Some games are serious. They’re meant to model history, make a point, or get you upset about something you never knew existed. Other games are a frivolous delight. They’re here to be consumed, ogled, roughed up. When a piece falls behind the piano — a question of when, not if — the act of recovering it is as much a part of the game as scoring points. These moments aren’t interruptions. They’re continuations.
Crash Octopus is the embodiment of that latter type of game.
I mean, just look at it. The octopus is obviously the focal point, with its bulbous head and those tentacles. They’re huggers, not stranglers — the octopus promises. But everything else is just as snappy. The little boats dragging their little anchors. The cargo floating in the water, including those very distressed captains. The optional desert island with its lone palm tree. That lone palm tree serves no game function, by the way. It’s there to look nice. What would a desert island be without a lone palm tree?
This isn’t the first time a Naotaka Shimamoto joint has looked so good. I tried Tokyo Highway and Moon Base thanks to their sharp appearance, with those tangles of components that still spoke so clearly about where exactly everybody stood at any given moment. Crash Octopus pulls the same trick. Here’s a mess. In order to win, you need to wade through that mess. Yet everything about this mess has been designed for maximum legibility.
“Legibility.” Look at me, speaking like a game critic. Crash Octopus may be legible, but it isn’t about legibility. It’s about aesthetic. Here, that aesthetic sets the tone for the entire game: colorful, happy, and messy.
The goal is to load up your ship with the cargo that only recently spilled into the sea. There are five types of cargo when playing the base game. Seven if you add the optional fifth player. The fifth player is a pirate with a different set of moves, just because. More importantly, each type of cargo has its own heft, its own contours. This matters because Crash Octopus is a flicking game. Anything less would have felt like a wasted opportunity. Except here you’re flicking with miniature flags rather than your finger. All the better to highlight the various shapes and hefts of the cargo. A gold bar is easy to manage, except it’s long and tends to stick off the edges of your ship. The goblet is an infuriating round thing that can’t be flicked over long distances with any reliability. A captain tends to hitch on things. Maybe because he’s freaked out. The octopus and your chosen method of rescue are equally to blame. You can also flick your anchor in order to move your ship. Like everything else, the anchor tends to behave by its own rules, either sliding or turning on its side and rolling much farther than intended.
Crash Octopus knows better than to provide an octopus without letting it do something. There’s no unfulfilled Chekov’s Octopus here. Whenever you successfully flick a piece of cargo into your ship, you’re allowed to load it onto the deck. Hopefully you didn’t flick so hard that something else fell off. Either way, the game tracker moves forward. Most of the time, nothing happens. Sometimes, the octopus gets a turn. This is accomplished by dropping a die so that it rebounds from the octopus’s head. Sometimes the octopus will move its head to a new location. Other times a tentacle will move. Other times still, you’ll land a perfect shot with the die and send a rival captain’s cargo crashing back into the water.
Sometimes the mess moves from the tabletop to your headspace. Which cargo you can flick (not the nearest piece), when the octopus attacks or moves (somebody will confuse the two), whether unsettled cargo should be replaced (it depends), how to steal treasure from the island. Minor qualms that seem larger than they are because Crash Octopus seems like the sort of game that wouldn’t contain hitches and provisos. No matter. They’re internalized quickly enough. But they’re there, intruding at odd moments.
Despite the occasional flake of dust, Crash Octopus is one tasty morsel. Short and sweet, it’s the embodiment of the far end of the gaming spectrum, the space where games are celebrated because they’re bright and humorous and full of silly moments. As of yet, I have never failed to laugh while playing. Sometimes it was because somebody lost all their cargo one turn shy of winning. Other times I laughed because something tumbled onto the floor and we spent ten minutes looking for the thing with flashlights. It’s a rare game that transforms its fouls into play.