Sunday, March 1, 2015

You got your deduction in my drawing game

Some designers have a certain vibe to their games that sets their designs apart.  In fact, I feel that’s the mark of a good designer.  If you can put your mark on anything you design then you’ve created your own “sound”.  This is something that I relate most closely to music.  When you hear an AC/DC song, or maybe something from Rush, you know who it is before the DJ ever tells you.  They just have something unique that lets you know that’s who you’re listening to.  Call it a feeling, maybe a vibe.  No matter what you call it, it’s their signature.  Vlaada Chvatil’s got that vibe, even in a drawing game.

Pictomania is, at it’s core, a drawing game.  There’s also a fair amount of deduction. What really makes it stand out is Vlaada’s signature.  This thing is chaotic, and I mean that in the best way possible.  Vlaada has created something unique here and it’s a trip into uncharted waters.

Rules

There are 6 cards in a rack, each with 7 items.  Each player gets dealt a symbol and a number.  Find your card and your number.  That’s what you’re drawing.  And this is where the game gets interesting.
All players draw simultaneously.  While you are drawing, you also need  to be trying to guess the other players’ drawing.  The deduction part of the game comes in here as you know that nobody else has your symbol or your number so even if a drawing isn’t great, you can sort of figure it out.  Alas, many of the items are pretty close so that’s an extra challenge.

When you have made a guess at each player’s drawing, you can grab a bonus point tile from the middle of the table. When they’re all gone, the round is over.

Players award their points to whomever guessed their drawing and in the order the guesses were made.  Wrong answers go in the center of the table.  The player with the most wrong guesses loses points for each star on any bonus tile they may have grabbed.  They get one point for each star on tiles they’ve been awarded and lose points for each star on any of their own tiles they haven’t awarded.  Highest total score after 5 rounds is the winner.

The rulebook looks like a wall of text at first and can be a bit intimidating for what looks like a simple drawing game.  However, they’ve added a summary right in by having Picto, the dinosaur on the box cover, lay out the important parts in speech bubbles.  This makes it easy to skim through but in a lot of ways creates redundant text.  I think they could have made this a lot simpler and not missed any details.  It’s easy enough to read, but it could have been better.

If you’d like to read the rules, you can find them on BGG here.

The rules are pretty easy to follow, but I’m still going to deduct a bit for the wall of text effect.  Final Score – 4.5 out of 5

Components

As strange as this feels to lead with, Pictomania has one of the best box inserts ever.  This thing is laid out beautifully with a space for everything.  I’m really impressed with the design here.  A lot of games have terrible inserts that just get tossed out or tinkered with.  This one is perfect as is.  Just look how nicely everything fits!

The player boards are BIG.  I love this as it puts the emphasis of a drawing game on the drawings.  You’ve got tons of room to doodle whatever you want.  They could have gone tiny here, but they put the money where it counts.  You also get really nice full-size dry erase markers which is so much nicer than a smaller one, especially for those of us with gorilla hands.  There’s also sponges for your dry-erasing pleasure which work better than I anticipated.  
 
The cards are nice quality and have a good finish.  The use of small cards for the player guesses and number/symbol cards is workable, although I would have preferred full-size cards.  It’s the gorilla hands.  Normal humans probably don’t have that issue.



The card racks are easily the worst thing in thebox. These things are flimsy.  I feel like I'm nitpicking here, but it really does bother me.  When everything else is so well done, this really stands out.  They're functional, but could be much better.  In addition, you need to put stickers on the racks and there’s no indication which direction the stickers go.  Look at the symbol cards before you affix the stickers.

My least favorite part of the game

The focus is on the drawing implements and that’s where it should be.  A small deduction for the terrible card racks is warranted though.  Final Score – 4.5 out of 5


 Gameplay

It's a drawing game, right? - It sure is.  Each player is drawing a picture each round which corresponds to one of the items on the cards.  Everyone is trying to guess everyone else's drawings simultaneously, while drawing their own!

So where's the deduction? - Each player is given a unique symbol card and a unique number.  So if you have the star and the 6 that means nobody else can have something on the star card and nobody else can be drawing item 6 on any of the cards. You'll be able to see all the clue cards as well so you will have some idea what others are drawing.  You only have 6 number cards besides yours and each time you make a guess, you have less options for your other guesses. 

How does that help? - It helps you narrow in on answers when you aren't totally sure.  Plus, a lot of the items on the cards are similar so it can be really tough to tell which ones the other players are drawing.  One round of my first test game had a ball on one, a circle on another, and a few things that could look close enough to be a viable guess.  The deduction helps you guess as quickly as possible.

You don't need to be a good artist to win - The deduction makes it so even if your picture isn't great, people will still be able to figure it out.  A lot of people get intimidated by drawing games because they aren't good at drawing.  It doesn't matter here because the clues being visible plus the deduction element make it so pretty much all drawings get at least one correct answer each round.

Speed matters - This is one drawing game where speed matters.  During the round, players are making guesses at each other's drawings.  These guesses are made by placing your number card face-down in the other player's area.  These get played one on top of the other and are resolved by flipping the stack over and checking if the answer is right. If it is, you get the drawing player's most valuable point token left.  This happens for each player so being fast is important.

In addition, you can grab those valuable bonus tokens by completing your guesses first.  On the other hand, if you've grabbed a bonus token and you have the most wrong guesses, you lose those points.  So you want to be fast and careful at the same time.  It's a nice balancing act.

Chaos factor - Make no mistake about it, a round of Pictomania is chaotic and stressful and I mean that as complimentary as possible.  With everyone moving around at the same time and trying to accomplish the same goals simultaneously, it feels a lot like Galaxy Trucker.  That game fills me with all kinds of angst each round as I frantically grab for tiles and try to build the best ship. Pictomania evokes the exact same feeling in me which was really unexpected for a drawing game.

Player count - Pictomania works equally well along the recommended spectrum of 3-6.  What I like best is that you get different game experiences at each count.  Less players reduces the deduction ability as there will be some cards unused.  When you get to the full 6 you can back into your answers a bit easier.  The higher the player count, the more chaos as there's just so much more going on.  I'll play it with any number but the more the merrier for me.  I just love the manic nature of playing with that many people.

A gamer's drawing game - The huge amount of drawing games on the market aren't particularly gamer-friendly.  They're mostly geared towards families or people who game very casually.  Pictomania is different because the scoring and the chaos factor gear this much more towards gamers.  While the gameplay and the scoring are more complex, it shouldn't be enough to scare people away.  Be patient and expect a....

Learning curve - Expect your first game to have a bit of a learning curve.  Processing the moving parts and balancing your drawing with guessing will take a bit of adjustment.  In my eyes, this is a plus.  No good game shows you all it's got on the first pass.  Pictomania is no exception.  In fact, it will take you a couple plays to feel totally comfortable.

The first two games of Pictomania I played were with two non-gamers and another relatively new gamer.  They all struggled with the rules after the first game. Their previous drawing game experience was Pictionary so this was more than they used to.  After the first game, they were full of questions about the gameplay.  One newbie even suggested that the game should have a timer.  One loved the chaos, the other hated it.  After game two, nobody wanted a timer.  They all felt comfortable with the pacing and the style of play.  I knew right there that this was a keeper.  Just be warned it may turn people off on game 1.  Get them to play again and they'll probably feel the same.

Get a clue - There's a fair amount of clue cards in the box, but I really think it needs more.  There's a good number at Level 1, less at 2, the most at 3, and significantly less at 4.  I think they could have fleshed this out more.  After a couple games, you'll be seeing repeats.  The good news is that you won't see all the same cards each time as they are double-sided and will be shuffled up.  Still, it can't cost much to fill the box with these things.  I expect expansions to come along and fix that so hope is not lost.  Frankly, I'm hoping for themed expansions.  That could be a lot of fun.




Age appropriate - The box says 9+.  I don't see anyway that any 9 year old is playing this game.  I also don't really see this as a family game until the kids are a bit older.  The chaos and the scoring rules are going to be too much for young kids.  That said, this would make a great game for bunch of teenagers so it's definitely got a place there. 

Final Score - 9.15 out of 10.  The gameplay is totally unique and right up my alley. It's a ton of fun and I expect it to get played quite a bit. I have to knock some points for the age issue.  While it doesn't affect me directly, I can see it making some folks unhappy.  For the right audience, this game is perfect.


Overall - Pictomania scores an impressive 18.15 out of 20.  I've deducted points for the wall of text in the rules, the lackluster card stands, the age appropriateness, and the slight lack of clue cards.  That said, this is pretty much the only drawing game I need in my collection.  For what I want in a drawing game, this is an ideal package.  On the BGG scale, I'd rate this a 7 out of 10.  I don't often want a drawing game but when I do I'll be going here first.  In fact, this will make a great way to expand people's horizons so I'll probably use it as a gateway game.


The Wrap Up - Pictomania is so much more than the sum of its parts. There's tons of drawing games out there. We've got all sorts of deduction games. There's also a bevy of speed games. Does anything put them all together? Not until now. What makes Pictomania really tick is the combination of all of these parts. Take any one part out and it's nothing special. It's the delicate blend of all three that creates a very unique experience. And that balancing act is the work of a master designer stepping out of his comfort zone into a new arena.

What makes it even better is that Vlaada's signature chaos is clearly evident.  This completely evokes the sense of urgency and angst in Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker and puts it in a completely different context which works so much better than I would have expected.  While clearly a drawing game, Vlaada Chvatil has designed one that will appease all the gamers out there and give them some common ground with non-gamers.

Sometimes a game comes along that is the perfect evolution of tried and true concepts; a game that take what the general population knows and turns it up into something more complex that satisfies deeper itches but still remains accessible to everyman.  It's happened before with Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan.  Pictomania takes traditional drawing games and does the exact same thing, turning the volume from 5 to 10.  I heartily recommend you pick this one up now as this will be one that people are playing for a very long time.

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