In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
While there are exceptions, board games tend to be social affairs. They offer a framework for strangers to get to know each other or friends to hang out and engage in a bit of competition. That social component also means you’re likely to find couples coming to the table together. While you might benefit from being perfectly in-sync with your partner when playing together, games can also strain a relationship by putting couples into conflict. One way to avoid those pitfalls is to place them at the forefront and make love and relationships an explicit part of the game.
Asmodee’s Ladies & Gentlemen lets you team up with your significant other to compete against one to four other pairs in what’s essentially two parallel games. The men try to make money by playing the stock market—scrambling to quickly flip pieces representing various commodities to complete orders or sell. They have to do it one handed, and tiles representing turn order are also hidden in the pile but can’t be selected if you want to keep grabbing the valuable commodities, which means you’re bound to try and fail to keep track of that coveted “1” tile, which can give you bonus rewards for filling orders and determines what order your wives will get to peek at a store’s stock.
That’s right. While the men are at work, the women are busy shopping. Victory is determined almost solely by how glamorous the ladies are when they show up at the ball they’ve been planning for, which is calculated from the ratings of clothing they’ve picked up and some bonuses from hiring servants who presumably show you how to dress better.
Appropriately, given the gender stereotypes at play, the men’s role is high pressure and physical but the women’s role is all about manipulative doublethink. There’s one store associated with each player, and the players choose what it’s stocking that day from a set of options in their hand and then secretly pick which store they’re visiting. You don’t want to go to a store where someone else is shopping because you’ll have to compete for cards with anyone else who shows up. If no one goes to your store, your husband has the chance to buy whatever you’ve placed in the window at a discount, so putting something pricey on display might lure someone to your location and block you out, while putting something no one else wants could let you get a little something on the cheap. Similarly, if you desperately need a dress, you can stock your store with dresses and go at it, but you’re potentially letting your rivals’ stores go untouched and giving them the discount. If you don’t take matters into your own hands, though, you can be left at the mercy of the other players, who will avoid playing components they know you desperately need. The more teams involved, the more complicated those considerations become.
Some of the information here is secret so the lady never knows exactly how much money the gentleman has on hand, and the gentleman doesn’t know about a secret servant that might make a specific piece of clothing important. Role-playing helps fill that gap. When I refused to pay for a broach my wife (my actual husband) wanted, the icy look I got in response made me reconsider and put the item on layaway instead—paying a small amount to save it for the next turn when I’d accrued enough to pay for it in full. Gender swapping is encouraged since the sides of the game are so fundamentally different it’s good to try both, and it helps make the game’s ludicrous sexism more bearable when the roles aren’t locked.
Gryphon Games’ Lords & Ladies deals with more practical matters of building up a noble house and ensuring it withstands the test of time. Sort of like Downton Abbey in card game form, it has two to five players competing over potential mates and servants as they race to be the first family with a status rating of 18. Every character is ranked based on their status and fertility, which can lead to some weird yet optimal pairings, like matching an elderly duchess with a virile, low-status suitor to better your odds of having kids.
Unfortunately, capitalizing on a good pairing is hard to do. Having a baby requires both luck on a die roll and giving up your whole turn, which means you’re letting opponents help themselves to servants who provide their own status and are capable of valuable effects, like increasing the amount of money you take in each turn or blocking gossip attacks from other players. Gossip requires two players to execute, with one starting a rumor and a second confirming it, but can have troublesome effects, like removing one of your heirs from the game after they’re deemed “illegitimate” or losing all your gold once the rest of the families are convinced you’ve been hit with financial troubles. You always want to keep some coin around to try and negate these nasty attacks by bribing your opponents.
Rendering an heir illegitimate is just one of the ways other players can mess with your dynasty. A chauffer can whisk your scion away or a gardener can play matchmaker with someone else’s unwed noble, so you’re going to want to find a mate for your kid as soon as possible. That’s not always easy, as gender breakdowns are randomly determined so you can wind up with a singles market that’s all ladies and one poor dude. Sometimes you have to settle. Thematically, the game is great, but in terms of execution, there are just too many ways to mess with other players. It’s too easy to gang up on a potential winner at the first sign of their advantage, and as a result, it takes too long for anyone to pull ahead and close in on that 18 status mark.
Hungry Brain Design’s What?!? Oh… is built from the humor in conflicts between couples. This fast-paced game has two to four players try to catch each other off guard as they carry out an improvised conversation using cards with phrases and social actions. There’s a starting prompt, location, and emotion, but you quickly get off topic, especially when you start with something odd like feeling delusional on a raft. Some cards include questions or demands that you pose to the other players, and if someone plays another conversational card before its condition is met—or if you asked a friend to remember the last thing you said, and they can’t—you win the round. The game gets better as you add more players to the conversational chaos—there are no turns—and has the advantage of being extremely easy to set up, teach, and play.
An even better party game is Slash, which is made for those who don’t take any relationship too seriously or have strong opinions about couples they would like to see. In the vein of Cards Against Humanity or Apples To Apples, one player acts as a judge, laying down a card with a fictional character and choosing between the rest of the players’ proposed paramours. Every card is a potential subject for romantic fan fiction, with bizarre options ranging from Santa Claus to Frodo Baggins, and comes with an amusing description of the character in question to help inspire you, but you’re entitled to discard a card and pick a new one if you haven’t heard of the work being referenced. The designer’s favorite fandoms are a bit obvious, with Lovecraftian horrors and characters from early ’90s Disney Channel cartoons being oddly overrepresented.
Each card is worth between one and three points based on how obscure the reference is, and the winner of the round gets both cards involved in the match. Sometimes you get delightful couplings like Shredder and Skeletor or Ron Swanson with Ron Burgundy. But if you’re convinced your pairing is better than what the judge picked, you can bid one of the cards you’ve won to make your case in the form of an improvised fan fiction tale.
Because you have to bid a card, these funny extended improvisations don’t come up that often, which is unfortunate, but it did give me the opportunity to spin a dirty tale about why the stick block from Tetris would be better in the hands of Link than all four Golden Girls. There’s an alternate “hardcore” version of the game where you have to spin a fan fiction for every suggested pairing based on a prompt from the matchmaker, but considering how challenging that would be and how much it would slow the game down, that’s probably best reserved for when you’re playing the game with some serious ’shippers.
If you’ve already got plans, gaming might not be in the cards this weekend, but you can still look ahead to a night of playing with your special someone by checking out the Kickstarter for Fog Of Love, which launches on Valentine’s Day. This two-person narrative-focused game, which previewed at the Internationale Spieltage in Essen, places players in a relationship and gives them choices to determine how it will progress. Each character is defined by a set of three secret traits, their chosen occupation, and three physical features that their partner assigns them.
Given the sheer number of cards and pieces, Fog Of Love can be intimidating, but it flows nicely once you get the hang of things. A player’s occupation and features help to telegraph the secret information, as do the choices you make in response to plot cards that pose situations like “How would you respond to a surprise gift?” or “What celebrity would you have over for dinner?” Everything also shifts the balance of your character’s ratings for traits like sincerity and impulsiveness. Sometimes, your goal will require your balance in these categories to skew in a certain direction, but many want the couple to be in agreement. Likewise, many plot cards have players secretly choose between a list of potential outcomes, such as whether they’re willing to convert to their partner’s religion. Having a good read on what your partner will do can dramatically affect the results. Role-playing is encouraged to help drop hints and smooth over conflicts.
Depending on what you’re looking for, Fog Of Love can be purely cooperative—meaning you’re guaranteed to stay together—or semi-cooperative—meaning your happy ending might involve realizing you two are no good for each other. Even if you’re bound to stay together, it can still be a challenge to get what you want out of the relationship. When my husband—taking on the role of my high school sweetheart—played the “androgynous” feature on me and revealed that he was a flight attendant, I realized he was prioritizing gentleness, which was inherently at odds with my macho trait. Luckily, the game acknowledges that people can change and be changed over the course of a relationship, and after a few sessions of couple’s therapy to clean up my less charming traits, we were a victorious love team.