Blank (2017)

An early review copy of Blank was provided by the Creativity Hub in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Look, it’s hard to say. It might be one star, it might be five. It’s almost entirely up to you!

How on Earth do you review a game like Blank?   Everything about it denies any kind of toe-hold for the anxious reviewer – no crack or crevice within which to a dig an inquisitive finger or a steadying crampon.   It’s all shiny and new and full of proffered possibilities.  What you get in the box is a deck of cards that represents the core of what your copy of Blank will be.   It then throws the rest of the job of making it into a game on to you.   If I needed a pithy way of describing Blank, I’d probably say ‘It’s Fluxx: Legacy’.  This is a game that will gradually rise like a walking dead zombie from the discarded corpse of every session you play.   For those that win regularly at Blank they’ll find they take on a pivotal role in shaping the game for the future.  Those that regularly lose will have to watch the game emerge like an unwelcome phoenix from the ashes of their losses.

Blank box

A kind of ludic Pandora’s box

Calling this Fluxx: Legacy though is doing Blank a disservice because there are really no major similarities between this and Fluxx except they’re both card games where the rule systems are mutable.   More importantly, it’s a disservice because Blank is fun.  Or rather, Blank can be fun but it’ll depend very much on the people with which you play.    Or perhaps it won’t.  God, you can see why I’m having difficulties even getting started in this discussion.

To a certain extent, Blank is a game that abrogates the responsibility of design – you don’t take possession of a full game, you get the building blocks for a game you’ll collaboratively construct with your friends.  As such, this might be a one out of five game – it might end being fun poison. It might be the kind of thing you’ll bring out to punish your friends for some hideous transgressions.   They’ll draw the first card, drop down dead, and you’ll yell ‘THE LANNISTERS SEND THEIR REGARDS’ over their twitching bodies.   It might be awful.

Or…

It might be a five out of five game – one that leaves everyone at the end breathless and dumbstruck by the experience they just had.   One that combines soulful flights of storytelling with genuinely innovative and exciting game mechanisms.  It might be poetry.  It might be art.  At the end of your session, you might find everyone stands up and applauds, appreciative tears in their eyes.

It all depends on just how good your friends are at creating interesting rules that work in many different contexts.   Except, maybe it doesn’t.

I’m so sorry – I genuinely am trying here.

Blank cards

I’ve got a full house. And two other cards

The core set of blank contains a number of play cards – each has a number and a colour associated.  Some have images drawn on them.  Some have special effects that trigger when the card is played.    Most are, fittingly, blank.  Within the game you take turns to lay down cards that match the one already topmost on the discard pile.   You can play as many cards as you like provided they all either match the colour, or the number, of the card in play.   If you can’t play, you draw a card from the draw deck.   The first person to use up all their cards wins.

I’ll be upfront with you – your first playthrough of Blank isn’t going to fill you with a lot of enthusiasm for your future sessions.   In terms of depth and complexity you’re looking at something roughly between Candyland and Uno.

The card play is not all there is to it though,  You will also deal out three random rules cards.  Those are the special conditions that determine what happens when particular cards are played, or when particular conditions are met.  ‘When a two is played, everyone draws a card’, or ‘when an orange is played, take another turn right away’.  Or ‘When someone plays a four, they have to moo’

Wait, what?  They moo?  What kind of nonsense is that?  Never mind, never mind, we’ll get back to that.

Rules cards

Everyone enjoys rules!

It’s not a great start, and you won’t find much joy in the act of playing when you first open the box.  You and your friends will sit listlessly around a table dumping cards on to a discard pile with all the careless, light-hearted joy of mourners at a funeral.

‘Oh, I played a two, I guess everyone draws a card’

‘Does that mean we need to play for longer?’

‘Yeah, sorry.’

‘I wish it was me in that casket.’

You’ll reach the end, someone will win, and everyone will sigh in relief that they can get back to the soul-crushing grief that’s preferable to playing Blank in its original, unsullied form.  I mean, come on – this is a kid’s game and you’re all grown-ups and the vicar is already really angry that you were playing cards during the eulogy.

‘I win, I suppose.  Now what happens?’

‘Let me check the manual’

‘Please, just let me die.’

You’re just glad it’s over really – you’re bemused and a little bit annoyed that in 2017 a game like this was released into a marketplace already filled to the absolute gunnels with marvellous game after marvellous game.   This is old, tired game design – game design that lacks energy, vibrancy, and any sense of merit.  You’ve formed your judgement, and while it’s harsh it’s not exactly unfair.  This is a game too simple, too shallow and too vanilla to sustain or even spark interest.   Your first experience of Blank isn’t going to inspire you.

But then…   something happens.  The person reading the rules looks up with a bemused, slightly excited grin.  ‘It seems like you get to write a new rule’, they say.

Well… okay!   That sounds interesting.  Interesting enough to perhaps warrant another round of play.  The game of Blank isn’t really played in the cards, it’s played in the space between each session.   The reward for winning isn’t the usual intrinsic satisfaction of success – the reward is the winner gets to add a new rule permanently to the game.   Even more excitingly, that rule can be anything.  Literally anything.  All it needs is to be rendered down into an ‘If this, then that’ structure.  If the winner doesn’t fancy making a rule, they can add a drawing, or write a poem, or do whatever they like.   The point is – the winner gets to change the shape of game a little so that it’s more like the game they want it to be.

‘Write a rule?  What kind of rule?’

‘Anything, apparently.’

‘Uh… woah.  Yeah, yeah Vicar we’ll be with you in a minute.  Great speech – sounds like you really knew my uncle’s brother.  Wait… are we burying my dad?’

The back of the box of Blank outlines the promise.  ‘Make it a party game!’, ‘Make it a strategy game!’, ‘Make it a trivia game!’.  You can make it any game you like, but you can’t do it alone and the extent to which you can do it at all requires you to care about winning in the first place.   The game itself isn’t enough to make you hunger for victory – not to begin with.  However, this shot at glory – this chance at immortality… well.  Suddenly that trivial game of multi-axis Snap becomes a contest with a real weight to go with it.  You get a proper prize at the end of this.  You get to write your place in history.

So you take your pen, you lick your lips, and you write… what?

No, seriously – what do you write?

You can demand anything.   You can write ‘Whenever someone draws a card they need to discard an item of clothing’, except you know – there’s an age range on this box and you probably shouldn’t be requiring children to strip.  But maybe!  If you’re all grown-ups and you want this to become an adult game there’s nothing to stop you.   Sure, the box says that it’s up to the person that owns the game as to whether they allow an addition but if you’ve got the pen and a decent head start how could they possibly prevent you?

Standard rules

You can do better

You might cleave to the familiar, couching your rule in the conventions of the example set given.  ‘When you play an orange, the next person draws two cards’.   Or you might veer into the comedy of a party game.  ‘Whenever someone passes twice in a row, they have to bark like a dog’.   You might start to structure the game around the mutable rule-set itself.  ‘When someone is left with an even number of cards at the end of their turn, add a new rule to the game’.   You might write ‘If someone has one card left in their hand, everyone draws a new hand of five and plays a round of liar’s dice with it’.   You might write ‘Every time you play a primary colour, take a shot’.  You might write ‘Whenever someone yells MAVERICK everyone reveals their hand and winner is decided by poker rules’.  You might develop a tap mechanic akin to that of Magic.  You might require people to switch on a fan, throw all the cards in the air, and scramble for them like they’re in the last challenge of the Crystal Maze.

You might write anything.  Anything at all.  And everything you do is going to meaningfully change the shape, style, flow and tenor of the game you play from that point on.  Next time around, you start with the new rule you created so you get instant feedback on how well it worked.

If it works.

I really found myself warming to Blank the more I played it because the rules we were making were personal – something that was down to us as a gaming group.   But the thing is – we can’t be trusted with that kind of power.  We can’t be trusted to make a game that functions well as a game.    One of my contributions resulted in us having a dozen rules in effect at one point.  This made the game completely unmanageable and contradictory.   Another of our rules added so much cognitive burden to play that I’m still not sure we finished it correctly.

The problem with letting people add whatever rules they like is that they can add whatever rules they like.  There’s no requirement for balance, no pre-requisite for playtesting.  It’ll get tested when it’s committed to the rules, and if it doesn’t work – well, you’re either stuck with it or forced to remove it from the deck.   The quality of the game Blank becomes is going to depend on the skill and cleverness of the people making the rules.

Blank is a kind of ludological Petrie dish – a game development research lab where rough and untested ideas can be mixed into whatever virulent and random strain of game you end up drawing.  Your rules may work well, or they may create situations of unplayability.  ‘When a two is played, draw a card’, ‘When you draw a card everyone else discards a card’, ‘When someone discards a card, the current player takes that card’.  Suddenly through intersection of random rules, the effect of playing your first card is to end up owning the cards everyone else began with.  You look on in bewilderment while everyone else enjoys a well-deserved joint win despite nobody having taken a turn.  Not every chemical you throw in here is going to work with every other chemical, and some chemicals are just going to be better and more interesting than others.   Some combinations will be explosive – some will just result in an odd stench filling the laboratory.

Cards

Special effect: ‘Get it On. Bang a Drum. Get it On’

It’s a massive and critical weakness at the core of the idea.  Or perhaps, depending on your perspective it’s the largest and most distinctive strength of the game.  After all – you’ve got the tools for fixing problems as time goes by.    If you want, you can add a negotiation game in here.  ‘If a two and a four are played one after the other, players vote on a rule to replace’.   You can add in a legislative framework.  ‘If there is a disagreement over rules, an unaffected party that did not write the rule can decide upon interpretation’.   The structural problems in Blank are of your invention, and they’re also for you to solve in whatever way you like.   ‘If you are the oldest player, you can unilaterally remove and randomly replace a rule whenever you feel it’s necessary’.    Technically speaking the only rule you can guarantee on being present is the last one that was written but that gives you an opportunity to add a guarantor of a framework.  ‘If the game begins, then draw all rules cards marked with a drawing of a gavel.  Play these out and draw two additional rules cards’.  That in itself starts to become a fascinating part of the rule-set because then you permit anyone to add a gavel to any card to create a fixed and permanent rule.

This kind of thing leads to a phenomenal amount of freedom as you can imagine.    Freedom isn’t always a good thing though.  One of the things that defines how much fun Blank ends up being is the quality of the rule-set – the rules and the rules for managing rules.  More critical though is the answer to a more complicated question – just where is the fun in Blank?  Your answer to this will in large part determine whether this is a game for you.   Is the fun in the playing of game systems, or in the act of participatory game design?

I made a joke earlier about the core game of Blank – truth is, despite what I said it’s not a bad game even in its unmodified form.   It’s far too simple for me to enjoy but for a family night with young children it would undoubtedly be entertaining.    You could fill it with in-jokes and group references.  You can aim for pure comedy.  It can be as low-brow or as high-brow as you like and it’ll absolutely pander to its audience.  You can structure the experience around whatever level of complexity you prefer – if you have kids that laugh every time you say ‘Snausages’ then you can thread that through the game like something that was entwined into its DNA from the start.   You can play to type here and end up with a game that feels like the base game of Blank but comes in a ‘your group’ flavoured box.   Sometimes all someone will do is end up adding a picture that makes everyone laugh, and that’s fine.

That though is not a game I particularly want to play.  Even when I do play Blank I’m not invested in the experience of actually laying down cards.  I’m invested in the opportunity that comes after laying the cards – I want to add a rule.  I want to win because that’s what gets my hands on the levers of the game.  Once a new rule is written I want to crack the box open again not because I want to play it, but to assess how well the game works now I’ve tinkered with it.

I think to view Blank as a game in and of itself is the wrong lens through which to assess the experience.  Think of Blank as a game about designing games and its merit really shines through.  It’s a box that lets your radically and rapidly iterate through whatever zany, impossible idea that comes to mind.   The act of playing Blank isn’t actually where I found the game– playing a round for me was just a way to assess score.   It’s an odd dynamic that results in an equally oddly inverted flow of momentum.  Your ‘turn’ in Blank is when you write a new rule.   Your fun comes from seeing how your rule interacts and intersects with other new rules –how it influences a random ruleset that you and your friends all had a hand in crafting.  The failures and crunching and grinding of rules is all part of that fun, if this is how you interpret the game.

My game of Blank is about the meta-game.  It’s a playset for paper prototyping and I think it’s genuinely great in that context.   That context though isn’t going to be appropriate for every group.  Some people won’t want to engage in a round of gamified participatory design every time they sit down to an evening’s entertainment.  After all, if that’s what you find fun why not just go make a game of your own from scratch?   Me though – if I had a constant supply of fresh boxes that arrived on a weekly basis Blank would probably be a fundamental tool in my user centred design classes.   Playing Blank offers opportunities beyond mere enjoyment – it offers illumination into the craft and compromises of game design.

Blank presents itself as an enigma – it’s a genuinely difficult game to pin down in a review.   Flattening a complex, nuanced viewpoint down to a star value is troublesome and broadly unsatisfying for any game.  It’s functionally impossible for something like this.   Just what on Earth am I reviewing?  The game as it is?  That will instantly become irrelevant.  The game as it will be?  How do I know what that game even looks like for your group?   The game as it could be?  I don’t even know what we’re talking about any more.   I’m going to give it a star rating just because I tried leaving it empty and its absence clawed at my sense of calm until I had to change it.  What I will say though is Blank can be anything you want it to be, and what you end up with will be exactly as good, as funny, and as idiosyncratically yours as you were able to make it.   If it sucks, well – look in the mirror for the culprit.

An early review copy of Blank was provided by the Creativity Hub in exchange for a fair and honest review.


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