Recently I was sent a copy of Mr Game if I promised to review it. Let's dive in!
I don't do reviews that often, but I'd like to set a format that I think will help people who regularly read my stuff as well as folks who've clicked over to see what this game is about. Essentially I'm going to split this into three parts: The facts, the feelings and the analysis.
In the first section I'll talk about what the game is and how it works, trying to keep my own opinion out of it. In the second I'll talk about what worked and what didn't when I played it and try to give some indication of who would enjoy it and who wouldn't. In the third I'll start dissecting game mechanics to try to take lessons away for game design. I imagine your typical review seeker would be interested in 1 & 2 and my typical reader is here for 1 & 3 but we'll see how it goes.
Mr Game is a party game designed for 4-8 players (though probably playable with three) that takes under an hour to play.
The skeleton of the gameplay is a roll and move game, in which players are competing to be the first player to have their pawn reach the goal.
On your turn you roll two dice, choose one and move that many spaces. If you land on a space with an icon you check the rulebook and do what the icon says (Usually teleport to a related space, take another turn or draw a card - some of which are played immediately and some of which can wait around for later).
The element that sets it apart from other games, is that the rules and cards are intentionally ambiguous. One player has the job of giving rulings for all ambiguous situations. This player is called "Mr Game" by default but may choose their own title - in the interest of being able to tell the difference between the player in charge and the game I'm talking about I shall refer to them as "Gamelord" for the rest of this review.
Gamelord is supposed to give rulings that are consistent and fair to all players. If they're not they can be deposed and a new Gamelord will take their place. Mr Game doesn't specify the mechanics by which this happens, so in principle the existing Gamelord should specify how they might be deposed. However another player could equally declare themselves Gamelord and describe the mechanic by which that just happened. The game itself offers no mechanism for resolving this issue, though the physical nature of the world continues to leave flipping the table as an option.
Mr Game can have other mechanics, but these aren't specified by the rules. Rather the rules fail to specify them, leaving gamelord space to introduce whatever they see fit.
The rules don't state the order in which players take turns, so if gamelord feels like it then it's a real time game, with all players acting simultaneously all the time. Or perhaps dice are rolled secretly and you move, only having to show the die if you're challenged and it's a bluffing game. Or maybe it's a dexterity game - the rules don't say that you can't use the physical throw of the dice to move the pieces - so it's okay if gamelord says it's okay.
One page of the rules is marked "This page is unintentionally left blank" leaving gamelord free to decide what was supposed to have been printed there - essentially giving a cart blanche to add any rule that suits them to the game.
I've played a few games of Mr Game and my personal perspective is that I love it! There's something compelling about being invited to push at the boundaries of the rules. The usual social contract for a board game is that everyone is not trying to unravel the game by deliberately building towards edge cases or using a misplaced comma to generate a bizaare and unhelpful (to everyone) conclusion. Mr Game reverses that, inviting the player to push and push to generate more awkward situations for gamelord to rule on.
You'd normally frown at someone who played "Move to any space" to move one of the pieces to "The space between Erica's hat and her head", but not in Mr Game. Here that's a move to be celebrated as a wonderful deliberate misinterpretation of the rules so far and an opportunity for gamelord to show some creativity and style in coming up with the rules for what that means when it's time for that pieces turn (or what the consequences of it falling out of the hat are or whether hat theft is permitted by the rules).
The traditions of carnival came into being so that we could dress up as monsters that scared us and for a day find them an object of mockery and merriment. Mr Game does that same thing with all that we hold sacred in our games. Just for one game - this game - it's glorious to push the limits. To make up stupid rules. And there is so much room for chaos that it creates.
However an opportunity for creativity isn't going to suit all players. Some people can be almost aggressively uncreative. The core game is a pretty dull roll and move experience - it requires the players to push at the rules and gamelord to generate interesting responses to liven it up. Not everyone is capable of doing that and - perhaps more importantly - not everyone *wants* to do that.
Ironically a game in which gamelord is trying to stick to the spirit of the game printed in the rules goes against the actual spirit of the game and provides a very luckluster experience. If the rules are "You can't put it in her hat, turns go one at a time, clockwise, no you can't move seats between turns to get more goes, a space clearly refers to a space on the board" etc. you'll have a pretty naff experience.
The other drawback that the game might offer limited replayability. I've not played it enough times to be certain if this is the case or not - but it seems like the same set of players would increasingly struggle to come up with new and original twists on the game. The fun in this game is coming up with the bizaare rulings, playing by that same set of rulings again (all fixed from the start) would be much less fun. And sooner or later you'll run out of ideas.
So my conclusion is that I'd recommend this game as doing something genuinely unique and that can be refreshing for people who've played a lot of games - but with the caveat that it's a game that will be made or broken by the group you choose to play it with. I'm not sure it could see a large number of plays with the same group, but it's more than worth the price of admission to get to try out a new style of gameplay even if you don't do it often and it's the sort of nice quick light game that you can easily take to gaming groups and try with lots of different people.
Mr Game does something really interesting from a game design point of view: The rules need to be missing enough that there's interesting space for gamelord to fill in the gaps, but they need to be complete enough that it's more than "Here's an empty box, make yourself a game".
As an act of game design it's less about creating a game, so much as it is sketching a skeleton everyone is familiar with and leaving interesting shaped holes. In some ways it's succeeded at this, in others it fails. Let's dive in:
The rules are at their strongest where they imply what is supposed to happen, but don't state it. Starting the rules with "On your turn roll both dice" is wonderful - it implies that you can pick a first player however and play will go "One turn ends, next turn begins, go clockwise" without saying any of those words. That means that the rules don't feel under-specified, but leaves plenty of room for gamelord's shenanigans.
On the other hand it seems that plenty of opportunities like this have slipped away. "Shuffle all cards in the card deck. Keep them face down." Awww! Why bother to say to keep them face down? Any time that something is specified that didn't need to be it's robbing a potential gamelord inspiration moment. Come to think of it, why say to shuffle them at all. I think "Place the card deck on the table near the board" would've been enough to imply they should be shuffled and in one pile, but enable all manner of chicanery.
Once you get into the swing of the game you notice lots of gaps that you'd glossed over before in your default "This is a game, we know what you do in a game" mindset - but just as many times you notice somewhere that there could have been a gap that'd fit some really interesting shaped pieces that's filled for no reason.
However Mr Game has other tricks up its sleeves.
The gaps go beyond the printed rules themselves and into the graphic design of the game. It's no accident that the "unplayable" null area of the board happen to be just the right width that inserting a tile makes it fit exactly as a new space printed on the board was. Equally the diagram for what space type means what is printed unnecessarily large - in fact it turned out to be precisely large enough that a player who was placing a tile "anywhere" could place it over an image on the rulebook, next to the explanation of what that image meant and change the meaning of all spaces of that type. These little touches create some wonderful wiggle room for trying new things with the game.
Another bit of design space that it creates for gamelord is in the verbs used on the card. When designing a game you usually strive for consistent terminology - you don't want one card to say "destroy" where another says "kill" and then have players arguing that those are different effects and something that stops one doesn't affect the other (unless that was your intention).
Mr Game benefits from inconsistent terminology. Looking through a handful of cards at random I see the verbs "place" "move" "redistribute" "switch" "take" "pull" "fly" "collect" and "draw" none of these are defined anywhere in the game. It's almost always obvious what the card means (or what it would mean in a normal game) but that doesn't stop there being a lot of room for interpretation if it's desired.
Overall, despite some missed opportunities, the game does an excellent job of showing an apparently complete game and leaving spaces into which gamelord can squeeze some interesting shaped pieces.
The biggest challenge that the design faces is gamelord themself. There are two pitfalls a design like this can fall into:
1) Gamelord is much more fun / much less fun than the other roles so you wind up with an asymmetric game that people only want to play half of.
2) Gamelord has so much power over the flow of the game that they can ruin it for everyone and this ruins some significant proportion of games.
Personally I found the first point moderately well addressed. By putting some rules and effects into the hands of individual players (via cards) they create the opportunity for players to poke holes in gamelord's rulings. This was as much fun as making rulings (perhaps more fun for me, as someone who spends more time having other people poke holes in my rooms than the average bear) so it didn't generate much asymmetry of desire. If any of our players were upset that they didn't get the chance to be gamelord they didn't articulate it.
I've left the most unusual design choice to be the last one that we discuss: The mechanism by which gamelord can be deposed and replaced by a different player. This strikes me as an important thing, it lets the role move about a bit so that more people can try it out and it means that if someone is ruining the game by making rulings that suck the life out of the game you can replace them. You definitely want to get this bit right.
Here are the rules in full:
"BE CAREFUL If you break any rules or attempt to change a decision you have already made, the other players have the right to revolt and forcibly replace you"
That is super-vague. Much more so than the rules about how the deck of cards should go next to the board. It doesn't say how a revolt works or how many players are needed (One who spots a rules violation? Half the table? Unanimous?) or how to pick the new gamelord - but it is specific about when the rule can be used. It's for inconsistency or rules violations, not for replacing someone making dull rules or to take the opportunity to give someone else a go.
Somehow this feels backwards. The game would benefit from being less specified in when a revolt can happen, to help mitigate some of the potential problems with the game. Conversely gamelord will resolve all ambiguities in interesting ways, which makes general rules ambiguity delightful - but this is the one place that two competing gamelords might be giving different rulings - so it's literally the only place in the rules that a solidly written rule would be more useful, because gamelord can't clarify if there's disagreement over who they are.
To an extent this is a work of art. It's a delightfully meta commentry on the nature of board games when you think about it. The rules only exist in our heads, we *can* move the piece anywhere in any game, we can shove it up our nose if we like, but we don't. We do what we think the rules say.
Similarly the defacto rule for who is gamelord is very simple: Gamelord is the the whose rulings the players around the table are following. There's no rule, no vote, no system - except for that when they both make a ruling players will follow one or the other. Heck you could even imagine a delightful game in which two groups of players are simultaneously playing by different sets of rules enforced by opposing gamelords.
There's an extent to which I can't tell if this omission is genius or disastrous. There is the potential for it to kick up some really exciting situations (and it makes me think all sorts of thoughts that make me sound like I'm high: "What are rules, really?") but it's also the only time that a genuine conflict might break out. Just something simple (and still fairly vague) like "If the majority of players revolt, a new gamelord is chosen" would have been enough.
Deliberately vague rules design is a new area for me, as I imagine it is for lots of you. Those are my thoughts on the pros and cons of different approaches are and would be - but I'll add the caveat that this is all theorycrafting - I've never actually designed a game of this nature.
Whatever I think of individual design decisions that I'll debate back and forth here, this is a fascinating idea for a game and I'm really glad to have had a chance to play and dissect it. I hope you do too