It Also Means Goodbye Earth
For all their lightness, party games are tough to design. Probably because comedy is hard enough to create deliberately, let alone when you’re helping others create it out of thin air. It isn’t just a matter of setting up jokes. There’s careful timing to good humor, a cadence, empty spaces, gaps. It’s no wonder so many party games stick to mimicking Apples to Apples.
Heather and Christopher O’Neill’s Aloha Earth goes the other direction, and although the result isn’t quite as well-trod as having everybody play a card, the formula is still a familiar one. This time, one player places a prompt on the table. Everyone else tries to get that player to laugh. There’s a little more to it, but not much. That’s both a strength and a weakness.
The setup to Aloha Earth may be the best thing about it. You and your friends are academics at a symposium. Except you’re aliens. And the symposium is on human stuff. And you’re instructed to act the way academics do. You can never say, “No, that’s wrong.” Academics do not say such things to one another. Instead, you’re required to speak in that genteel and passive-aggressive manner that marks someone who was bullied for twelve years of school, only to elect to remain in school for an additional dozen years. “I must thank my esteemed colleague for that colorful explication of events,” you must say. “However, they overlooked one crucial detail. A detail so crucial that it may redefine our understanding of the human species as we know it.”
There it is. How professors tell each other off.
There are two other important details. The first is that your alien professor has a particular specialty. Human travel. Human religion. Human sports. Human music. It isn’t enough to tell the best story about the artifact in question. You also need to tie it to your field of study.
Which brings us to the artifacts themselves. These are built by composite. Two cards become a single recovered antiquity, while a third card, drawn at random, becomes the location where it was discovered. These locales repeat a little too often, at least in the prototype I played, but there’s a wide range of descriptors for the artifacts themselves.
As frameworks go, this one’s a natural. It gets people talking. Not just talking, but talking about human things in alien ways. A picnic princess becomes an object of devotion, a signal to her adoring masses what they shall eat in all coming picnics. A squirrel saddle becomes a horrific expression of human sports betting. An angry unicorn becomes the principal mode of human conveyance, its horn bioengineered for insertion into the lower human orifice, which clenches down to seal the union of human and beast of burden and allow the creature to gallop at full speed without dislodging its rider. Bonus points when someone later notes that unicorn exhaust is glitter; thus “pocket glitter” is the unfortunate result of a human standing too close to a unicorn’s hindquarters during its period of outgassing, although the afflicted human remains too conscientious to allow their vehicle’s discharge to litter the roadways. They are so thoughtful, those humans.
One, two, three. Everyone directs a finger at whomever’s explanation they found most compelling. Points are awarded. And you do it all over again until everybody’s had a chance to present an artifact.
I wonder if anybody ever plays these games without fudging their votes. Not cheating, mind you. Just — voting for somebody whose explanation wasn’t all that funny because it seems unfair to award all the points to the players whose mouths run the fastest. It’s not unlike trying to guess who played each card in Apples to Apples and its many descendants. Except here the information is wide open. Every round awards two points to the best explanation — or the “best” explanation, pending some eyeing of point totals — and one point goes to another player designated by the victor. It’s a perfectly fine system. It makes Aloha Earth into a game rather than an improv exercise.
It doesn’t make Aloha Earth less pedestrian. To some degree, that’s the point. Aloha Earth can be played after only five sentences’ worth of instruction. Four if you cram a dependent clause behind a semicolon. Three if you speak quickly and have healthy lungs. Sit down and play. No prep required. No lengthy explanations. That’s the appeal.
For some, perhaps. Our hobby is in a peculiar place right now. There are so many games with a high density of play to complexity, time to engagement. As games trend toward the complex — and they have over the past decade, little by little — playing something that teaches itself can be a breath of fresh air.
Aloha Earth is too familiar to accomplish that. Despite its cutesy premise, it’s familiar like a sibling renting your basement. “Renting.” Sometimes you sit down and chat, share a drink, a meal, and laugh, and it’s like you’re kids again. All the pressures of adulthood melt away. Then the moment passes and you’re back to thinking it would be nice if they could hold down a job.
Okay, that’s harsh. But it sums up Aloha Earth about as well as its alien symposium sums up human culture, via approximation and analogy rather than specificity. Aloha Earth is fine. It got us laughing. And then we set it aside, never to request it again.
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A prototype copy was provided.
Posted on October 12, 2022, in Board Game and tagged Aloha Earth, Board Games, Gravitation Games. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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