Eat Poop You Cat: Telephone, Telestrations and the Art of Drawing Stuff Badly

Also Somehow a Sociological Manifesto


pencil and pencil shavings on a blank notebook

Year Published: ??

Players: 3-99

Playing Time: 20-30 Minutes

Why draw anything anymore, right? Artificial intelligence has us covered. If I want an image of Harrison Ford dressed in a tutu (with, I assume, Cronenberg-esque creatures in the background masquerading as humans, and 6 fingers on each hand), I can generate it in seconds.

Boom, done! So there’s no need for us to tire out our clumsy hands in a board game that asks us to imagine ridiculous prompts and bring them to life.

Eat Poop You Cat – The (Philosophical) Premise

Thank goodness that isn’t actually my stance. I’m sure some overzealous tech bros would be happy to debate me on the matter, but human artistry matters.

Or, in this case, human attempts at artistry.

I didn’t mean to lead with such a spicy topic as AI art. But it’s a useful primer on thinking about why we create things.

Is it to monetize our work? Potentially, though I’d argue this is more born of financial necessity, not artistic passion. Is it to improve ourselves and reach an audience to whom we can connect? Sometimes, though I think this interpretation is skewed by the fact that, tautologically, we only see art that is made public. We never see the billions of artistic efforts (of every conceivable kind) that are for a private audience…sometimes an audience no larger than the person who creates it.

So why create? Is it often, as I suspect, for the simple, pure joy of creating something new, however flawed it may be?

This is what Eat Poop You Cat revels in.

Eat Poop You Cat – The (Mechanical) Premise

Everyone forms a fun, short, often nonsensical phrase. “Indiana Jones but in a tutu,” to harken back to my earlier example.

You then pass that phrase to the person beside you, and they have to draw it. You’ll be doing the same with your other neighbor’s prompt. Then you pass again, but importantly, can now only look at the most recent drawing/phrase, not the entire continuum.

The game tends to only work well at larger numbers, where the prompts have a chance to permutate into something wildly different by the time they make it around the entire table. At the end, everyone reads through their chain of mishaps, ideally to the amusement of everyone.

Some call this game “Telephone” and there are likely other regional variants as well. It exists on Board Game Geek as Eat Poop You Cat, so that’s what I’m using as the title. But the premise is the same regardless.

Telestrations and the Codification of Creativity

This is not a game you “own” in a traditional sense. You can play it with some pads of paper and writing utensils.

That was true, at least, until the bestial consumerist entity that is modern hobby gaming got its claws in this old classic.

Telestrations, and various knockoffs like Telestrations: After Dark are fun, for clarity. But they standardize the prompts that you’ll be drawing and – if I recall correctly – are limited to a single word instead of a phrase.

The need to separate these conceptually has reached institutional heights. On Board Game Geek, the listing for EPYC even states the following:

Eat Poop You Cat does not comport with the BGG guidelines for what constitutes a game, but is kept in the database by popular demand and administrative fiat. E.g. Telestrations or Mutabo took its inspiration from this activity.

No word on why Telestrations doesn’t have this caveat attached to it (hint: it makes money).

Mutabo tries to tack on a victory clause as well, though in a winking nod to that fact that this rules tweak likely only exists to please publishers/distributors, the game’s summary explicitly mentions that scoring isn’t as important as the rest of the game.

Nevermind that of course it’s a game without such conditions, just as a child playing an improvised game in the grooves of a carpet or with the fall of water on a window pane is a game. This is gaming in the most playful, primordial sense of the word.

But in setting strict, nonsensical definitions involving the need for a winner, our society reinforces a competition-first approach that limits our sense of play, and opens the door for elitist strategy gamers to repeat condescending lines about it being “just” an activity, that they’re parroting from equally banal sources whose interests are more likely in the commodification of the hobby instead of creating the most amount of fun, and using phrases like this to denigrate the fun of others in ways that likely limit the inclusivity of many gaming spaces.

Didn’t think this review was going to be this heavy, did you?

I see important lines in the sand drawn by this game (pun intended), though, so it’s a useful place to set up my soap box and bloviate in ways that will make me feel better but ultimately be washed away in the corporate forces that control mainstream discussion.

This is one of my favorite games because of the simplicity. Because it doesn’t demand a shoehorned victory condition atop what is a delightfully funny premise. Because it creates a shared, social gaming space without the need for intense competitive forces to ruin the whimsical nature of play. And because it asks us to create our own goofy worlds, rather than handing less interesting ones to us.

This is why it’s brilliant, not why it’s limited.

Deprogramming Ourselves Via Play

Beyond the myriad “it’s not really a game” parrots, some will see too little variance in their sessions, where for example “Basketball” becomes “Ball” by the end, and it’s not terribly funny.

This is where the non-commercial version shines, because the prompt comes from your imagination, and every time I’ve played, we’ve been encouraged to use a short phrase instead of a single word or concept.

The risk of a basketball-like trip around the table is nearly nonexistent at that point, and if you’re accepting the spirit of the game, you’ll find table talk generated effortlessly in the form of people explaining their wildly disparate thought processes, and seeing how those misinterpretations led to something truly bizarre.

Better still if you’re bad at drawing! I’ve seen the odd take that those who can draw well have an advantage at the game. Not so! If you’re utter crap at drawing, like I am, you have a leg up at creating the most memorably stupid rounds of laughter. Stupid is a term of endearment in this context, of course. “Having an advantage” is again defaulting to a competitive mindset, which this game does not exist to stoke. Tens of thousands of games already reliably do that.

This game exists to deprogram us from that mindset, reminding us that we’re just folks sitting around a table enjoying each other’s company. For a game to enhance that feeling is perhaps gaming’s highest possible calling. Eat Poop You Cat does this, and should be celebrated for that fact.

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