Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Inside Calliope Games

We read a lot about games in a typical week. A lot. No, more than that. I mean a lot. We know we're onto something deserving of more investigation when we read about someone that has a slightly different take on the gaming world than most of the 'competition'. When we read about Calliope Games we were intrigued. Calliope Games is fronted by Ray Wehrs, with a design team headed up by Jordan Weissman and Seth Johnson. The team was on hand at Gen Con to give us a tour of their booth, and the four games they had on display.
What makes Calliope Games just that little bit different is that they pay a lot more than lip service to the idea of the 'family' game (whatever that might be. Go ahead, it's tougher to define than you might think.) As Ray explained, 'We really believe in bringing family and friends together across the tabletop. All our games can be played in less than an hour, making them ideal to play in that space between the evening meal and bedtime. All our games are playable for anywhere from 2-6 players, so nobody has to sit out, and you're not going to be unable to play because you can't find a fourth person.'
Key to the company philosophy is an approach to 'family' games that runs contrary to the idea that 'family' equals 'kids'. 'We don't want to make games where Mom and Dad have to take a step backwards to play, and are quickly bored, or have to deliberately play badly to give the kids a chance' Ray says. 'Our games are designed to encourage the kids to step up and improve their skills and take on their parents as gaming equals.'
These are all lofty ideals, and words come cheap, but one of the most impressive aspects of their offerings was that, despite the four games all being worlds apart from each other, both mechanically and thematically, they all managed to deliver on those overarching goals of streamlined gameplay, straightforward yet strategic rules sets, and a manageable timescale.
TsuroWe began with Tsuro, the 'game of the path'. That might sound like the cue for a Japanese martial arts adventure, leading to broken bones and self-fulfilment, but it is in fact much closer to what it literally sounds like. It's a tile-laying game, in which players extend and complicate their path, while trying to ensure that their opponents have no choice but to leave the path. The last one left on the path wins. While we were trying the game, one of the spectators asked, 'So presumably there's a points system for, like, how many tiles you got through before you fell out?' The emphatic 'no' was revealing. Sure, it's possible to add things like that to your own gaming sessions, running a series of paths, with an overall points score to determine the victor. That isn't the Calliope Games way, however. 'If you explain that to kids, of course they'll understand it, but if you make the rules really clean - stay on the path, last one standing wins - they really get it, and can go about the business of enjoying the challenge with a minimal rules set to get in the way or offer 'degrees' of victory.
Ugh!Next up was Ugh!, which is the story of a caveman, with illustrations by John Kovalic of Munchkin fame. Of the four games, this is probably the one that would appeal to the younger age range of children, with three suits of cards representing your monolithic jobs, pets, and homes. Mixing things up are the 'Ugh!' cards, presumably because that's the sound you make when you get hit by one. The whole thing is done and dusted in 20 minutes or so, and that's a timing that parents can rely on, since when the deck's finished, it's game over. Ideal post-evening meal fare then.
Of the four games, Double Double Dominoes was probably the least exciting, both thematically and presentationally. Double Double Dominoes is, essentially, Dominoes meets Scrabble. The awkwardness is that Scrabble players like to play with letters, not letter substitutes, while a good game of dominoes isn't necessarily improved by having to play round the confines of a board. When Dominoes meets Scrabble, should they really hook up and play nice together? We're not so sure they should. That said, this one probably has more depth to it than either Tsuro or Ugh!, so with more time it might have grown on us. Still, we're not convinced.
Got EmWe've saved the best for last, in the form of Got 'em! Played out on a raised platform grid (in a similar way to the excellentQuoridor, players attempt to trap their opponents. Cards tell you where you can place your walls, and how far you're allowed to move. Certain special cards allow you to remove walls, or even walk through them. This game seemed to bring the wholeCalliope Games philosophy into focus. It's colorful, not dull. The rules are simple - box them in, don't get boxed in yourself. It won't take 4 hours to play, nor half an hour to setup. It doesn't make too many concessions to younger minds, but instead encourages them to get better with each game, and to try out new strategies. Most of all, for the children who take to the game, there's lots of depth waiting for them to explore. And when they have, Mom and Dad had best beware...
One of the advantages of being a small company is the ability to develop products that make a clear statement about who you are, what you're about, and the ability to talk directly to a specific audience. That's something that the giants of the industry find hard to do, because they are always marketing right across the genres and age ranges. For companies like Calliope Games, it's an opportunity to deliver quality products to a very specific corner of the market. As we left the booth, one thing stuck in our minds. Whether it's forcing your opponent off the board in Tsuro, giving them a kick in the teeth with the Ugh! cards, or boxing them into a corner in Get 'em!, there's the chance for exactly the kind of calculated (fun) meanness that kids just love. And, let's be honest, that grownups love too.

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