Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 20-45 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Generally, I’ve been trying to keep my reviews here to one of a handful of types of games. Legacy games, because I noticed that I’d played them all and was tired of reading reviews that repeated the issues with Legacy games rather than the strengths of a particular game as a Legacy game. Spiel Des Jahres winners because I’ve committed to studying them as a designer and felt I might have something interesting to say on them, and because once you review one you have to go completionist don’t you? Then games that relate to whatever I’m designing at the moment, so deck builders recently. But when I originally started these reviews it was because I wanted to give recognition to games that I felt didn’t have as much notice as they deserved, its just been a while since I’d seen one, then I played Greenville 1989 which certainly qualifies under those conditions.
There is a small but very successful sub-genre of game that is best described as ‘using abstract images to communicate things or that use things to direct people to abstract images’. Examples of this would include Dixit, Obscurio, Mysterium, Shadows Amsterdam and One Key. Dixit is a Spiel Des Jahres winner and Mysterium a deserved massive success. Aside from them being variations on a mini genre these all have another thing in common, they were all published by the same company, the French publisher Libellud. Greenville 1989 is in the same vein of central idea and notably from another French company, the interestingly named Sorry We Are French, and it is an excellent and interesting variation on the theme.
Gameplay involves all but one player being given cards displaying abstract but horror themed images, the game has a strong ‘Stranger Things’ retro 80s horror sense to it, the images are mainly surreal rather than upsettingly horrific. The player without a card is the ‘Guide’, players then imagine themselves in the scene and both describe it to the guide but also describe where they intend to go within the image, what they intend to do and what they expect to see next. The guide then reveals a set of new cards and secretly decides which of the other players will end up in which scene, plus a red herring character. The non-guide players then, as a group, try to decide which card they have ended up in and vote accordingly, claiming the new scene if correct, moving one spot down a sort of ‘doom track’ if wrong. If all players claim three scenes before any player reaches the end of the track then everyone wins, if not, everyone loses.
Effectively Greenville 1989 is turning a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the genre, particularly Mysterium, up to 11, which will probably annoy or delight you depending on your previous experience of this style of game. Its plot is almost willfully throw-away, you’re all on the way to go bowling when weird things start happening and you have to find your way out of the weirdness, which reads largely as ‘you know, reasons’. It feels like someone has played Mysterium and decided that the part where people describe the weird card they just got to their friends and how they feel about it is the best part of the game, which is a position that I largely agree with, and so have built the game around it. The issue is that it’s a part of the game that lots of people will seriously struggle with. For example, on a first play many players will see their initial horrible image and when asked what they would do respond with ‘turn around and run away’, which is a major problem, because the guide has to use that description to pick a new card that they will be able to pick out. The game lives and dies on how well the players manage to thread that needle of description, too vague and the game breaks down into blind guessing, too specific and if the right card doesn’t turn up, you’re in trouble. You need to keep your descriptions of the future broad, but directed. It also has a clever element with players needing to leave each other enough room not to overlap and cause confusion creating a sense of empathy and co-operation. Some players will suffer major shutdown when asked to launch into this flight of imagination and others will ramble on into half-hour long tails of epic wanderings. Each round of the game, the description, and both the choosing of cards for Guide and Players is without time limit, so the game has a very loose feel to it which was, again, a failing of parts of Mysterium. If you get impatient when other players are taking longer than you think they should, this is a game you’ll probably struggle to love.
Managing to make such a loose style of play fit into a hard and fast framework is a smart move, there’s no debate when players guess wrong, no discussion of whether a guess was close enough or not. Choosing to make the whole game about how players build a free form story to guide others to an unknown choice is almost outlandishly indie. The game relies strongly on being played by the right crowd, if you’ve ever had a game of Dixit flounder as a table of awful clues get given again and again you’ll understand that doubling down on that structure has its risks. But then, if the game is going to be bad when its bad you might as well make it great when its great, and when Greenville 1989 works it is unmistakably unlike anything else, even within this odd niche genre. Furthermore, when Greenville 1989 works it is a great creative experience that makes people not given to creation feel like artists.
If you have even a passing liking of Dixit or Mysterium give Greenville 1989 a chance. If you love games that are unashamedly indie, that would frankly bewilder most mainstream gamers, Greenville 1989 could be a poster boy of that ideal. If you want something weird, interesting, unique and occasionally glorious, pick up Greenville 1989.