Sunday, 8 June 2014

What I'm Playing: MONIKERS

A quick break here before we launch into a four-part special, ignoring the huge backlog of games I've made notes on and instead talking up a game I first played last weekend and just couldn't keep quiet about:

MONIKERS!

Monikers doesn't really exist as a game yet. The version I've played was printed, by me, onto some card we had lying around the flat. The lovely pictures I'm using throughout this post are nicked from the game's Kickstarter.

Which brings us neatly to the reason I'm writing about it now, rather than any of the other games I need to get written up before Mario Kart 8 arrives and dominates my playtime for the next half-year. While Monikers quickly passed its rather conservative $20,000 goal, you still have the chance to help the campaign push past its various stretch goals and essentially help improve the game you, and everyone else, will play.

And unlike most Kickstarter games, you can be guaranteed of Monikers' quality. Why?

Because I've played it, and I'm telling you it's ace, obviously. And also because you can play the same demo version yourself, for free.

MONIKERS!

Monikers is based on a public domain game called 'Celebrity'. You might not have heard of the game, but you'll have played a variant of it. Split into teams, pick a bunch of famous names from a hat, set a timer, and try to get your teammates to guess as many as possible using verbal clues. Taboo + the Copycat cards from Cranium + that 'Who Am I?' game they play in Inglourious Basterds where one of the Nazis is King Kong.

You play with a partly random, partly chosen deck of cards shared by both teams – each player picks up seven, throws out two they don't fancy, and combines them all into a big pile. This gets whittled down in a series of 60-second rounds, as the correct guesses are plucked out of the deck and the remainder are shuffled back up and passed to the next player. You keep playing until even the names that nobody's heard of (Punxsutawney Phil and Thomas Kinkade were the ones that killed our group) have been guessed.

The range of names on offer is Moniker's first stroke of genius: a mix of history, celebrity and internet culture that feels carefully picked to guarantee the maximum amount of conversational silliness. The second is that the process I've just described is only round one.

Once the two teams have worked their way through the deck, the the whole cycle begins again. The scores at the bottom of each card are counted up to find each team's score, then the cards are shuffled back together. Welcome to Round Two, where teams again have 60 seconds to guess as many names as they can, but this time they can only use a single word.

Eventually, the deck will be conquered once more. Count. Shuffle. Round Three. Where those same few dozen names have to be conjured with only gestures and sound effects.

MONIKERS!

Using charades to convey, say, 'David Foster Wallace' is a pretty tall order, but because the card will have cropped up at least twice before, your pathetic impression of a lobster stands a fighting chance. Unless, of course, 'Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid' is also in your deck.

Because you're working with a finite number of cards, of which each player saw five before the game even began, you can start factoring traditional game skills like memorising and elimination and card-counting into your strategy.

All of which might sound like cheating, but it's not really. This is how Monikers wants to be played and, because it's a chaotic party game you're most likely playing with a drink in hand, it's hard to get too serious about things. Instead, this strategy manifests as a makeshift shorthand, a language each team constructs as they play.

(And I have to admit, as beautiful as the cards in these pictures are, I'm a bit concerned about the effect that the added descriptions will have. Our version of the cards just feature the name and a category, meaning that when you encounter 'Krang' (the brain-in-a-belly villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fyi) and have no clue who they are is, you either have to find a unique angle of approach ("like the cartoon sound effect for two swords clashing against each other") or give up and move onto the next one, something that's explicitly encouraged in the game's rules.

Whereas in the forthcoming version of the game, when you've got a minute to fire through as many names as possible, and you hit the same card and there's a helpful 50-word biog of someone you've never heard of, the most sensible thing to do is to read it out loud. It's also the lame thing to do, and I doubt anyone I'd want to play this game with will rely on it, but the temptation is certainly there.)

MONIKERS!

As it is, though, Monikers balances both halves of the party game equation beautifully. It gets competitive in a way that Cards Against Humanity, generally considered the gold standard around these parts, never does but it also encourages you to be even more inventive, more silly, more filthy. Unlike Cards Against Humanity, you don't have to work blue – only a few of the cards are rude ('Fluffer', 'Goatse', 'James Deen' with that vital second 'e') – but it quickly goes that way because your friends are disgusting human beings.

Take the example of 'Rick Santorum', which cropped up in one of our group's games. Santorum is a US Republican Senator most famous for being a vocal opponent of gay marriage, but as far as clue-giver Dav 'Ain't No Stinkpen' Inkpen is concerned, the single most salient fact about him is that his surname has been coined, in a moment of beautiful internet vengeance, as the term for a slushy byproduct of anal sex.

Our team has no idea about any of this. But when the cards finally get back to me and I draw 'Rick Santorum', having no clue who this is but figuring that they sound appropriately gross, I look at Dav and say "anal leakage?". He gets it instantly.

By the second round, this becomes simply "leakage". By the third, I'm standing up making a deeply unpleasant combination of hand motions and mouth noises that probably factors into the imminent closing of the bar we're in.

Monikers has you reaching for old in-jokes to communicate ideas as quickly as possible, mining years of friendship for a word you can use instead of 'horse'. Better still, by repeating the same cards over and over, it forces you to create new ones too.

MONIKERS!

Other games what I've been playing:

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.