend more time and strengthen the bonds with the people who matter most, our friends and family, by playing games together. Tabletop gaming promotes many positive social and cognitive benefits like increased communication, team work, planning, and is an excellent stress relieving activity for all ages.

The event has the forces of YouTube channel’s Geek & Sundry behind it, notably adorable geekette Felicia Day and the host of the popular and immensely entertaining TableTop show Wil Wheaton. At the very least host a gathering at your home, but those with greater ambitions can try organizing an event at the friendly local gaming store, school, library, or other public venue. (I’m hoping the friendly local gaming store hosts something, since my toddler doesn’t always allow a distraction-free gaming experience at home….) The International TableTop Day website includes an interactive map to cross-promote registered events and help those who aren’t hosting find a nearby game. Plan a party or find an event to attend to support the tabletop gaming hobby!