Telestrations (2009)

Game Details
NameTelestrations (2009)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [1.09]
BGG Rank239 [7.41]
Player Count (recommended)4-8 (5-8+)
Designer(s)(Uncredited)
Artist(s)(Uncredited)
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

What is the thing you enjoy least about tabletop gaming? No, not the cost. No, not the logistics of getting people together of evening. No, not the fact every time you mention it people look at you like you’ve revealed some dark and twisted sexual kink. God, stop it – just say the thing I want you to say. I can’t trust you with anything, can I? I’ll tell you the thing you enjoy least about tabletop gaming.

That’s right, it’s the rules explanation!

We play every game we cover on Meeple Like Us. I know that seems like a weirdly low bar to be proud of, but bear with me. We play each game several times before a review and teardown is written. That’s not a mark of professionalism, or even simply meeting what might be considered the minimum standard of research before arriving at a conclusion. We do that because it’s literally the only way I can be confident we’re playing it remotely correctly.

After the third or fourth play of a game I’m pretty sure we’ve got it mostly right. We’ll still be making mistakes. We’re zeroed in though on the essence of the thing. We’ve captured enough of the experience its true form to to reach a meaningful conclusion we can defend with discourse. We have to do that. It’s important to pay attention to understand the rules of a game, and it’s easy for attention to slip because most rules books are terrible.

The first exposure anyone has to a new game is always the least satisfying bit. It’s like the tedious anti-piracy warnings at the start of a movie. You don’t know me, buddy – I absolutely would download a car from the Pirate Bay if that was possible. Or maybe it’s more like the interminable and unskippable cut-scenes that frustrated screen-writers force you to suffer through before you can actually play a video game. The cross we bear at the tabletop is the rules explanation. Everyone put down your phones. Pay attention. Sit up straight. NO SLOUCHING.

There’s nothing I like better than a game that has a rules explanation that’s over before anyone knows it even began. That’s what you get with Telestrations.

Telestrations box

Incidentally, I hate the little sketch figure on the front. He looks smarmy.

Seriously, by the time anyone realised you’re done with the rules for Telestration you’re already doling out the cards for the first round. It’s the explanatory equivalent of a hypnagogic jerk – something so weirdly jarring and unexpected that it genuinely puts you a little off your stride. Everyone is still listening intently, waiting for the twist or the constitutional complexities. They’re waiting for the dense knot of legalese that we all know is core to gaming. Telestrations doesn’t have that – it has the acceleration profile of a finely tuned sports-car. You open the box, press your foot down on the metaphorical pedal, and you’re off.

‘Here’s how it works’, you say. ‘We each take a pad and a pen. Write your name on the pad. We get a card. We roll a dice. Write the word that’s on your card at that number, and then pass your pad on to the next person who will try to draw it. They’ll then pass on their drawing to the next person who tries to guess what it is, and so on until your pad comes back to you. NOW GO!’

Pads

The ledger of your failure

And that’s all it is – we get a pad that contains either a word we’ve to draw, or a picture we’ve to interpret. We do our best at that, and then we flip over to the next page of the pad and pass it on to the next person. It’s all but impossible to get it wrong because it even has specific stage-by-stage instructions provided on the pad.

Instructions in Telestrations

No I’m not. Don’t patronize me.

Telestrations is even deeply intuitive in how it manifests itself to new players. Many of the games we discuss on Meeple Like Us can be opaque to newcomers. It sounds bizarre, but it’s often difficult to see where the fun is to be found. ‘So we move cubes around until one of us has the most victory points? That sounds roughly as enjoyable as being autopsied’, or ‘So we’re just supposed to guess which of us is the werewolf? There’s no actual way to work it out? How thrilling. Perhaps we could have a rousing game of guessing the flipped coin afterwards’, or ‘What, we just roll dice until we get what we want? Can’t we just watch X-Factor instead?’

It’s not always obvious how game systems will cohere in a way that generates fun – that’s the key reason I’m sceptical of those that say ‘Just tell me the rules, I’ll work out for myself how much I’ll like it’. It’s usually a poor game that yields its deepest secrets to a casual surface reading.

Not Telestrations though – it’s like one of those bizarrely chatty NPCs you find in a badly written open world RPG. ‘Hello stranger! I am a sexual obsessive with a history of drug abuse. We have never spoken before! I will still though bare my soul for the purposes of the lazy exposition that will set the context for the fetch quest I’m programmed to make available’. Everyone listens to the Telestrations rules explanation and understands exactly why it’s going to be fun. You need to interpret drawings, and people can’t draw. All that’s going to happen with each subsequent round is that you get farther and farther away from true north. It’s in that inexorable drift from accurancy in which you’ll find the fun, and that’s also where you’ll find the funny. Nobody has to go looking for it – the joy of Telestrations isn’t hidden behind innovative game mechanics or the clever intersection of interlocking player priorities.

Do not underestimate the value to be found in the combination of trivial rules and intuitive fun. This is pushing on an open door – it just sounds like it’s going to be a blast to everyone that hears about it. Your experience is almost certainly going to match those expectations if you play it with a group that enjoys fun. I mean, if you break it out at a funeral it’s still going to be a hard sell but as long as you’re in the company of people that like to laugh you’re going to be golden.

Well, kind of.

Telestrations technically supports between four and eight players. It absolutely benefits though from the full eight and becomes incrementally more ropey the fewer players you have – to the point that at four players I’d largely consider it to be not really worth playing. This is a game you bring to a large gathering or leave at home.

Let’s look at two scenarios to see why this might be the case.

Haunted house

The pads get a bit grubby, but never mind!

Here I am, taking delivery of my pad and my first word. It’s ‘Haunted House’ for those that can’t read it – I have the handwriting of a three year old. I pass that on to the next player, who attempts to draw what I just wrote:

A ghost drawn beside a house

Boo!

Okay, it’s a ghost beside a house. Fine, that’s kind of okay, right? One of the best ways to generate real hilarity in Telestrations is to interpret every image you see as literally as you can. So, player three takes this picture and thinks ‘Right, fine’. They then write out their guess from the drawing in front of them:

Guess is ghost house

A bit literal, but never mind

Makes sense, right? But that’s a different thing to a haunted house so it ends up being drawn like this:

A drawing of a house that is a ghost

Ghosts becoming houses, houses becoming werewolves

Look, it’s a house that is a ghost! Great, right? But the next person to take delivery ends up coming to a different conclusion:

Square baby

I mean… sure?

And that’s funny, right? A square baby? That’s funny. Well, it’s kind of funny and that’s where the game stops with four players. At ‘kind of funny’. Telestrations is at its best when things come dramatically off the rails, and the thing about these kind of gamified exercises in failure is they only work when they have momentum behind them. Square baby is quite different from ‘haunted house’ but that’s where things should be speeding up rather than slowing down. If you extend it on to player five to actually draw a square baby…

A drawing of a square baby. Kind of.

Uh…

And then to player six to interpret that drawing. Since it looks like a badly sketched luchador they go for the obvious ‘wrestler’ guess.

Wrestler is the guess

I guess I can see that…

And then player seven goes for a cinematic picture of one fighter attempting to drop an elbow on another within the confines of a wrestling ring…

A drawing, presumably, of a kind of wrestling ring

Gnh…

And finally that gets interpreted, thanks to the ropes surrounding the ring, as someone presumably drowning in the middle of a swim team meetup. So… ‘swim team’

Swim team is the guess

Let’s agree to never talk of this game again.

Swim team. This is a bit like a wobbling spinning plate on a stick – when it starts to sway the situation rapidly gets even worse ever more quickly until disaster strikes. In Telestrations you’re not trying to prevent the eventual crashing of crockery – you’re actively trying to encourage it. The plates simply don’t spin long enough in four or five player games to really get the most out of it. From ‘Haunted House’ to ‘Swim Team’ is a story of incremental failure. The longer that story is, the more farcical and satisfying it becomes.

What you want is to start off with something like ‘mixed nuts’ and end up with something like ‘charades’. How the hell would you get from mixed nuts to charades? What’s the flow of illogicality that could bring us to such a state of affairs? There’s the fun – finding out. With enough steps in Telestrations, it can even be funny to see misinterpretations layer on to each other until you come up with the right answer through increasingly less accurate guesses.

What we’ve looked at here though is only part of the story – it’s the tale of one pad. Every single round you’re taking collection of a new pad and passing your old pad on to someone else. Every single time you’re adding another point of variety and uncertainty in to everyone else’s game. You’ll take your pad, and open it up.

Paramecium

Even if that was spelled correctly I wouldn’t know what it was

And you’ll look with stunned incredulity at the person that passed it your way. They in turn will either be staring in disgust at the person that preceeded them, or giggling wildly and refusing to meet your eye. Everyone knows what they passed to the next player is something that would count as a war crime if you were playing Pictionary. You can only laugh at the absurdity of what you’re supposed to draw, knowing that when the next player takes possession they’ll be shaking their head in mute despair at your efforts.

And this is where the real genius of Telestrations lies. It would be incredibly misleading to think of this as ‘Pictionary Pass the Parcel’ even if that’s what it sounds like. Telestrations isn’t about trying to guess what someone drew. It’s trying to interpret what someone drew. It’s not trying to get a one to one relationship between their word and your drawing. It’s about knowing that your drawing will be an abstraction that simultaneously robs the words of their definitional meaning and adds a new spin that someone else will spin even farther. The job in Telestrations isn’t to guess at what people meant, but to just see how wildly off base your guesses will be. The failure state in Telestrations is when you open the front of the pad to see ‘Pirate Ship’ and reveal the end of the pad to see ‘Pirate Ship’. That’s the win in Pictionary.

A drawing of... who even knows

Um… acne?

Telestrations then is more like the game of Dixit conducted asynchronously via a set of personalised whiteboards. Pictionary can become angry and mean spirited because at the core it’s about gamified frustration – trying to communicate a concept through badly drawn scrawls. Telestrations is a drug-fuelled dream fugue where you’re all interpreting the symbology in the clouds above. It’s such clean, good natured fun that it’s nothing but endearing. You can even see this expressed in the philosophy of scoring outlined in the manual. Scoring is essentially an optional variant. ‘Did you have fun? Well, then you’ve won!’. If you want to keep score you can, but you know – don’t. It’s not really that kind of game.

Winning conditions

A strange game. The only winning move is not to win.

But again, while this is a game that is absolutely joyful it’s one that thrives under very particular conditions. You can have some fun with it at four, a bit more fun at five, but the longer you can keep the failure curve trending upwards the better it will be. You can make some modifications to eke out a little bit more fun at lower player counts – skip on to the next player the first time your pad comes back to you, for example. They don’t work quite as well as you might hope. The value you’ll find in Telestrations is inextricably linked to the player count, and that’s a shame because it is otherwise a damn near perfect game. The rating we’ve given it here reflects a kind of ‘average’ of the experiences – mentally adjust it upwards, or downwards, in line with your expectation of the groups you’ll be able to play it with. Me, I’m almost forty years old. At my age the only time I can get eight friends together at one time is when we’re attending another mutual friend’s funeral.