Monday, November 27, 2017

Dave Reviews: A Box That Dreams Of Being A Game

Dream On

Readers of earlier posts may recall that I started doing reviews on this blog in part for the space to shit on Shahrazad, the coaster set that wanted to be a game. Prep your pants: it's time to review another goddamned non-game.

Spoiler alert: I actually like Dream On!, but it's not going to sound like it for a while. Although the irritation with seeing something like this packaged and sold as a game is real, this isn't nearly as problematic as with Shahrazad. Shahrazad was designed for one or two people, which meant all the enjoyment needed to be derived from the package itself. Dream On!, by comparison, plays up to eight, and its quality as entertainment is much more derived from the group you're playing with.

It's about as simple as simple gets: there's a deck of picture cards, and everyone takes three. One person puts a card down, starts a story, and draws a new card. After that anybody can play a card to add to the story, drawing a new one each time they do. After the two-minute timer runs out, the pile is flipped face down and players take turns, in order, remembering each piece of the story. Getting it right is worth two points; getting it right with help is worth one; and getting it wrong loses you two. There's a point scale at the end to gauge your performance, much like in Shahrazad and Hanabi.

I bring those two games in because I want to make a comparison between Dream On! and each of them. All three have something in common: they're cooperative, they have a basis for scoring points, and they have a scale by which your points performance can be judged. Shahrazad is a garbage non-game. Hanabi is absolutely a game, and an excellent one at that. Dream On! doesn't fit either of those descriptions. So why are these so disparate when they have so much of their cores in common?

If you google 'game', the definition is this: "a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck." Not all games are competitive between the players themselves; co-op games like Pandemic are a serious competition between the players as a group and the game's systems. Hanabi fits this definition right away. Just like Pandemic has you compete against the game to save the world, Hanabi has you compete against the game to finish the fireworks display. True victory only comes when you have all twenty-five tiles laid out in order. The point scale exists so people can have an idea how well they did when they fall short of this, because Hanabi is fucking difficult without people who know exactly what to do and understand how each other's decisions are speaking because they can't.

Technically, Shahrazad fits this definition as well. The game sets forth a simple set of rules and pieces, and you need to use those to finish the stories in a way that scores maximum points. That would make it a very bad game rather than not a game at all. However, I still don't think of it as a game for the reason outlined in my review: it's solvable. I have one additional definition that I believe is required for something to be a game, and that's fluidity. Either it has to offer different challenges for you to overcome each time; or, if the game throws the same things at you in the same order (think Super Mario Bros., or most platforming video games, for that matter), you have to have different ways to overcome the same obstacles. Shahrazad doesn't have that; it's a twenty-two piece puzzle with a slightly more complex method of putting it together than an actual jigsaw puzzle has.

The reason Dream On! isn't a game, on the other hand, is that there is no goal—to hearken back to the base definition of a game, there's nothing to be decided. In both Hanabi and Shahrazad, there's a point of completion that you're striving to reach. In Dream On!, you just go until the timer runs out, and you get however many points you earn based on your memory. There's a reason that points are used as a way to compare how different people or teams have done, and they work fine when a point total can be set against a maximum score, but when there is no rational maximum (nobody is getting through the entire deck), they don't really do anything. Thus, there is no actual game here.

What this is, instead, is an activity, a team-building exercise. It feels like the designers got caught between the need to make this a game so they could sell it and what it really is, because the 'game' parts are the worst ones. Not only is the point scale meaningless, but the negative points for getting the next card in the dream wrong—and you're not allowed to skip any—are punishing. When our group played, all we did was say two or three words related to each card because it was far easier to remember that way, but that goes against the stated intent of the creators to turn every card into a real piece of a story. We also completely disregarded the scoring.

And we had a goddamned fantastic time.

Ignore the score for this game. In the interests of some sort of objectivity, I take into account what the game does and not what could be done with it by enterprising individuals when I dish those out. And even as an activity, this isn't very good if the directions are tightly followed. It's just a really complicated version of Memory, and if you try to come up with sentence-long story ideas for each card, you're going to bork a bunch of them when doing the recall. Or, maybe, you'll get them right with help, but then you still won't get max points.

Play with this, even get a copy if you run a class or other type of group (four groups of four or five can compete against each other, and then it's definitely a game), and do what's most fun. It really can be a good time. The designers just couldn't seem to figure out where that good time sits.

Score: Six shoddy memories out of eleven I wasn't playing much attention to.

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