After playing hundreds of board games I rarely find anything that feels new. There are many good games out there, but they often blend together in my memory, a mishmash of resource iconography and “cards with text”. This is the common disconnect between the critic and the casual fan–the critic, tired of repetition, seeks novelty, while the casual fan hasn’t yet arrived at that weary state.
The Crew: The Quest For Planet Nine is remarkable in that its newness comes from bending genre into something completely obvious in retrospect. The Crew is a cooperative trick taking game, and it manages to focus the strategic essentials of trick taking into such a fine point that it’s like I’m discovering the genre for the first time.
I’ve always viewed trick taking games as parlour games–the kind of activity you do while chatting about the day and only half paying attention. They’re a palate cleanser between more intense games, sprinkled with moments of surprise and (in team games) humorous failures to communicate. Sure, there are those who play Bridge competitively and I know a lot of people in the board game community take Tichu seriously, but trick taking has always been casual to me.
The Crew, on the other hand, has made me angry. Not because the game is bad, but because I or one of my teammates has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and I was so invested in the game. This kind of emotional investment in a cooperative game has only been rivaled by the real time intensity of Space Alert and the relatively profound turns in Pandemic Legacy. How does a simple card game like The Crew elicit the same emotions?
The silence is important. Like Hanabi and The Mind before it, The Crew limits communication strictly, resulting in long bouts of silence as people strain to figure out the best move. The Crew is better than those two games. It beats Hanabi through variation–where Bauza’s award winner will fall into a set of unspoken (or spoken) rules to follow if played among the same group, The Crew is constantly shaking things up as you progress through its 50 missions. Towards the beginning players will be tasked with getting a couple particular cards (pseudo-randomly determined) to particular people. Before you know it you’ll have a maze of cards that need to be won by particular people, in particular orders. And maybe instead of getting one communication per round (where you can reveal a card from your hand and provide limited information about it), you can’t communicate at all, or until after the second trick. Or maybe you’ll all pass a random card to the left after the first trick. Every once in a while you’ll hit something you’ve never seen before, like being forced to win tricks with “1” cards. You think you’ll know what to expect next right when they pull the rug out from under you. Some mores may develop, but they need to be in a constant state of reinterpretation as new challenges arise.
The Crew contains a sharper tension in its silence than The Mind, because its suspense hangs upon a more intellectual high wire. The Mind is a parlor trick–great for bursts of laughter as people fall out of sync with each other. If you make a mistake and fail your mission in The Crew you’ve made an actual mistake. Friends will say “let’s go again” but you can’t ignore the tinge of frustration in their voice.
Isn’t it odd how the best gaming experiences so often return to that adjective: frustration? I was playing golf the other day, my first time in a couple of months, and it was all I could do but shout into the clear blue sky after I topped two shots in a row. I shouldn’t be able to do that. I’ve been playing since I was five years old, given a cut-down seven iron with an old slick grip and a head pocked by dents. I remember the satisfaction of hitting the ball in the air with that club; twenty-five years later I was unable to do the same. Twice in a row. The worst part is that I couldn’t feel the mistake. Two months without golf and I couldn’t feel my body rising up early on the downswing–literally the first thing you train out of people when they take up the game. On the fifteenth hole I used the same club to hit a sharp, low draw underneath some trees and run the ball up near the green, exactly as I imagined it in my head. Frustration, and satisfaction. I duffed the following chip.
Liebniz’ theodicy, his attempt to reckon with the problem of evil, was to claim that we are in the best of all possible worlds. How can that be? Evil, he’d argue, is necessary for good to be fully understood. I don’t necessarily buy it, but I think there’s some truth there. Grace can shine through the darkest pits, “and the darkness has not overcome it”.
Games by their nature simplify and abstract concepts of the non-game life. “Sportsmanship” is gracious action during emotionally fraught times. Teamwork is about compromise and mutual support. Competition guides us on how to overcome hardship. The frustration/satisfaction cycle, perhaps, reflects ecclesiastical seasons, both large and small. Our base existence is one of hardship, yet there is joy.
Certainly we play games for reasons outside of frustration too. I’m persuaded by Greg Costikyan’s premise that uncertainty drives gaming, and uncertainty can bring thrills and discovery alongside suspense. The Crew provides the discovery of learning. I consider myself moderately adept at trick taking strategy, at least for simpler variations. The Crew’s challenges continue to bend my brain as I adjust to whatever new puzzle I’m presented with. I think the designer, Thomas Sing, could have been even more wild with the different levels, but I can’t complain too much as most have been challenging and interesting.
As we progress in the challenges I think we’re passing a sweet spot, where the challenge lies primarily in skilled play, rather than skilled play and some luck. At a certain point a given shuffle will result in some of these missions being impossible–doomed from the start. Around the early 30’s of the game’s 50 missions I think we’re getting there. I hope the last missions can innovate away from these impossible states, though I’m not sure if that’s possible to do while increasing the challenge. Certainly the challenge of a given mission is determined by how many possible solutions exist. Ideally you want one possible solution for the toughest game, but random card dealing, I assume, will always create enough variation to push that number up to 2+, or down to 0.
This frailty is borne of The Crew’s simple play, with only 10 tricks in a four-player game. Four suits, 1-9, plus a trump suit 1-4. Information is abundant but obscured. You know, for instance, which players picked which cards they have to take that round, which provides some insight into the contents of their hand, but you don’t know if they chose that goal because their hand is suited for it or if it was merely the best of bad options. Each player can communicate a card from their hand once per round, marking that it’s either their highest, lowest, or only card of that suit. Timing this correctly can be powerful. Not using this ability at a key moment can also communicate information. Of course it could also be a blunder. Do your teammates trust you enough to know the difference?
The simplicity of The Crew’s basic structure makes card counting relatively simple, and by the time you hit the more difficult missions you’re going to need to start doing some card counting. Even with everyone concentrating and trying to track the key information, however, I’ve been surprised by how often I miss certain possibilities. Even with all of this information available to players, The Crew can still surprise.
You’ll notice I’ve written a lot about information and tough decisions. The Crew is simple to explain, but for those unfamiliar with trick taking I suspect it’ll be hard to grasp. I can easily see this frustrating (in the bad way) mixed-experience groups, as the weakest player tanks all but the simplest missions. A group consisting entirely of newbies would probably find the strategic learning experience fascinating.
The Crew’s cooperative foundation makes trick taking so good that I’m still amazed I haven’t seen it before. Often in a trick-taker the last half of a given hand will be more or less on autopilot as the remaining cards dictate everything that happens. It’s a quick process and doesn’t necessarily bring those games down, but cooperation turns it into a group hold-your-breath moment as you collectively watch to see if the delicate structure you all set up in the first few tricks can withstand gravity’s downward pressure.
There it is again! That moment where frustration and satisfaction sit, frozen, in a Schrodingerian stasis. We’ll cheer or groan, together. We’ll examine which decisions led to the outcome, trying to piece together, bit by bit, some level of mastery. Inevitably someone will say it:
”Let’s go again”.