The Intellectual Desert of Party Games
Mitch Turck’s Origin might as well be a game without an origin. See what I did there? Snark aside, it’s true. After much searching — there are a lot of games with “origin” in the title — I came across a page on BoardGameGeek that repeated the blurb on the back of the box. Apart from that, there was nothing. No box image, play images, comments, forum posts, nothing.
Which raises the question: while playing Origin, if I reveal an origin card that mentions “The origin of the game Origin,” what is the actual origin of that origin card?
I’m of two minds about Origin.
If you’ve been following along for a while, you probably know that I work as a historian. While I’m not especially keen to review whatever “after dark” party game is clogging my inbox, the idea of a historical party game has some native appeal to me. You mean I get to show off how many dates I’ve memorized? Sounds like a hoot.
And for the most part, Origin rewards memorized dates, even if the events surrounding those dates happen to be particularly obscure. Oh, some of them are the sort of thing a person might bother to know. Death of Julius Caesar? Please. First resignation of a U.S. President? Uh huh. Sinking of the Titanic? Like I haven’t been forced to watch the movie nine times.
Then there are the other clues. First use of the phrase “the whole nine yards”? How about “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Uh oh. Does anybody know? Why would they know? If they did know, would they immediately seek to have the memories scrubbed? Other clues set my historical klaxons blaring. First syringe — well, are we talking about primitive cataract surgery or hypodermics? Earliest version of Cinderella — does she have to be named Cinderella or can we go back to Fredegund? Invention of gunpowder — saltpeter or smokeless? Give me an ambiguous clue and I’ll immediately ask what it’s attempting to say.
Then again, many of these particulars don’t matter, because Origin doesn’t actually care about history. Instead, it’s a game of bullshittery. One player places a card on the table, determines whether everyone else will place a card that’s “closest” or “furthest” to it, temporally speaking, and then everyone else plays a card and proceeds to quibble over which is closer or further. A handful of subtleties prevent this from becoming too simplistic. You can withdraw, which prevents the winner from earning a point from the card you played. If multiple players are still in contention, you visit the Origin webpage, type in some three-letter combos, and discover the winner, who claims all the un-withdrawn cards as points. History thus written, you move onto the next round.
At its best, Origin sparks some interesting historical contortions. To give one example, which of these events is temporally closer to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: the first dog sent to outer space, establishment of IBM, or the invention of nylon? Tricky. With a lineup like that, we’re in peril of learning something.
You know what’s less tricky? Bullshitting. At least at this point in the history of board games, when the lion’s share of party games since Apples to Apples revolves around the capacity to talk fast and sound confident. The issue isn’t that it favors the silver-tongued; anyway, as a professional talker, I don’t mind. My reservation is that this road has been worn down to the bedrock, so thoroughly have the stones been trod. Different cards, same process, same creeping solipsism. Origin further parches this intellectual desert by mentioning that its website’s dates might not even be correct, sourced as they were from Wikipedia. Revisionism within revisionism. Although that’s probably being too harsh toward Wikipedia.
There’s a game I play with my Dad when I go over to visit. One of us looks up the events that happened that day in history. We give the year and gradual clues while the other person tries to guess the event. Some are easier, like big battles or important inventions, while others, like sports or events that happened far beyond our European and American remits, are more difficult. There are no points. Nor is there any bullshitting. Not that this should make our whimsical game superior to Origin in my mind. After all, it’s my fault. I knew what I was getting into. The box has it right there in the subtitle: “The game where revisionist history wins.” In that regard, at least, it isn’t bullshitting.
More’s the pity. I like the game Origin is at its beginning more than the game it becomes: the one in which we wrestle with sequences and structures, with how phrases sound or the way inventions slot into grander schemes. Then the bullshitting starts. Frankly, the pursuit of truth would have been more interesting. Whether it’s due to current events or my profession’s particular obsession with accuracy, I don’t have the energy for such contortions.
A complimentary copy was provided.