Gussy Gorillas calls itself a negotiation game. That might be a function of marketing. Please note, that isn’t the same as calling it false advertising. True to its word, it features both trading and negotiating. Further, it’s double-billed with Zoo Vadis, the Reiner Knizia negotiation game we examined last week. They’ll appear together on Kickstarter later this month, less an Abbott and Costello pairing than, I dunno, Abbott and Franz Liszt.
Maybe you can see what I’m getting at. Side by side, there’s very little connective tissue between Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas. Unlike its sister title, this is a negotiation game the way chimps with typewriters are Shakespeare. Not nearly as elegant or timeless, but much louder and messier, and, depending on the day (and the theater troupe), more interesting to watch. That’s because Gussy Gorillas isn’t really about negotiation. It belongs to that most cacophonic genre, the “hollering game.”
Picture this. Everybody at the table has been dealt eleven cards. Nobody has yet looked at these cards. Nor will they, not unless they’re willing to blindly accept what’s in their hand. As soon as somebody shouts go, everybody picks up a card and shows it to the table. The goal is to make a trade. My card for your card, both of us blind to what we’re offering but fully aware of what we’re getting.
I say “picture this,” but it’s easier to describe Gussy Gorillas as a racket, a caterwaul, a din, a pair of pots banging against one another with a toddler’s enthusiasm. So: Hear this. Three to ten players, shouting over one another, snapping in each other’s faces, shoving cards into view, saying, “Do we have a trade? Do we have a trade? Gimme the trade. Give me that card. Gimme. Gimme.” The trade is made. Then another card is drawn from the deck. And another. Another. Until everybody’s hand is gone, all the cards either traded or (blindly) claimed by their original owners. It’s Sidereal Confluence in fast-forward, its negotiations wrapped in two minutes rather than ten, but with none of the layered complexity or long-term investments or auctions or engine building or sense of identity.
What’s left? An absolutely delightful scoring phase, that’s what. Gussy Gorillas can’t rightly be described with the usual glowing phrases. It isn’t elegant or innovative or thematic. Even the more weaselly descriptors feel wrong. Crunchy? Smooth? Marmite? It’s none of those things, either. But it does know how to provide an excellent scoring round. The gist is that every card is worth its printed value, with the enormous neon-lit caveat that duplicates cancel each other out. Holding a bunch of unique numbers is therefore worth more than holding two 5s, two 6s, and two 8s. In fact, the final value of that latter hand is a big fat zero.
So it’s like set collection. Except Murray isn’t done adding wrinkles. Those worthless duplicates, for instance, can be repaired by a special card. A Split, it’s called — for banana split, get it? — which cuts the numbers apart and lets them both score. However, certain numbers are worth negative points. That means doubling them can be a good thing, since they cancel out. Since you’re forced to use every card, that means a Split might actually be a bad thing, paring apart two -12s so that rather than scoring zero, they’re now worth negative twenty-four points. Ouch. But don’t throw in the towel just yet. Maybe you can trade somebody for a Reverse — for banana reverse, get it? — which flips a negative card to positive. Yay! Or, yes, a positive card to negative. Oh.
The same goes for the Flip card. For banana flips, get it? These rotate certain numbers. A 7 flips upside down to become a 2. A 6 becomes a 9. And vice versa. That’s one of the cleverest things about Gussy Gorillas. It’s rare to find a card that’s always useful. Sometimes, your collection will be smooth sailing — okay, rough sailing, turbulent sailing, sailing with a lot of shouting and bailing water, but at least you can see home on the horizon — only for a miscounted trade to wipe you out. The hidden resource in Gussy Gorillas is your bandwidth, your capacity to assemble a high-value collection of cards under intense pressure from both your shouting opponents and the ticking clock. More often than you might think, the round will end to reveal a scoring pile that isn’t quite as pristine as you thought it was.
The scoring makes Gussy Gorillas. There’s a trickle-down effect, where the particulars of the scoring phase creep outward to touch the rest of the game. It still isn’t elegant or innovative or any of the other big words. But it is a hoot. It’s a hoot to belch at your friends like a great ape, swap a bunch of cards, and then blunder through some scoring in hopes of earning a banana. Then you do it all over again, striving to win the second banana that will initiate you as this troop’s silverback.
Like I said earlier, this is not the work of a great author or composer. This is chimps working typewriters. It’s an odd pairing for the careful sum-counting negotiations of Zoo Vadis. But I mean that affectionately, the composer and his ruffled artist boyfriend, perfect for one another in their mismatch. Like Danny DeVito and literally anybody else. It recalls titles like Happy Salmon or Dude, but with its own vibe, its own modes of interaction, its own awkward physicality. There are moments when by sheer instinct you’ll look at your own card and be forced to add it to your scoring pile. Like the most effective comedic games, it’s at its best when it’s being played very badly. Or at least when somebody is playing badly.
Put all that together and you get a game that’s, well, better than expected. Silly, raucous, prone to loud laughter, easy to teach, and likely to result in a bent card before long. It’s the sort of thing you play when you have too many people for anything else, or when nobody at the table has quite warmed up yet, or when the mood to compose Shakespeare gives way to the mood to smash something. This is that game. The game for smashing through a negotiation rather than coaxing it out. The game for a buncha chimps.
A prototype copy was temporarily provided.