Concept Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2027
Playing Time: 40 Minutes
Concept feels like a victim of circumstance to me. It’s not quite as elegant as Codenames, which has become THE game of “guess what I’m thinking based on minimal information.” And it’s not as kinetic and intuitive as Charades.
Sift past those critiques, though, and there’s a weird but eminently satisfying core to it.
How the Game Works
You have a large board of generalized pictures – man, women, superhero, robot, weather, tool, television, circle, the color blue, a line, musical note, an idea, etc.
You’re also given a few components: a question mark that represents the “main” idea, then others that represent sub-ideas. A few ancillary rules tied to the components allow you to “link” ideas through color-coding, in case there are a couple distinct concepts you need to spell out to get to a full phrase.
The game is in getting others around the table (or on your team) to guess what your word or phrase is. So, for example, a television show with a male lead, a car that is linked to a sport, and an animal could be Speed Racer.
It’s eminently possible to get to something fairly obscure and unintuitive with just these simple tools. Human language, it turns out, only has so many permutations of concepts before we can start to make educated guesses based on only a handful of clues.
Gameplay as Activity
This subheader isn’t code for “this isn’t a game, it’s an activity” that we sometimes hear. I find that phrase problematic, since it’s usually used pejoratively. In any case, games are activities, and the reverse is true for anything we decide to make into a game.
That said, I think there’s something to be said for treating some games with a flippancy that we’re unused to in hobby board gaming. Because my goodness, we’re used to caring about the rules, and the points, and all the ancillary elements, sometimes a bit too seriously.
Concept invites you to ignore all of that seriousness, at least implicitly.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. My favorite “session” of Concept occurred at a 24-hour charity event, at about 2am. It lasted until about 5am. No one was keeping score, and we didn’t have a turn order. Hell, people would slide in and out of the game as time went on. It was something like a 10-person session, but no more than about five people were playing at any given time. One guy fell asleep for about an hour, a beer still in his hand, between his turns as a clue-giver.
It was amazingly fun, because we were all loopy with lack of sleep. It turned the game into something profoundly cosmic, as though we were glimpsing each other’s hidden souls. If you’ve never experienced the loopy, abstract thinking of a sleep-addled brain at 4am, and you’re trying to interpret those nigh-incoherent thoughts with your own murky guesses, you’re missing out. I laughed until it hurt.
Concept invites that sort of play. And I use the term “play” in a very childlike sense. A child will make a game of tracking the pattern of a firefly, or find “play” in the labyrinthine jungle within the grooves in a carpet along the floor. They’ll invent and wonder and imagine…until they’re done. No one wins, but an important, sublime game was undoubtedly played.
We don’t get that sort of play as adults. Not even in most board games. Experiences like my 2am session of Concept give me a glimpse into a world we’re missing out on when we focus on things like mechanics and victory points.
I want this kind of play in my life.
Finding Its Niche
I say it’s not as elegant as Codenames, but it’s just as easy to learn. Perhaps easier. The clunk comes with the fact that if you play for long enough, you’ll have a round where everyone is absolutely stumped to the point of frustration, including the clue-giver.
It’s also weird because it’s a party game that’s very cerebral. Sure, you can yell out a bunch of things randomly to add to the chaos, but it’s more satisfying to truly consider the links the clue-giver is presenting, to come up with some more unique guesses.
They might still be wrong guesses, mind you, but you’ll be proud of yourself for having thought of them.
The fun comes with how our minds work very differently, so what is obvious to one player will be impossible to the next, and so on. It’s an endless well of potential creativity, but also of possible frustration, as mentioned earlier. Unbound by any need for speedy play or a timer, that same epic 2am session also featured some rounds where we just allowed things to keep going, and guessed futilely for 5-10 minutes, while the clue-giver rearranged the tokens on the board in a desperate attempt to create shared meaning.
In that particular context, it was funny as hell. In others, that same sequence will be torture.
Back to the cerebral description, though, I’ve seen this described as “Charades for introverts,” which makes me chuckle. It’s not wrong, though I’m still used to playing with healthy amounts of table talk. However, that’s more due to the spaces between moments in the game where table talk doesn’t distract from the game. The game itself isn’t facilitating those frenetic interactions in the same way that the best party games do. It could be played fairly silently, and I imagine it is in many groups.
Maybe if I had more “lazy” games to play, games that give me that sense of childlike play, Concept wouldn’t loom so large in my list of beloved games. So many that I play these days require lengthy rules explanations and a high level of commitment to the session in order to get the most out of it. It’s fun, but it’s demanding.
By contrast, I’m not sure I’ve ever kept score in a traditional sense while playing Concept. It’s just fun to experience, sans points or winners. Concept is the antithesis of a demanding game, despite having the potential for intellectually tricky moments, and I love it for that fact.
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