I don’t usually review prototypes. Too many things can change by the time the actual product is produced to make such a review practical or valuable. In this case, however, I’m making an exception. Because as good as Apples to Apples (prototyped as Apples and Oranges) is already, any changes in the final product can only make it even better.
Apples to Apples is a party game with a simple concept: match nouns to adjectives. That may sound like an SAT exercise, but there’s far more hilarity here than you’re likely to get filling in dots with a number two pencil. The game revolves around two decks of cards. Everyone gets a hand of seven nouns (Madonna, Tokyo, lightning, etc). On each turn one player assumes the mantle of the Judge and flips up a card from the other deck showing an adjective (imaginative, scary, dark, etc). All other players quickly choose a noun from their hands which they think best exemplifies that adjective and toss the corresponding card face-down onto the table. In one of the most brilliant rules ever designed to keep a game moving along briskly, the last player to get a card on the table has to take it back. No hemming and hawing, please!
The judge mixes up the submitted nouns and turns them over, reading them aloud one by one, and declares one of them to be the winner. The judge can use any criteria he sees fit in making the decision, rewarding literal-mindedness, thinking outside the box, punmanship, or whimsy. In effect, the other players are trying to match the judge as much as they are the adjective. Whoever played the winning apple claims the adjective card. Everyone fills their hand back up to seven, and the judge can exchange any nouns he doesn’t like from his own hand before passing the mantle clockwise. Whoever claims the requisite number of adjectives first wins the game.
Some people might not like the arbitrary nature of the judging process. The game does feel satisfying when judges act “rationally” and give the nod to cards with solid links to the adjective. But the unpredictability of the judge’s fancy means that you can never be sure who’ll get the point, and you shouldn’t be afraid of tossing a seemingly unrelated card onto the table if you’ve got nothing better. Sometimes, you just strike the right chord at the right time.
The real fun of the game is in seeing the unlikely pairings that come up. The role of the judge is like a roving spotlight turning players one by one into emcees and stand-up comics. Getting into this spirit certainly increases the fun as closet Seinfelds get their chance to strut their stuff and riff on the unusual juxtapositions that arise.
Mine was the only copy of the game at this year’s Gathering of Friends week-long gaming event, and it was in demand every week. Groups from 4 to 12 played the game to almost universal acclaim. I can’t tell you how many people asked me where and when they could buy their own copy- and this was all based on a single prototype. We spotted a few typos and spelling errors (Area 54 instead of Area 51, Ghandi instead of Gandhi,Whoopie instead of Whoopi Goldberg), but hopefully these will be fixed in the final set. The selection of nouns and adjectives in the game is spot-on, with a great mix of proper names and idiosyncratic common objects. My biggest complaint is that you run through them all too quickly (and the final game will have even fewer card than the prototype). Reusing them isn’t a problem, since different nouns become useful with different adjectives, but already I find myself wishing there were more. Expansion set, anyone?
My most common criticism of many party games is that they make better activities than games. By that I usually mean their scoring rules render the competition unfair or arbitrary. Apples to Apples dances on that ridge but doesn’t quite teeter over the edge. The activity is the game, and the scoring is inextricably bound up with it. Granted, there’s not a heck of a lot of gameplay going on here- players make a single, hurried decision each round and hope for the best. Just the right speed for a party game. Apples to Apples has all the markings of a huge hit.