After the clock struck
Too many Cinderellas
How will the prince choose?
The recent explosion (revolution, fad, renaissance?) of micro games is fascinating to me in the same way flash fiction, Haiku and other minimalist, rule-driven forms of art are. The idea of a designer limiting his or herself to 20 or so cards and a few bits while attempting to create a compelling game experience is such an interesting one that I’ve basically been playing every micro game that I could get my hands on since I first experienced the trend with Sejei Kanai’s Love Letter (16 cards and some scoring tokens) in 2013.
While I’ve really enjoyed my early experiences with a few micro-games, I exhausted each of the games pretty quickly, and I’ve started to wonder in recent months if there was any lasting value to that style of game. Game design, like most creative acts, is challenging enough without adding extra hoops to jump through, and is it possible that the concessions necessary for the design of micro-games make them more of a novelty than anything likely to have a lasting legacy. I see a strong comparison of micro-games to flash fiction. Flash fiction is a term used to describe stories with which authors have limited themselves to a restrictive number of words. It is a poorly defined genre with stories as small as one-sentence or as long as 2500 words. There are some great works of literature that fall within the upper limit of the flash fiction definition, and it is a critically accepted format that some of our great writers have worked in.
However, one specific type of flash fiction often called “One-sentence fiction” —an attempt to write a story in a single sentence--has been popping up in various magazines and journals (and Tumblr, and Reddit, and Facebook) in the past few years, but unlike it’s larger brethren, one-sentence stories really feel like a shallow thought-experiment more than a form of art. Take the most famous example, weakly attributed to Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn
There is pathos here, but after the initial processing of the situation (a gut-punch, admittedly) are we left with anything to hold onto? I say not. No matter how attractive the first reading of a piece of micro-fiction is, the experience is ultimately an empty one.
So, are micro-games the empty, shallow experiences of one-sentence fiction or are they a valuable, lasting work of art? It is likely too soon to answer that question, but it has been on my mind.
Enter Too Many Cinderellas, a design by Nobutake Dogen and Nao Shimamura being released in English by Grail Games. It is the day after the Royal Ball and, apparently, the prince was really, really drunk the night before because he has no clue who the lady he fell in love with the night before really is. Heck, he isn’t even sure the person he danced with was a lady:
…or even a human:
The prince may have a drinking problem, but that isn’t the focus of this game. The focus is on being the advisor that gets their client accepted as the real Cinderella. Players do this by playing cards from their hands that have clues about the real Cinderella on them—she isn’t blonde, she doesn’t like cake, she is a guy—and then voting on whether the rules will take effect. Each player has two voting tokens—a “yes” and a “no.” If the player thinks the rules should take effect, they vote “yes” and hold onto the token. If they don’t want the rule card to take effect, they vote “no” and leave the token on the card (and no longer have a way to disallow future rule cards).
The fun of the game is in the voting. Since it only takes one “no” to disallow a rule card, players often must risk not playing their “no” vote in hopes that another player will play it. After a few games (or a thorough studying of the cards before the game), it will become clear that some rule cards eliminate more potential candidates than others do. So, if a rule card says that Cinderella is not a man and your best candidate is a man—you likely need to play a “no,” but if it says Cinderella is not young, you can push your luck and hope that another player will play their “no” token and you can save yours until a rarer rule that will affect you comes up. A player can use the knowledge gathered from who was voting against what rule to get an idea which Cinderella cards each player has in hand and choose rules accordingly, so the game has some of the social deduction or other popular micro games mixed in with the simple voting mechanism.
When each player has added two rules to the tableau, the player with the lowest value (or highest if that rule made it through voting) Cinderella that doesn’t violate the rules, presents that card as the true Cinderella and wins the round. Players play until one player has won a certain number of rounds and that player is the winner.
Before I get back to the value of micro games discussion, let me say that I recommend Too Many Cinderellas without reservation. It is a cute, fast-playing game that has pretty much replaced Love Letter as our micro game of choice at our college game nights. The cutesy art is really appealing to new visitors to the game night and it has been a game that other members are picking out of the stack to teach to newcomers, and I’m always looking for games that I (as host and owner of many of the games) don’t have to teach every time myself. It’s fun. It’s cheap. If the theme doesn’t turn you off, you should consider buying it.
That said, I do wonder if strict adherence to the component limit has hurt the game. I’m not sure, but I think it possibly has. The game has a victory condition that I really dislike. If the round ends and nobody has a Cinderella that does not violate a rule, then players add their two remaining cards together and the lowest one wins. This is completely unsatisfying and anti-thematic. A larger deck of cards with more balanced rules—producing a card set where a few cards would sneak through any combination of rules—would fix the problem, but it also might make the game more predictable and the “gambling” with “no” tokens less interesting. It is hard to say if the game would have been better with a full set of cards—say the 56 card deck--created by adherence to factory standard of the traditional card games— that we see in many hobby card games, but I can’t help but think that the problem arises from the format here. In the end, I think that is where we are almost always going to end up with micro games. There are going to be flaws that could be fixed by throwing more components in the box or expanding the game play that are not going to be fixed because the company is wanting a micro game that they can produce cheaply both because it opens up a different market than the 60 dollar games and because there is a trend that can be jumped on. I’m going to be very interested in seeing if twenty years from now any of these hot micro games have stood the test of time or whether their very nature means there isn’t enough game space to explore to keep them on the table.