A review copy of Wibbell++ was provided by Behrooz Shahriari in exchange for a fair and honest review.
It’s not quite as clear-cut as the star rating may imply!
Wibbell++ presents me with something of a conundrum when it comes to a review and the teardown to follow. It’s not a game as such. It’s a ‘card game system’ which can be used to provide the raw components for many games. To an extent this whole review is going to be like trying to give a rating to a deck of cards. In essence, what I’m saying here is ‘Don’t pay too much attention to the stars rating linked to this – Wibbell++ is a more interesting proposition than a flat number can really bring out’.
On the back of the Wibbell++ pack you see a list of five games that you’ll get when you buy the box. An uncharitable mind might instantly make the connection here to the classic compilation style of games beloved of pound shops and retail outlets the world over – ‘fifty games in a box’ they offer, but they’re all unremarkable variations of checkers. Similarly if you grew up in the compilation days of computing, you’d often buy disks and CDs that were ‘a hundred games’ for a fiver. All you ever got were knock-off versions of space invaders with the sprites slightly redone.
That’s the easy instant comparison to make here, and I make it because ‘X games in a box’ is something that instantly gets my suspicions raised. It’s going for the lowest common denominator implication of the design ethos. That’d be fine really – I’m not above being lowest common denominator by any means. The problem here in this review isn’t how easy the comparison is, it’s how entirely off-base it ends up being. If there’s one thing that defines the offering in Wibbell++ it’s that every element within the pack is obviously lovingly created and tested. This isn’t a case of ‘This game is like Scrabble except you don’t have any vowels’, or ‘This is like chess except you swap the position of the rook and the bishops’. This isn’t ‘one hundred classic games for a tenner’, or a ‘twenty in one game set’. These five games aren’t at all half-hearted – any one of them would be worthy of attention in its own right. They’re real, hand-crafted games that are meaningfully distinctive. At worst, a game offered in Wibbell++ is solid. At best, they’re genuinely good if a little rough in places.
However, that’s the core problem for this review – Wibbell++ is a toolset for making games, and it’s difficult to know how to approach it in the relatively constrained format we adopt here. It reminds me in some ways of the brave experiment that was 504 – a game with so many variations that reviewers were left unable to offer a genuinely worthwhile viewpoint on any one of them. Wibbell++ is part what’s contained in the box and part seductive promise of more and greater things to come. It can’t be assessed in either of those capacities alone, and in the conjunction of them we run the risk of losing the sharper edges of both. Out of necessity the approach here is going to bifurcate a little – first I’ll talk about the games, and then I’ll talk about the system itself.
The five games presented in the box run a gamut from time-constrained pattern matching (Grabbell, probably my favourite of them) to free-form story telling (Faybell), passing by a fun word game (Wibbell) and a surprisingly difficult exercise in alphabetical curation (Alphabetickell) before culminating in a kind of loosey goosey activity of competitive sloganeering (Phrasell). All of them are powered by the same set of cards which get used in slightly different ways each time. The rules for these games come in card format as part of the deck, and this is occasionally something of a problem since they don’t have headers or footers and sometimes they get mixed in with the rules for other games. It’s not a huge problem, but a small annoyance.
Grabell is defined for me by the way it forcefully echoes some of the more effective gameplay features of Dobble (a site favourite, even if the rating doesn’t quite reflect that). The deck of cards is scattered face up, and each player has a face down card in their palm. At a mutually agreed upon start point, everyone flips up their card and starts grabbing other cards from the table. Provided they match the border, or a letter on your face up card, they’re okay for you to collect. Except of course everyone is collecting them at the same time and it’s amazing how easily you forget how to tell if one pattern is the same as another under stress. Grabell can often take the form of long periods of intense contemplation where you stare helplessly at a table full of what may as well be random hieroglyphics for all the sense you can make of them.
The winner is the person that manages to pick up the most of those cards and survive the ruthless audit on their work that will be conducted by the player to their left. It’s really quick to play – a few minutes at most – and articulately captures the key elements of why the Wibbell++ component set is so versatile. The fact it alternates letter combinations with border styles gives a surprisingly wide range of possible game interactions that still maintain meaningful variety. I’m not sure I’d especially choose to play Grabell over Dobble in most cases, but if I didn’t have Dobble handy this is a very reasonable and effective proxy. For some audiences, where the intense cognitive costs of Dobble might be too much to bear, it might even be a more accessible option. It’s important to note here this is a different game from Dobble – it’s not an off-brand replica. It just feels a lot like Dobble to play. That is a theme that is going to come up a few times in this review.
Faybell on the other hand is a co-operative storytelling game. The fact that we can go from real-time pattern matching to sedate tale-spinning shows just how wildly the game styles can vary within the deck. For this one, five cards are dealt out as story elements – the initials on each card are used to describe a beat in a tale you’re going to collaboratively construct. RM could be ‘Remote Mountaintop’. EP could become ‘Extraterrestrial Pupetteer’. RD might be ‘Robotic Demolitionist’. Each of these elements are available for use in the story that follows. That’s handled by players drawing a card and beginning the next sentence of the tale with the letter on the top. They also at the end provide a word making use of the bottom letter which the next player will need to work into the story. The first player drawing IC might begin with ‘It was in the darkest night on a remote mountaintop that people first saw the alien lights in the sky. Closet’. AM might provoke the next player to continue a story ‘And during the night, when everyone was sleeping, the Extraterrestrial Puppetter beamed down into the closet of a family home at the bottom of the mountain, and waited for his chance to strike. Murder’, and then the next player draws TH and continues on, saying ‘Terrifying though the alien was, it was not murder that was on his mind – instead, he had come to place his controlling wires on the Robotic Demolitionist that had wrecked havoc on the surrounding area. Happenstance’, and so on.
If Grabell has echoes of Dobble, Faybell has echoes of Once Upon a Time. It’s certainly I think the most distinctively interesting of the five games offered in the Wibbell++ box, but it also suffers a little from the tools from which it constructs the game. Again, I’ll get to that when we discuss the game system.
Phrasell is a game of comedy sloganeering – draw a card to represent the subject of a slogan (Rebel Halflings) and then everyone rushes to make up that four words slogan, relating to the subject, from the four letters dealt out from the next two cards. ‘Rebel Halflings Love Sauron!’, ‘Red Hot Shire Loving!’, ‘Second Lunch: Rarely Hot’, and so on. Each round has a judge, and the judge awards the cards to the player with the slogan they like the most. Again, super quick and super easy to play but still packing a considerable amount of fun into the svelte box in which it and all these other games are provided. There are shades of Apples to Apples in here, or perhaps even a more literate take on Cards Against Humanity depending on how R-rated you want your gameplay to be.
Alphabetickell is a push your luck game of drawing cards and adding them to the front or back of an existing line of cards to create an unbroken, alphabetically valid sequence. The first player to eleven cards in the sequence wins. It is… not as easy as it sounds. In our last game of this I made a cutting remark to Mrs Meeple about how she really needed to learn how the alphabet worked when in actuality it was me that forgot in what order letters go.
I am not a smart man.
And then Wibbell itself. We might think of this as the flagship game in the box and it’s something like what might happen if Scrabble and Boggle had a lax and permissive lovechild. Two cards are dealt out, and then players yell out a word that has at least one letter from each card in it. The player that is quickest to do this claims one of the cards from the centre – a new one is drawn out, and then the player must incorporate the card they just claimed into each following word they make. Once four cards have been claimed, all of your collected cards are flipped face down and a new round begins. As with Paperback, it’s the openness of the possibility space that makes this surprisingly difficult to play. It’s easy to spend more time than you might imagine staring into the suddenly empty dictionary of your mind trying to think of a word, any word, that has something that contains an N or a U and an N or an F. Are there any words like that? There aren’t, right? Is NUF a word? UF? NUNF? WHAT ARE WORDS, HELP, HELP. Then someone else says ‘Fun’ or ‘Nun’ and you think ‘Oh, right – yes, those are words too I suppose’.
In this, you are also incentivised towards brevity – the shorter word in a tie situation wins the card, and so while you might yell out antidisestablishmentarianism in the hope that you satisfy the card requirements, you’re going to lose out to the person that says mat. It’s a weird and welcome inversion of the standard Scrabble problem where playing small words makes people feel stupid. Especially when they are in comparison to the complex, multi-faceted vocabulary pornography put down by their opponents. Here, the simplest path to satisfying the game condition is the clever one.
Again, very simple, very straightforward, and a lot of fun.
Recently too released on the online site for Wibbell++ are the rules for Coupell. this is the sixth of the ‘official’ games that belong to the set. If you click into the site you’ll find a whole pile of games under construction by a whole range of people. There’s a real community building up around the Wibbell++ game system, and it’s coming together with crowd-sourced ratings and the promise of a release schedule where more games will come on a regular basis. It’s like a card game with free DLC that you can fold in as time goes by, and that is unusual.
So let’s take a look at Wibbell++ the game system because it gets an awful lot of playability out of a handful of components. What exactly is the catch here?
My view on each of the games above is absolutely honest – I think at worst these games are solid and at best they’re very good. This isn’t a typical compendium of mediocrity – this is a real, honest to goodness value explosion in a tiny box. However, that’s not to say that this approach doesn’t come with its own weaknesses. When you are using the same forty-eight card deck for a potentially unlimited number of games, sacrifices are going to be inevitable. One of the key benefits that comes from bundling components with unique rule-sets is that the games will as a consequence be tightly coupled – there won’t be any odd edges or weird sharp corners. If it’s in the box, it’s there by design. With a standard deck of cards we see some of those limitations come through – decks come with jokers, because they’re needed for some games. Bezique makes use of two decks with the twos, threes, fours, fives and sixes removed. Ecarte and Piquet makes use of the seven to the ace of each suite only. Pinochle uses two decks and gets rid of the twos through to the eights. Euchre is a standard deck with the twos through to eights removed, and so on. A deck of cards is remarkably versatile, but it encourages something of a DIY mindset when playing anything other than the most standard of games. It’s expected with a deck of cards that you will to some extent have to roll your own.
Wibbell++, at least to date, doesn’t require players to modify the deck and as such the standard composition has to work for everything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do so uniformly and smoothly. Alphabetickell for example suffers a little in how heavily the deck is emphasised towards certain letters. Wibbell can have some wickedly difficult letter combinations you need to work together into a word, and at speed. Faybell can exhibit problems from people forgetting what the story elements are, because all you have to go on is a two letter combination. Grabell can become somewhat trivial when you focus on collecting cards by borders first and then by letter combinations. For letter combinations you’ll have an easier time of picking up card with an H than you will cards with an X, and so on.
None of these are insurmountable problems, and rarely do they rob the game of fun – but they are issues that could have been smoothed over if the specific components of the game were uniquely moulded to the mechanics. That’s not going to be possible to do if the exact same deck with the exact same composition is always used. I suspect in the future we’ll see variants where that’s not expected, or even variants that make use of external components like dice and coins and matchsticks and the like. In the meantime though, the need for a game deck to work for every game means it works fine for all of them but not optimally for any of them.
Dobble is a useful example to return to here – Dobble works so well because each card has exactly one matching symbol to every other card in the game. That’s a marriage of mechanic and component that is so perfect that it can make for magical outcomes that flow smoothly from one game state to the other. The games in Wibbell++, on occasion and through no particular fault of the design, occasionally stumble a little. However, with forty eight cards in the deck even careful curation and pruning before game play is going to be an issue – you can’t lose too many cards before game variety is lost as a consequence. The end result is I think an inevitable requirement for a degree of indulgence on the part of a player. You need to simply accept that occasionally the components of the machine won’t mesh together as smoothly as you might like under all circumstances.
The other issue that comes with a game system like this is that of a necessity it must also completely eschew thematic or aesthetic considerations. The cards in here are perfectly nice to look at, don’t get me wrong. If you compare though the relatively austere letters of Faybell against the charmingly evocative art of Once Upon a Time you have to accept that the games you play with Wibbell++ are going to be primarily focused on the abstract. Grabell may, under certain circumstances, be preferable to Dobble but it certainly doesn’t look nearly as whimsical. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem – a standard deck of cards isn’t thematic either and yet it’s a staple of game playing the world over. It is though difficult to justify why you might want to play Grabell over Dobble with those considerations in mind. Dobble is a more evocative game. It’s a more tightly designed game because the components are precisely fit for purpose.
That’s not really a fair comparison, is it? It’s not a choice of buying Dobble or Wibbell++, or Once Upon a Time or Wibbell++, or Apples to Apples or Wibbell+. It’s a choice of buying Dobble and Once Upon a Time and Apples to Apples and every other game that Wibbell++ effectively riffs upon. While the base Wibbell++ set may not be quite up to the production standards of those specific titles, it gives you a serviceable and unique interpretation of all of these game systems in a single, easily affordable package. If you already had those games on your shelf, then those particular modes of Wibbell++ wouldn’t be likely to see much action. If you didn’t, well – you’ve now got something very like them and several other games too.
Again, it’s important to stress here that these aren’t cheap knock-offs of existing games. They are very much, meaningfully, their own games with their own nuance and value. They are though very much Wibbell++ riffs on what are often well established formulae. You can play Once Upon a Time and Faybell and have a different experience – they don’t occupy exactly the same ecological niche but there is a definite degree of interspecies competition. To an extent, they cannibalise the likely player base of each other by feeding off similar predilections, and it’s that more than anything else that evokes these comparisons.
Wibbell++ is an interesting deck, and I’m very glad that I’ve had a chance to play about with it. While it gets three and a half stars here, I’m going to check in on it on a regular basis. The cards themselves permit an awful lot, but it’s going to take the collaborative creativity of a Wibbell++ community to really see what this system can do. Wibbell++ is something like an open-source Linux distribution. We’ve got the operating system now, and it seems pretty interesting – it’s going to be worth keeping an eye on this to see how it develops over the next few years.
A review copy of Wibbell++ was provided by Behrooz Shahriari in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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