Sometimes you feel like you’ve arrived late to the party. Everyone’s moved on from a game, but you weren’t there when it was popular so it languishes in your “I should play this some time” list. Thanks to Board Game Arena, I crossed Sid Sackson’s classic, Can’t Stop, off that list, and I’m glad I did.
Can’t Stop is grounded in the mathematics of probability and nothing else. It’s kind of like Craps. On your turn you roll four dice and choose two pairs. Their sums are the two numbers you advance up a track. You then get a choice: lock in those advancements and stop, or cease being a cautious wimp and remind yourself of the name of the game. You can only advance on three tracks during any given turn. If you roll dice that cannot add up to any of the three numbers you’ve been advancing that turn, you go bust and everything you’ve worked for is lost. The first person to reach the end of three different tracks wins.
It’s almost primal; a struggle against probability, or luck, or the goddess Fortuna (take your pick), combined with the corrupting influence of social pressure. That’s all of it, no? Cold, unfeeling nature, our gods transcendent, and fellow humans living in the midst of it all. The dice will do what they do, and your friends will choose to mock you if you don’t demonstrate sufficient moxie. Any good friend would.
Sackson’s design has a few smart elements that elevate it above other games of this type. Consider the central board, which keeps all of the information in the game in a central, shared location. You’re not collecting coins and you don’t have any special powers. In fact, nothing other than the pieces yet to be used are held by the players. The entire game is housed in the center; focused physical design for a focused game.
The design also encourages risk taking by making two rolls safe. It’s a sort of “foot in the door” psychological tactic. Once you’ve already rolled a couple of times the dice become familiar. They wouldn’t let you down, right? I mean, there are four of them. No combination of four dice are going to give you one of the numbers you want? Crazytalk. Plus you’ve already committed to this turn, you might as well see how it plays out.
So you push it a couple more times. Now you’ve got a significant investment hanging in the balance. One bad roll and it all disappears. Do you play it safe? Slow roll it? Of course not! It’s called Can’t Stop, not Stop If You Have Doubts. In a former life it was called The Great Races. Fortunately Sackson tossed that milquetoast name aside and found the heart of the game. You stop only when it’s irresponsible not to. If your friends push you one more and it fails, they’re getting no slack from you. Everyone, without knowing it, demarcates the acceptable rules of engagement; the social contract that dictates the proper parameters of shame.
Can’t Stop is a smartly made stupid game. It’s all id. In the modern board gaming context it stands out as an anomaly, something you’d expect to find glammed up in a casino. It’s the idea of “push your luck” stripped of all nonessentials. I was going to write “there’s not much to it”, but that’s not exactly accurate. It’s everything it wants to be, and nothing more. Sometimes that’s all you need with a game: clarity and purpose.