Sometimes I think if Vlaada Chvatil was a new designer today he would have a terrible time trying to get his games published. The board game design zeitgeist seems to be at the point where it has a lot of knowledge about what makes games generally successful but doesn’t quite yet know when to dispose of that knowledge in pursuit of something greater. Designer Eric Lang explained this in a tweet the other day: “Hobby game design has advanced leaps and bounds over the decades, but quickly ossified into narrow orthodoxy. The medium is still historically in its infancy, and there’s no need to get precious about “best practices” we’ve agreed upon for a hot second.”
Knowing when to reject common wisdom is the true wisdom, but that path is difficult. A more wild west design culture will stretch the bell curve; we’ll get more awful games but greater successes. Along the way we’ll get those games that crash and burn in spectacular fashion by trying something genuinely new. Later on we’ll get the games inspired by those beautiful failures that rise to the level of masterpiece.
Vlaada’s oeuvre is fascinating because nearly all of his games live in this deliberately obtuse space where the ruleset seems too complex for what it should be and mechanisms operate in a sort of bizzaro-world logic. To be fair, when put under scrutiny most games operate in a bizzaro-world, but most games have the good sense to downplay those elements. Vlaada lacks good sense, and I love it.
Pictomania, his party game from 2011 (given a 2nd edition in 2018, which is the version I play) is cruel. It’s also hilarious because it creates the kind of cruelty that catalyzes empathy. Laughing at someone’s misfortune is heartless. Laughing at someone’s misfortune because you recognize that you’ve been in (or might someday be) in a similar situation is comedy. Pictionary, the clear inspiration for Vlaada’s riff, creates hilarity as you see people struggle to guess what the speed-artist’s hastily drawn scribbles represent. It’s redeemed by the fact that, while you may be laughing now, your turn is soon to come.
Pictomania’s innovation is to compress that formula so that everyone is both drawing and guessing simultaneously, together. I won’t go into the specifics of how scoring works because it is annoyingly convoluted for a party game. Instead I’ll tell you all what I tell people when I’m teaching them the game: you want to be accurate, and you want to be fast. All the scoring rewards those two things.
So you’ve got everyone scrambling to draw their image before tossing out cards indicating what they think their opponents drew all at once in a flurry of activity. It’s awkward, as you’ve got to make sure that guessing cards stay in stack order so you know who guessed first. Unless you’re at a round table some people are going to be further away from you. Maybe someone forgot to turn around their image, making you look at it from the wrong orientation. Someone else’s drawing may be incomprehensible from any vantage point. Make sure you remove all food and beverages far from the table. It’s awkward and chaotic and so very silly.
Then Pictomania reveals its ultimate con. Not content with merely being an improvement over Pictionary, it positions itself as both hero and villain. It gives you this giddy space for frenetic party game activity before uniting all of the participants against itself. A most noble sacrifice.
In round 1 you’ll notice that each of the three clue cards on display are themed. One might have different kitchen utensils, for example, or different vehicles. By round 4 a card might have “honesty”, “sincerity”, and “integrity” on them, and you’ve got to make a snap judgment of how to draw honesty without invoking the others. The first round of Pictomania you’re trying to play better and faster than your friends. By the end everyone’s simply trying to survive. By putting everyone in the same boat together a sense of solidarity forms.
This isn’t unique to Vlaada’s designs. Dungeon Lords and Galaxy Trucker also feature a survival element where, in the context of a competitive game, the challenge comes in simply trying to not fall on your face. The “Vlaada struggle” lives most naturally in the cooperative Space Alert, but I give second place to Pictomania. In the context of a party game the absurdity shines through. The game is cruel. We know this and yet we still choose to play it. We find humor in each other’s suffering, because it’s our suffering too. We’ve all brought this nonsense upon ourselves. What else is there to do but laugh?