A quick description might suffice as a review of Stay Cool. You’re going to know pretty easily if it’s the kind of game you’ll enjoy. More precisely, you’re going to know if it’s the kind of game you will not enjoy. Stay Cool is a party game about stress. I enjoy stress at my parties, and I enjoy Stay Cool.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Mediocre party games are easy to find, but good ones are rare. The first problem is that the baseline points of comparison are perfectly fun folk games like the celebrity game/fishbowl and whatever name you give to the game that has been commercialized as Telestrations. (Perhaps the fatal flaw of folk games is that everyone has a different name for them). Designing a party game is like designing an abstract game and having Go in the back of your mind. You’ve got to achieve a level of excellence and/or novelty to overcome what’s readily available.
The second challenge with designing a party game is that you’re often designing around failure. Excluding the Apples to Apples continuum, every party game I can think of embraces the classic comedy trope of someone trying to accomplish something with great enthusiasm before falling on their face. Actual success should be rare, to increase its excitement.
Stay Cool leans into this with a devilish conceit: on your turn you will be tasked with answering two different sets of (relatively simple) trivia questions from two different people. Also you have to spell out the answers from one of them using special dice. The box proclaims it to be “the multitasking game” but that’s something of an understatement. It’s more like “the game that forces you to split your brain in two and operate both halves independently”. Given that the human brain is essentially divided in half you’d think it’d be easier than it is.
A number of subtle touches make it shine. For instance, while 90% of the prompts are either trivia or simple little brain teasers (“add up the digits of 1049” or “say ‘canary’ but with the syllables in reverse order”), occasionally you’ll be confronted with a physical task like stacking the dice in a particular order or whispering something in another player’s ear. Sometimes the trivia gives way to purely subjective questions like “when was the last time you ran at full speed?” and for some reason these tend to completely twist my brain into knots.
I also quite enjoy the colorful and simple visual presentation, which uses bright, primary colors that pop but do not interfere. The fact that the hourglass uses high-contrast yellow sand and that the dice are color-distinct with the white dice containing all of the vowels demonstrates a certain level of care from publisher Scorpion Masque.
As I’ve described it Stay Cool is clever but forgettable. What pushes it into my party game library is what happens in rounds two and three. After a few attempts the basic game can become a touch easy. Easy is the party game killer. Fortunately, in a move reminiscent of Vlaada’s brilliant Pictomania, designer Julien Sentis ramps up the difficulty severely as the game progresses.
In round two you have to tell the person manning the 30 second hourglass when to flip it over. If the sand runs all the way through before you do so your turn ends. The most fun you will ever have playing Stay Cool is quietly watching the person in the lead concentrate so much on blasting through the prompts that they completely forget about the timer.
Round three keeps the same trio of brain stretching tasks but now you can’t see the hourglass. Ruthless. Even if you want to play it safe, the earlier the hourglass flips the quicker the next segment of time is. Fun!
Stay Cool is quite good but it doesn’t reach the heights of our best party games. Its brain burn isn’t as satisfying as the thrill of finally finding the perfect clue in Codenames. Its manic energy doesn’t reach the levels produced by Pictomania or The Celebrity Game. And the level of suspense in Stay Cool will never match what you feel during a great dexterity game like Catch the Moon. You also probably want to play it with lower player counts to reduce the amount of downtime you’ll experience.
Still, it does create all of those experiences to some degree, and it does so with a novel conceit that I find compelling. I want to become good at Stay Cool, as trivial as it is, and that’s enough for me.