The Existential Horror of Dixit
There’s something both magical and terrifying about Dixit. And I mean that in a far more literal sense than usual.
Communication is tough, as anyone who’s been in a regular human relationship can attest. Our attempts often fall short. Too much, too little, too vague — even too precise. With effort, you can get better at it. Refine it. Figure out when to use it and what type and how much, maybe even realize that sometimes you shouldn’t use it at all. But even then, you can’t ever quite get there. To the point that everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about, I mean. Sure, they’ll hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, assembled from a limited set of vowels and consonants, but how often will they understand, really understand, what you’re trying to say? Sometimes, maybe. But not as often as we’d like to think.
Well. That’s what Dixit is about.
The word Dixit is Latin for “he said.” Its most recognizable form dates back to an expression from Cicero: Ipse Dixit, or “he himself said,” a handy rhetorical and legal phrase for identifying when someone is filling your ears with steaming bullshit. It’s the sort of thing that applies every time someone says you should listen to them because they’ve done extensive Google research on a particular topic. If Latin were in wider use today, Ipse Dixit would basically be the motto of the internet.
I can hear what you’re thinking: “I thought Dixit was a party game.” And you’re exactly right! But it’s the rarest sort of party game, one concerned with just the right quantity of communication, neither too much nor too little. After all, as Cicero’s twitching hands can attest from where they were nailed to the Roman Forum’s central platform, sometimes too much communication really is too much. Especially when you’re writing speeches about how hard Marc Antony can piss off.
Dixit is a game of pictures, colorful and crazy images straight out of dreams. A mouse peers nervously from his perch inside a flying shoe, an ugly old nun’s shadow reveals an attractive pregnant woman whistling beneath her load, a snail approaches an endless spiral staircase. There are dozens of these, and on your turn it’s your job to pick one from a hand of maybe five, lay it face down at the center of the table, and give a clue.
The clue could be anything. A quick story, a phrase, a word, a grunt. For example, you might look at the card above — a wolf peering out of a grandmotherly matryoshka doll — and say, “Stereotype.”
Everyone else also has a hand of cards, all of them just as wild and open to interpretation as yours. And as soon as you’ve laid your card down, everyone else gets to pick one of their own, doing their best to match your clue. Once everyone has added a card of their own to the stack, you shuffle all of them together and deal them out. At this point, peering up from the table, you’ve got a whole bunch of cards that more or less match your clue.
You’ve probably guessed that you’re trying to get the other players to pick your card off the strength of your hint, but here’s what makes Dixit tick. If it were as simple as getting people to choose your card, it would have been easy enough to say something obvious like, “It’s a wolf looking out of a Russian nesting doll,” and then Dixit would have been the dullest game in human history other than Uno. Instead, it’s your goal to get someone to pick your card, while if everyone — or no one! — picks it, then you get zero points. What’s more, every other player gets a point when someone picks their card, like a little usurper slipped into the lineup. A masochist usurper, desperate to be fingered for a crime committed by someone else. Or something. I’m pretty sure it’s on a Dixit card.
It’s that sliver between too much communication and not enough that makes Dixit so magical, so personal. You’ll try to reach across the table with your words, to give personalized clues that you’re certain only one person will understand. And then, as often as not, everyone will see right through your brilliance and guess your card anyway. Or nobody will. Either way, you’ll feel stupid and/or very solipsistic, alone in the entire universe because nobody can understand what you’re trying to say.
Here’s an example.
Everyone in my family speaks some measure of German, but none of them quite so fluently as me and my Dad. One game, we got into the bad habit of occasionally speaking our clues in German, bouncing them off each other to guarantee someone would pick the right one. As gamey as this was, it was useful for getting us points, leaving everyone else in the dust. After a couple rounds, however, I realized that we were neck-and-neck in points, and in order to win I would have to take a round without letting Dad pick the right clue.
Well, I was holding the perfect card. Somerset was sitting to my right, and she was sure to get it. So I laid it down, a donkey in white shirt and tie, holding a human mask over his face, and said, “Nein wohlständig nude.”
As I’m sure most of my readers immediately recognize, this was the perfect hint. Dad raised his eyebrow at my broken German and picked a card of his own. Then, once the cards were flipped, my family looked at the options in utter consternation. Having only understood the last word of the phrase, they were looking for naked people.
Surely Somserset would understand that I hadn’t given a real German clue at all, but a phrase spoken by Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke about his condition as a “never-nude.” The card’s white figure on an orange background was a dead giveaway for the television show’s color scheme! I was a genius!
Nobody got it. Not a one. In fact, most of them picked Dad’s card, a pirate staring into the distance, his back tattooed and bare. Everyone chose it because it was “nude,” apparently. A few rounds later, Dad won the game after he started trading musical clues with Mom. Some nonsense about a cantata.
Dixit works its existential magic because every round is constructed from moments of stupendous communication and terrific error. It highlights just how closely we can commune with someone, totally in sync and drawing on shared experiences and culture and entertainment and thinking, then hands you a merciless reminder that you’re alone in the entire universe because nobody can understand what you’re trying to say.
But as long as you’re alone, might as well play some Dixit. It’s a good laugh, the best sort of party game there is.