Pictomania Board Game Review


Pictomania board game box cover

There are a lot of “draw things in a hurry and guess at what it is” party games. Pictomania is the best I’ve found.

I’m going to talk about why that is, with the only caveat being that while I’ve played plenty of “draw…” games, there are certainly others out there I’ve missed.

In brief, Pictomania is a game where all players receive an item to draw from a series of category lists, and must do so, then guess what everyone else’s is. There’s a simple letter/number system that allows you to guess at others’ drawings. Scoring is based partially on speed and partially on correct guesses (and correct guesses of your drawing), creating tension between speed and surety.

Humor Me

It feels a little sad to write this, but I think a lot of us (myself included) forget that games are meant to be fun. Yes, they can educate and be social commentary, but they will likely fail at any of these things if they aren’t fun.

Even in the longer, strategic epics in the board gaming hobby, my favorites are the ones that make me consistently smile, often unexpectedly. Even better are the ones that make me laugh out loud. I don’t care if it’s a simple game or an impossibly complex one…if I’m not smiling, what the heck am I doing?

Humor in games can rarely be forced. Rather, it has to arise organically from play.

This is where so-called “party” games sink or swim. The ones that are generally derided are those that seem to want to force the issue. In a particular group, it can still work, but for many others it feels like the game is trying to siphon laughs from the room by brute force.

But the best party games are reliable ways to elicit a bunch of beaming smiles from the group.

Creating Organic Laughter Through Play

How does Pictomania create this environment? Several ways:

  1. Pace. There’s no official timer, but you’re incentivized through the point structure to go quickly. This creates a hurried atmosphere, without the stress of a literal countdown or the fear that others are counting on you to go fast. It’s all the excitement and confusion of real-time games with almost none of the stress.
  2. Risk/Reward. The pace means that you can dash out a crappy drawing, hope for the best, and race for some bonus points. Or take your time, make a better drawing and consider your guesses more thoroughly, but risk being outpaced by someone else. The terrible drawings that this results in, and the second-guessing of your own suppositions, is a delight.
  3. Escalating, Absurd Difficulty. The final round or two of the game features frankly unfair categories of similar prompts to draw. No one will have any clue how to differentiate their drawing fully, and all guesses will be approximate. Imagine drawing a square vs. circle. Easy, right? Now horse vs. pony. Probably difficult, but still doable. Now horse vs. pony vs. racing horse vs. riding horse. Not so easy anymore, is it? But that’s the funny part. With everyone in the same boat, everyone gets to stare in wide-eyed horror as they try to figure out if Bill’s drawing over there is of a pony, donkey, draft horse or race horse. The reveal of categories and drawable items in the final rounds is itself something of an event, with the whole table groaning audibly. It’s music to my ears.
  4. Negative Points. Seriously, this is the chef’s kiss of funny outcomes. “How many points did you get in that round? Eleven?! Oh, cool. Me? No, don’t worry about it.” *quietly scribbles -4 in my scoring box*. To be clear, does this mean some players will enter the final round with no chance to win? Yes, it does. But if you’re playing the game to be that cutthroat, you’re missing the point. I’ve had more fun fighting for “not last” with others in this game than I have when I’m running away with the victory.

There are likely gamers to whom the above items aren’t selling points. If that’s the case, pass on this. But for many, I think you’ll have a lot of fun.

Physical Logistics in Speed Games

I have one negative point about play. It might seem silly or small, but in terms of interrupting the game’s frenetic flow, I’ve found that it’s noticeable.

You have to guess at others’ drawings with the cards in your hand, but in a full 6P game (or even some 5P games), you’re not going to be within arm’s reach of various players. This has implications for the timing of the guesses, which then affects scoring.

And it results in a lot of crossed arms as people reach out at the same time, or throwing cards haphazardly across the table, or—worst case scenario (but I’ve seen it happen a few times)—two piles are accidentally formed for a player (or one card ends up not in the main pile), and it becomes a guessing game at the end of a round to figure out what order they came in.

In a goofy party game, this isn’t game-killing. But it’s noticeable, and occasionally a frustration. I want to say this game is best at its full 6 players, and that’s certainly where it’s the most chaotic (which is good in a game like this). But I’ve also struggled a little bit at 6P for this reason, relative to, say, 4P.

Rulebook Problems?!

I’m a regular gamer. I’ve played Twilight Imperium without issue. And I had trouble figuring out the rules in this rulebook. A friend whose collection size is 300+ also struggled. Those statements are inexplicable to me.

For reference, I own the 2nd edition of the game, so these comments may not be true across all copies.

The biggest flaw of the rulebook is that it doles out partial information at multiple points. This seems to be to try to slowly onboard players into the game’s rules. But it confuses instead, by having to reference multiple locations to piece together single concepts.

Scoring is the biggest culprit. It explains a little bit of scoring, then pushes the rest to later in the book. Then it explains “learning round” scoring, referencing full or advanced scoring but not actually outlining it, then has a full scoring explanation near the end that isn’t complete in and of itself but requires referencing the earlier sections and also requires ignoring some of the earlier material. Between other component explanations and options for play, figuring out how to score in the game requires reading about four separate sections.

So rather than including concepts in their totality, it requires cross-referencing and overwriting (or ignoring) some aspects mentioned earlier. And it’s not that the rules are complex. They’re not. It’s that they are presented in a way that I found profoundly odd and unhelpful. For a game of this level, rules should not be a problem.

And yes, we figured it out by the end of our second play (we got some rules wrong in those first two games). But I don’t think it’s a huge ask to have been able to get them right from the start. Were blind playtests and rules editors used here? I dunno, probably. But it sure seems like it was someone who thought they were clever and instead created a miniature maze in the rulebook for us to navigate. On a second edition of the game, no less.

Pictomania Conclusions

Gripes aside, we got through the rulebook issues. So will you. The logistics issues are less avoidable at 6P, but still can’t mar the overall experience for me.

This is chaotic, maddening, wonderful fun. There is a warm glow of laughter and smiles surrounding the table every time I play it. And I can finish with -10 points while the winner has 25 and that fact won’t change in the slightest. We’re simply enjoying the shared, deliriously goofy experience. That’s possibly the best feeling games can create.

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