Catch Phrase

Genre

  • Party
  • Twitch

Requirements

  • One controller (a disc specially designed for Catch Phrase)
  • Two teams of at least two players

How to Play

  • Turn the game on, and you get a word or phrase (the answer phrase).
  • Get the other members of your team to guess the answer phrase, then pass the controller to the opposite team.
  • After the randomized timer runs out, the team without the controller scores.

Review

Catch Phrase is usually considered a party game. And it is a party game, of course; you need a lot of people, and there’s lots of party-game flailing and craziness when everyone starts playing. But underneath the party game, Catch Phrase hides some serious twitch action.

On the surface, Catch Phrase most resembles the Taboo: you want your team to shout out an answer phrase; you can’t say certain things (though you’re allowed to say and do much more in Catch Phrase than in Taboo); you want each answer to be guessed as quickly as possible. But unlike Taboo and other similar party games, the number of answers doesn’t matter.

To make the game faster-paced, Catch Phrase uses the mechanic of a much older videogame, Hot Potato. Potato is a canonical twitch game—catch and throw, catch and throw, nothing but reflexes. The obvious downside to it is that the elimination-based score system is too random, that’s why Hot Potato is usually abandoned as a kids’ game.

So Catch Phrase removes many of the restrictions of Taboo cluing and wraps the whole game up into a “hot potato.” Instead of frantically turning cards over, you have a sturdy electronic disc programmed with thousands of words. When you’ve finished cluing just one word, you chuck the disc over to the opposite team. Your goal is to make sure that you don’t have the disc when the timer (after a random amount of time) goes off. You can (and probably will) point, move, sing, dance, and grab at things or people to get the answer out.

I play this game the most at the National Puzzlers’ League‘s annual convention. I first played it in Indiana, where I joined a large group screaming at each other in a circle. By the time I joined, it had already been going on for probably three complete games—if they’d been keeping score. Catch Phrase becomes very addictive very quickly, and you may find that playing to the eight-point goal is not enough to satisfy you. Of course, once you push it back to ten or fifteen, the temptation is to just push it back to infinity. And when the finish line is that far back, you don’t even need to keep score, really. And yet, even without those goals, the game stays fast.

Most of the time, when a twitch game is converted for multiplayer, strategy and consideration take the place of nonstop action. Catch Phrase is an exception. No matter how big the group gets, you’ll never stop frantically shoving the controller from person to person to person.

Interactivity

High. Player input is pretty much all there is. And if you have a randomized timer, you can play the game with user-generated words.

Continuous-Play Value

Very High. Catch Phrase comes with thousands of words programmed into it, which is more than enough to support days of gaming. That’s not an educated guess, I’ve actually done this. Towards the end, I started recognizing some of the answers, but I still kept playing.

Replay Value

Medium. The biggest argument against replay value is the continuous-play value. Sometimes, when you think about booting up Catch Phrase, you have to ask yourself whether you have anything else to do, because you’ll probably be playing this until you kick your friends out of your house. It’s much easier to not start a game than it is to stop a game.

Final Thoughts

PROTIP: It’s possible, if you’re careful, to actually slow down the game greatly and still enjoy it. I don’t recommend it to beginners; you really need to have learned the rhythms of the game already. Also, you need a very small group (two to five, I think) that is very tired or more-than-slightly drunk or both. But if you do all of this, you can strip the twitch elements entirely off of the game, making it something of a Zen meditation of the nature of words and language. This happened to me and two friends at an NPL convention after a long night of games and puzzles. We started at a normal speed, but as the sun rose outside the window of the hospitality suite and our voices began to falter from exhaustion and our muscles began to creak whenever we made more than the subtlest moves, the game wound down until it was a hypnotic exchange of ideas. I don’t remember how we even managed to stop playing, although I suspect that if it hadn’t been for the breakfast buffet, we would be there still.

Word 2003

Word!Genre

  • Word Processing

Requirements

How to Play

  • Use the arrow keys and mouse to explore user-created levels.
  • Build levels of your own using the keyboard and mouse to move add, delete, and move letters, numbers, symbols and many other level components.
  • After playing a level (your own or someone else’s), continue to build and refine it.

Review

The Microsoft Word games are a series that most everyone is familiar with. Starting with the Multi-Tool Word, there have been more sequels and ports than I can keep track of. I haven’t played them all (I haven’t even played the most recent one, Word 2007), and I didn’t choose 2003 because I think it’s the best. It’s just the one I play the most often—it’s on my computer at work, and I like to play around with it during downtime.

Visually, the Word games are simple, building on earlier word-processing games like Emacs. When you begin, you face an endless plain. You send your characters into it in whatever formations you want. (There are actually a number of “invisible walls” that you can run into, but the pathfinding algorithms of the characters generally make them nothing to worry about.) The basic controls are very responsive. Despite the sometimes huge numbers of characters that you might be dealing with, they all respond quickly and easily. And the top-down perspective has never needed any 3-D modifications.

But through the years, the games have grown more and more complex, responding to hardcore (or wannabe hardcore) gamers who wanted to do more with more complex machines. Instead of merely shuffling around letters, you can now draw and embed pictures, build complicated game scripts (called macros)—there’s even a huge range of fonts if you enjoy dressing up your characters. For a while, of course, the Word franchise even experimented with narrative gaming, featuring “interactive” cutscenes. But the NPCs were notoriously flat and badly written. The simplistic subplots (the “write a letter” quest was one of the most roundly disdained in gaming) distracted from what is really a beautifully open-ended game.

If I’m building a word-processing level and I need it to be big, bold, and baroque, I’ll boot up Word. But I’d much rather play a more stripped-down game like Notepad (or Wordpad if I must have just a smidgen of complexity). The characters may be simple, but like Nethack or Angband, I have an attachment to them that just isn’t enhanced by all of the flashy graphics available. And the complexity of the controls is often just too much for me. I suppose it’s the way of game design today, but the “Need! More! Buttons!” mentality of Word just leaves me cold.

With all the talk about narratives in games, word-processing games should really be at the forefront. They seem a natural fit for telling engaging stories. But Word and other games like it continue to obscure the medium’s potential–I just wish the focus could be less on the graphics and more on the characters.

Interactivity

High. The game doesn’t really have any defined goals, and there’s an endless amount of exploration. There’s also more than tons of user content on the web.

Continuous-Play Value

I don’t know anybody who hasn’t spent hours playing Word when they had a paper due. It’s very easy to get involved in the game and lose track of time. There always seems to be something else to do with a level.

Replay Value

It’s easy to get burnt-out or frustrated by Word, but it’s also hard to stay away from it for too long. I find myself going back to play and tinker with old levels all the time.

Final Thoughts

One of the unusual facts about this videogame is that it gets played a lot at work and schools, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing productivity at all. In fact, I would imagine that it helps productivity, since its players learn a lot about language and typography when playing with their characters. And still, these videogames are usually sequestered to the realm of “casual gamers.” Even designers interested in workplace and educational games (I’m looking at you, Bogost) don’t seem to want to acknowledge Word (or any of the Microsoft Office series) as even being videogames, despite their impact on the wider gaming audience.

The Beginning Is Videogames

Roger Ebert is shooting his mouth off again. I want to be angry at him. Very angry. As an educated critic, an author of some questionable art, and an advocate of popular culture, I think he should know better than to go around making sweeping generalizations about what is and isn’t art.

As I see it, there are two problems with his arguments. The first is that his standards for art (or “high art”) are based on film and novels; media that are very much about control. His arguments don’t make room for a kind of art that would be more like music, theatre, dance, or architecture. The other is that he seems to consider the top-selling A-list games to be representative of the whole of videogames. He ignores smaller more contemplative games and his arguments write-off other forms of interactive art like hypertext fiction and other electronic media.

But how can I really be angry at Ebert? I know he doesn’t like videogames, and so I shouldn’t really expect him to go very deeply into the far margins of a medium. And when I look around the gaming community, the loudest voices are the ones who are comparing mainstream videogames to films and other narrative media.

The gaming community claims to want the acceptance and freedom that an “artistic” designation would bring videogames. But at the same time, gamers are fickle about what they want to consider games. Game reviewers like to establish that Nintendo’s hit titles aimed at a wider market, like Brain Age and Nintendogs, aren’t actually games. Other games that might skew more toward traditional art, like Flow (“It isn’t so much a game as such, more a trippy ornament of sorts for your PlayStation 3,” Eurogamer).

The gaming community’s definition of “videogames” is gerrymandered beyond comprehensibility. It’s based on history and tradition and prejudices and elitism that says that these sorts of things are games, but those sorts aren’t. With borders drawn this way and that—blurred and maintained by different factions—how can we get a handle on what games are to make any sort of argument for them?

Let’s tear down those walls entirely. We can’t keep in-fighting over whether Hardwood Hearts should be considered a videogame or not, we ought to really take the fight to our critics. Let’s tell Roger Ebert that The Matrix Reloaded should be considered merely an extension of Enter the Matrix. Let’s claim that A.I. was a promotion for The Beast. Let’s claim a gaming dominion over not just the interactive works of Shelley Jackson but the static works of E.E. Cummings.

As long as gamers keep videogames as an island paradise for the hardcore, it will never be taken seriously. An artistic medium needs to breathe and blend, to expand across thought. I want gamers to start thinking about gaming as something that encompasses as much as possible.

To do this, I will make this blog a hyperbole. Here, videogames don’t need to have video displays or computers; they don’t need rules or worlds; they don’t even need interactivity. To be a videogame, it just needs to be.

Everything is videogames.

This blog will review things that normal videogame reviewers would not review. The reviews will approach these things as though they are videogames, regardless of whether or not there is any reason to consider them videogames. It will probably be silly at times, and I don’t honestly know what it will achieve. My hope is that it will provide insight into the truly vast the possibilities of the gaming medium and into how videogame reviews will have to change to accomodate it.