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Game Preview: The Chameleon, or Hiding in Plain Sight, Sometimes Terribly So

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: The Chameleon
In recent years, a number of hobby titles have made their way into mainstream markets, whether directly through distribution deals as with Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic or indirectly through a licensing deal or some kind of exclusivity arrangement. In 2016, for example, the U.S. retail chain Target released Codenames: Deep Undercover (based on Codenames) and Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City (based on Machi Koro), with both of the original games appearing on Target shelves as well. In mid-July 2017, I wrote about the Hasbro Family Gaming Crate, the first example of which will contain versions of games that originated in Germany (Leo Goes to the Barber), Romania (Three Wishes), and Japan (Mask of Anubis).

One of the titles that has won the mainstream lottery in 2017 is The Chameleon, with this new version of Rikki Tahta's self-published game Gooseberry from UK publisher Big Potato being destined to appear exclusively in Target (and at conventions) for the time being.

This party game falls into the "clueless player" genre, something that includes A Fake Artist Goes to New York and Spyfall. All players but one know what they're trying to do, and Clueless Joe needs to tag along and fake it 'til he makes it. (God, it's like being back in high school again.) In The Chameleon, everyone but the chameleon knows the secret word or phrase from among the sixteen listed on the topic card, and everyone — including the chameleon — needs to think of a single word to say related to this word or phrase. After everyone is ready, you blurt out the words one after another, then vote on who the chameleon might be.

If you fail to guess the chameleon, this player wins the game; if you guess the chameleon, but this player identifies the correct word or phrase on the topic card, they still win! Thus, you need to be sneaky when choosing your word, selecting something that those in the know will recognize as being legit while leaving the chameleon dumbfounded.

Board Game: The Chameleon

Doing this is sometimes trickier than you might think! How do you reveal that you know the secret word "economics" from among a list of school subjects without blurting out something obvious like "money" or "budgeting"? I've had two play sessions on a review copy in which we just played over and over again — not keeping score, which is optional in the game — and all too often the chameleon knew what we were talking about. You have to do your part not to get called out as the chameleon (because then the team loses), but you also can't be open. Tricky!

One other issue with the game is that sometimes players look at the wrong word or phrase on the topic card, so they make up a non-sensical code word. When the topic was "board games", one player thought the secret word was "chess" when it was actually "Clue", so his clue word of "touching" threw everyone for a loop. (He was the first person to speak for the round, and he looked horrified as the rest of us gave our code words, so he then tried to give another word, which then made it obvious he wasn't the chameleon. You just have to own your mistakes in this game! No backsies!)

Another time one of the players read the number on the d8 as 1 instead of 7, despite me reading out the numbers. Oops. She ended up saying "grass" for the word "beef", but it wasn't totally off as the woman right after her said "milk" for the actual hidden word "chocolate" — and you need grass to make milk, right? It all fit together, but only by chance and some still called her out as the chameleon.

I give more examples of gameplay and this "omega player" problem in the video below:

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