Super Exclusive Game Preview

Exciting news, readers—for the first time ever, I’ve got some game previews for you! Recently, I had the chance to play a couple of prototype games—with the designer, no less.

Now, before I get any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the game designer is, in fact, a relative of mine. Her name is Victoria, and she is seven years old.

But don’t worry—I take journalistic integrity very seriously, and neither the fact that the designer is related to me nor the fact that she is a seven-year-old girl will curry any favor with me, and I will strive to make the following preview as unbiased as possible.

First up on the list was her idea for a word game. The components were a set of Bananagrams tiles and a bag of polyhedral dice, both of which she found and, subsequently, borrowed from me.

Unlike Bananagrams, the tiles are all displayed face up. Then each player takes a turn drawing a random die from the bag. I drew a ten-sided die, and Victoria drew a twenty-sider.

This seemed to create an immediate problem. If, say, hypothetically, one of the players was a grown man who played role-playing games since he was thirteen years old, he might—again, hypothetically—be able to select a die he wants by identifying its shape by touch, whereas a small child would not. On further consideration, though, I can’t think of many games that incorporates a dexterity element into a word game, so kudos for that. IT’s actually pretty innovative.

After that, you can put the bag of dice away, as that part of the game is now completely over and your choice of die is now permanent. I had a ten-sided die, and Victoria had a twenty-sided die. Our dice selections were then not permanent, as, apparently, the second player has the option to switch dice with their opponent. She said that the ten-sided die would be “easier.”

Victoria had neglected to mention that the different dice corresponded with different levels of difficulty, but I should stress again that this game is a work in progress, and the rules are subject to change. Frequent change. Even in the middle of the game.

Unlike Bananagrams, where the players simultaneously attempt to create crossword patterns with their tiles, this game is played in turns. In one of those turns, you roll your die, and attempt to spell a word consisting of that number of letters. The way the dice are used not to randomize the results of an action, but a game state the players must then respond to, is clearly reminiscent of Stephan Feld’s games, and I have to assume he had an influence on Victoria’s approach to game design.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, the elegance of this design is brilliant.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating trying to come up with a word with just the right number of letters. Even with a competent vocabulary, I had to go through multiple words before coming up with just the right count. Granted, it was a quick process, but that trial-and-error approach can be more frustrating than fun. Without a time limit, it felt more like a chore than a challenge.

To give a bit more flexibility, up to three times in a game, you can spell out a sentence rather than a single word. It’s a balancing mechanism that gives someone playing at a higher difficulty a bit more flexibility.

The words or sentences you spell out are banked into your own personal supply. Since that removes them from the central supply, the game becomes more constricting as you play it. The neat thing about your personal bank is that it allows you to leverage an advantage over your opponent, as you can recycle those tiles. If you need a specific letter, and none remain in the central supply, you can just cannibalize one of your own words… not that I used the word “cannibalize,” but, well, you know what I mean. The more tiles you take from the center, the more options you retain in the future and take away from your opponent.

Those banked tiles are also the way you win the game…apparently. The first player able to spell a sentence with those tiles wins. But you can’t use a sentence you already played. And you can’t break up the words you already spelled, even if that wasn’t made clear when you were told you can reuse those tiles.

There is another victory condition, though. If, at any point, one of the players gets bored and wants frozen yogurt, the game ends immediately. The winning player is… unclear. I have to assume that final scoring procedures have yet to be finalized. Having to figure that out for myself, I’d have to say that Victoria was probably the winner, as I paid for the frozen yogurt.

I can’t really say this game is for everybody. Or, really, anybody, except Victoria, and anyone she ropes into playing it. The fact of the matter is, if you have everything to play this game, you have everything you need to play Bananagrams, and should.

That said, and to be more honest for a moment, I’m glad I did, and not just because the alternative was watching Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred. (Though I couldn’t avoid having to do that later.)

If a kid tries they’re hand at designing a board game, it’s a great way to get them thinking. She didn’t stick to a hackneyed roll-and-move design, and actually did throw together some different game elements that a gamer wouldn’t even think of using. It didn’t work, no, not by a long shot, but it was an interesting experience. I could even gently nudge her thought process to get her thinking more about the design, its problems, and how to overcome them. She even came up with solutions! Not great ones, but solutions nonetheless. That’s what those rule changes were.

Even playing the game I could get her to start thinking critically. Remember how you can take tiles from the center or your own reserve? As a gamer, it’s obvious to always take from the center if you have the option. To a young child, it isn’t. She thought that would “waste” the tiles. There was a Socratic moment where I asked her why I shouldn’t take everything I can from the center, why I shouldn’t bank every tile I can, and for whom I’m making the game more difficult.

I taught her how to play to win.

And, maybe the way I put it, it sounds like I’m encouraging her ruthlessness and selfishness. I assure you, I also made sure she thanked the cashier at the frozen yogurt place and chastised her for littering.

If there’s one thing this game does well, and I may be generous in saying that it did anything well, it’s that it got a kid engaged in critical thinking. If there’s another, it’s that it got me to not take her back to the rest of our family and make up an excuse to not babysit her anymore.

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