I played many different games over the last four weeks. Some that were plot heavy, long and complicated, and some that were short and simple. Some I loved, some I hated, some were just kind of… there. For ease of marking and to best consolidate my thoughts into a readable medium, I’m deciding to talk specifically about two games, one that I loved and one that I loathed, and what creative decisions the game designers made that made me feel that way.
Unstable unicorns is pretty. It’s not a game I enjoyed, but it’s very pretty.
The unboxing of this game was relatively harmless and fun, flicking through the cards and looking at the art for all of them in the process of shuffling. However, when I noticed the A3, double-sided overly intimidating rules, I sensed this game was gonna more complicated that the colourful pastel pictures implied.
Sure enough, the four of us had absolutely no clue how to process the dense rules and find the important information in the paragraphs and paragraphs of instructions. It didn’t help that the writing was so small and the pictures did minimal to actually express the cards effects, instead only having a tangential relationship. It became a game itself of pointing at an area on the rule sheet and saying ‘Oh, so I think that card might be played in this portion of the turn. Maybe. I don’t know.’
It took us twenty minutes to understand the rules to a point where we could start to play, even with the aid of YouTube videos like this one and other online resources like these, and forty minutes to finish the rest of the game because we had to keep stopping and checking with the rules.
By the end of the game I still had a ton of unanswered questions that the rulebook either didn’t answer, or didn’t answer in a way that was clear enough to me. “Can you neigh a neigh? Can you destroy a baby unicorn? If I steal a Magical Unicorn card from another player’s Stable and place it directly into mine, does that card’s effect re-trigger?” All these questions and more were never answered because we either couldn’t find the answer easily or we stopped relying on the complicated rules and just played our own way.
(Yes, you can destroy a baby unicorn, but then you have to go home and sleep at night knowing what you did. )
In my opinion, unstable unicorns had a clear emphasis on aesthetics and the way that the cards look over playability. It paid off, kind of, because all of the cards are intricate and look beautiful. I was always excited to pick up a new card to see what the art would be, but other than that, I very quickly lost interest in actually playing the game because it was so drawn out and complicated. It feels like it was trying to corner a cutesier, more child-friendly version of games like Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity, but failed to mimic the most important part of those games, which is that they can be taught to anyone in mere minutes, it takes next-to-no brain power to play and the rounds themselves are lightning fast. Others may have different thoughts, but for me it was style over substance. For other notes I made on this game, go here.
The same cannot be said for Potion Explosion.
There wasn’t a damn thing about Potion Explosion that wasn’t fun for me. It’s a beautifully made experience, with every part of this game feeling intricate and intentional, from the design of the marble holding system and the potions to the sound design of the way the marbles clink together when they fall.
We had the advantage of having Chris explain the game to us, but even going back through the rulebook later to look for specific rules, it seemed much more concise and helpful than unstable unicorns. It still had moments where it didn’t cover a certain thing or said something in a way I didn’t understand but overall it was concise. The font was more readable, the paragraphs were short and well-spaced in the booklet and the candy crush-esque mechanics were easy to grasp and fun to play. The turns were so short that it meant I had no wiggle room to get bored. I was always thinking about what to do next to maximise my turn, not as a chore but out of genuine pleasure.
It’s got the same bright colours and fun art as unstable unicorns, but in this version the art assists you in playing the game, using colours to tell you what marbles to collect and having different coloured potions do different things in the course of the game. Nobody in the group had any trouble finding out what colour marble their potion needed, it was expressed non-verbally in a way that was always easy to understand.
I spent my entire game hoarding my potions, having so much fun creating them that I just wanted more and more and more. The games victory was satisfying because the combined elements of luck and strategy made me feel very smart.
You can read more of my notes on potion explosion here.