As much as it pains me to admit it, CARDS AGAINST HUMANITY is the most influential game of the past 15 years. Look at the game section of any major store and you’ll see plenty of games that replicate not just its lazy raunchiness masquerading as transgression, but also its stark graphic design. I won’t pretend I haven’t had fun playing the game—mostly one memorable session with my grandmother reading out “don’t fuck with me” in a perfect deadpan manner. My frustration is less with its juvenile offensiveness and more with how its ubiquity limits people’s imagination as to what party games can be.
Fortunately, Repos Production has picked up the slack and released two absolute gems that reminded me that the success of CAH is not the end of the world. JUST ONE and SO CLOVER were not designed by the same people, but they come in similar-sized boxes and feature cooperative gameplay based on writing clues with markers. Their simplicity belies subtle differences that make the games different enough to justify both being in your collection; JUST ONE excels at higher player counts and is best when you play into social knowledge, while SO CLOVER is a thinky puzzle game that works with as few as two people and omits the incredulous post-game finger-pointing over terrible clues.
Party games should be simple, because it kind of kills the mood to bring up Rodney Smith and watch a 45 minute video before playing a game. JUST ONE and SO CLOVER can each be explained in two sentences a piece. In JUST ONE, you are trying to get someone to guess a word by writing one word-clues. If anyone writes the same clue, they erase them and leave the guesser with less to work with. In SO CLOVER, players try to write clues to help everyone else arrange four 4-sided, clover-shaped cards. The catch is a single clue helps identify two words and a fifth card is added in as a red herring.
DIXIT, the 2010 Spiel Des Jahres winner, is a great game, but there are times where the scoring can be commandeered by niche clues. The game is based on getting some, but not all or none, of your opponents to guess a card in a sea of red-herrings. As a result, someone can throw out an inside-joke or esoteric bit of trivia aimed at one specific person and sweep up the points. There are some people who like that; I’m not one of them. I’d rather be creative to win.
JUST ONE is different in that it is cooperative rather than competitive, but it thrives on the same kind of social knowledge. The word Pimento comes out? Write a clue related to the Dover Boys that you know your meme-addicted friends will get. But what if someone else has the same touchstone as you? You’ll still have to worry about other people’s answers while not making it so different that it throws the guesser off. Furthermore, the identity of the guesser comes into play. Don’t hit me with clues related to cars or brands, hit me with music or historical references and I’ll probably get what you’re selling me. The game strikes a balance between being clever and using knowledge about the other players,
Despite this, you can easily pull the game out and play with strangers or work colleagues as well. It’s not a game you can play with three or even four people; there’s less fun in navigating other people’s clues and the round is basically null and void if you end up bouncing off a teammate. Anywhere from five to eight is best, because there’s more room for people to mess up while still allowing the guesser to have a chance even if people end up canceling each other. Don’t think that having more clues makes the game easier, though, as people might be so concerned with avoiding other people’s clues that they forget to make their own clues useful.
On the other hand, SO CLOVER can easily be played with two players. Instead of people giving clues to one person, one person is giving clues to everyone else. With two players, there’s no teammates to toss ideas off of, sure, but the core puzzle-solving and joy of connecting the clue-giver’s thought process is kept intact no matter the player count. There can be a social aspect to the game in that knowing a person’s background and likes can tell you what kind of clues they would give and what they mean by certain words with multiple definitions, but it’s not as omnipresent as JUST ONE.
CODENAMES, the 2015 Spiel Des Jahres winner, is a great game, but it is probably the most stressful of all the recent party games. Some people understandably do not vibe with how tense and difficult it can be. The cooperative version, CODENAMES DUET, softened the edge by removing the competitive aspect, and it’s a welcome alternative for those who like the puzzle aspect but prefer working together. The problem is that, once you solve enough words, you can give one-word clues for a couple rounds and still beat the time limit. There’s still a chance of making a mistake, but it guts some of the tension when this happens.
The fun of many party games, like CODENAMES and MYSTERIUM, are the arguments people have afterwards as people dissect the preceding events and try to understand the reasoning behind all of the clues. That’s still present in SO CLOVER, but I think it’s less common for two reasons. One, because of the shape of the cards, you only have to be sure about one of the words and the one other can just be a chance because you are so confident the positioning of one of the words is correct. Second, as the clover is nearing completion, teammates start to realize how difficult the clue-giver had it and adjust their thought process to accommodate for more leaps of logic. Don’t get me wrong, there are still times my teammates get mad at me because I did not pay attention to how many water-based words were on my clover, but it’s less of a presence.
I don’t like getting all doom and gloom about how something is ruining the industry; I like focusing on the games I love. While it pains me when people’s only experience with board gaming is CARDS AGAINST HUMANITY, the success of JUST ONE and SO CLOVER gives me hope and their differences show there is still plenty of room to explore even in such simple spaces and justify their dual presence on your shelf.