It's late afternoon in Culver City and a small group of IndieCade attendees are sitting around a table, tiny treasure chests in front of us. Our palms are clasped shut. We may or may not be holding coins inside them. We are wearing our best poker faces as we try to discern who might have slighted whom. Did the Captain secure us a large booty? Did Smee betray the Captain? Can the crew pull off a successful mutiny?
The game goes by quickly. With each round, new people vie for the role of Captain as they give impassioned speeches filled with dreams of gold. Players bribe each other for votes. Captains spin yarns about their greatest triumphs. Sometimes, crews mutiny. Sometimes, the Captain and Smee fall in defeat.
Every October, IndieCade takes over downtown Culver City for a few days of independent gaming. Video games dominate here, but there's more to the festival than that. In between the crowds waiting for a chance to demo the latest electronic adventures, there are small groups playing with cards and dice and other old fashioned gear.
Mr. Smee is one of those old fashioned game with loads of charm and ingenuity. Created by Wise Guys Events, the yet-to-be-released pirate adventure requires very little equipment and a lot of imagination. “The original idea was that we would have as few game pieces as possible. Maybe none,” says Greg Snyder, who is half of the L.A.-based duo behind the game. “We came really close.”
The game, which they have tested about dozen times now, is minimally constructed. There are coins– “You have to have something to count, but it could be anything,” says Snyder– and little chests to hold the loot. There's a twenty-sided die that's probably the most unusual piece of gear. The die is used to determine how many coins will be distributed in a single round. There are quite a few rules, but it's not terribly complicated. The end result is simple. Whoever has the most coins following five rounds of play is the winner.
Every round begins with an election. Two people run for Captain, with each one selecting another player to be their Smee (named for Captain Hook's sidekick in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan stories). From there, the crew goes on an adventure that the Captain makes up on the spot. Only the Captain and Smee know how much coin was gathered during the last raid and only Smee has control of the money. The Captain and crew have to determine if Smee pulled a fast one on them. In the midst of all this, bribes are given and received. “Bribery is absolutely encouraged,” says Snyder.
Snyder and his game design partner, Myles Nye, were inspired by party games like Mafia and Werewolf, where players have to deduce who are the villains in the group. It's a game where the story is dictated by the players and that's what makes it really fun.
Wise Guys Events build a lot of games, in fact, they're currently Kickstarting a massive mystery game to take place in downtown Los Angeles next year. Much of their work, though, involves team-building and orientation games for companies and schools. That sort of experience influences the types of games they create.
“We love playing with people in real time,” says Snyder. “You're generating material and jokes that can carry on…depending on where you raid or what campaign promises you make.”
With the recent success of IndieCade alum Cards Against Humanity, it's not surprising to see a handful of card-based games dotting the festival aisles. One of the most unusual is Stranger Danger. Made by John Teasdale and Albert Kong of the company Stranger Wager, the game is meant to be played in places filled with strangers, like a bar. Players will draw one card that notes an identifying feature, like a handbag. You locate a stranger in the room with that feature. Then you pull a card that features either a question or request. If it's a question, you guess how the stranger might answer it, then pose the question to said stranger. If it's a request, well, you'll need to ask the stranger for a favor.
“The whole reason this game work is because kids are brought up with this 'stranger danger' mentality,” says Teasdale, a former software engineer who now runs scavenger hunts. “It's important when you're a kid. When you grow up and it's in your brain as a residual after effect of how you're raised, it's not as useful. In fact, it becomes sort of a deterrent for you.”
Stranger Danger is a game that encourages real world interaction between people who don't already know each other. “We designed these challenges for a couple different reasons,” says Teasdale. “Some are designed to be shocking. Some are meant to incite a conversation in the stranger's group after you left.”
But why use cards? “Mainly, it's a lot easier,” Teasdale says. “It's a lot easier to make physical card products.”
In Metagame, there are critics and there are players and cards that are divided into questions and cultural references. The critic pulls a question — for example, “Which feels like first love?” — from one deck. You play the card that best answers the question. The game doesn't test your selections, but, rather, how well you can defend your choice.
Created by Local No. 12, a design trio that includes professors from Parsons and NYU, Metagame first appeared at San Francisco's Game Developers Conference. In its original incarnation, it was played on a large scale and intended to get people debating the merits of different games. The version at IndieCade is meant for smaller groups and its topics cover a wide spectrum of modern arts, entertainment and technological developments.
Pierce Wolcott and Anthony Marefat are MFA students and Parsons who were running the game on Saturday afternoon. After hours of playtime, they got to see how people reacted to Metagame. “Everyone was getting vocal, but not in an argumentative way,” says Wolcott. Marefat adds, “It was like getting to know each other without getting to know each other.”
There's a certain kind of high you get from playing games with people inside the same physical space, and it goes far beyond competition. “The winner is almost immaterial at a certain point,” says Marafet.
Indeed, there's a sense camaraderie that came from playing the old fashioned games at IndieCade. Marafet likened it to the business world. “If you have a Skype meeting, you're going to get the work done, but an in-person meeting always ends up being exponentially more helpful,” he says. “There's a lot that goes unsaid in body language and trying to form ideas in real time. There's a lot more happening. There's a lot more under the surface.”