A flying thing? It's wide? It's big! And it's fast! A plane? It's white? And red? And blue? And has stars? Uh, an American plane? The number one? A single American plane?! Politics? What does politics have to do with airplanes? Air Force One?! Well, why didn't you say it was a movie?!
It wouldn't be unfair to describe Concept as charades with a board. One player will receive a secret word or phrase and attempt to get other players to guess it through non verbal means. But whereas charades is a frantic display of wild gestures, Concept is a more cerebral affair. Pantomime is replaced with a board of beautifully illustrated icons and plastic tokens. And while Concept may be dismissed as a play on charades, it's much more clever than that and the tools at your disposal much more pointed.
Perhaps the best way to describe how Concept works is by giving you a play by play of a round. Let's say your secret word is Coca-Cola. You might begin by placing the green question mark on the icon with food. The question mark defines the main concept and lets everyone know that the word they are guessing is a food. Or is edible. Or has something to do with food in some way. You then take matching green cubes and place it on the icon of a drop of water and another on the color brown. And this is where you start to think that you've done a good job and the word is obvious until everyone starts guessing beer or molasses. Not to fret, you decide it's time to describe the iconic Coca-Cola can. You place a blue exclamation mark token on the cylinder icon and matching blue cubes on the metal and red icon. The exclamation mark tokens represent sub-concepts and let you define things that are very closely related to the main concept, in this case the Coca-Cola can. A light goes off in the collective heads of everyone at the table and finally someone yelps, "Pepsi!" *Sigh* So close.
I've Got the Board, but Where's the Game?
I'll be blunt. Concept is not a very good game. In fact, I'm hesitant to even call it a game. Sure, there are rules about teams and points and winning. But teams and points and winning don't matter. The essence of Concept isn't competition. It's not even about cooperation. It's about communication. Concept eschews the normal conceit of a board game and doesn't even know it. Many board games, particularly party games, fall into the trap of thinking they need to be games and implement contrived point systems. I suppose this is due to customer expectations or the fact that "board activity" doesn't quite roll off the tongue, but sometimes just having a great experience is all you need. Concept is an activity masquerading as a game and it's lesser for it.
"Can I do this?"
Concept is at its best when players are exploring. Every time I've played Concept there has been a moment when a player asks, "Can I do this?" as they wrestle with expressing themselves through little pictures on a board. Concept introduces what is essentially a new language. And like all languages, there are certain conventions to be followed, but language becomes so much more interesting when it's played with and pushed beyond it's boundaries. Let's take the concept of The Leaning Tower of Pisa, for example. Instead of trying to describe the country where it's located or the color or the shape of the tower, a player asked, "Can I do this?" and created an actual leaning tower made of cubes on the "art" icon. And so the question, "Can I do this?" while ostensibly is about following the rules is, in actuality, a sign of exploration. It is the first steps beyond remedial language and into the board game equivalent of poetry.
All this may sound pretentious and maybe it is, but I feel it's warranted in this case. I experienced something I've never experienced before when playing a board game. I experienced actual empathy. See, while the clue giver is engaged with the language of Concept, so is everyone else at the table. Everyone one else is also struggling to grasp the language, to make sense of it all. I was in the head of the clue giver. Their struggle was my struggle. We grasped the language together. We learned together. It wasn't the most profound of emotions, but it was real. And it's happened multiple times.
Bound by the Rules
For all the progress that, "Can I do this?" signals, it's mostly prompted for fear of breaking the rules. Fear is the enemy of exploration. There are so many design choices that inhibit exploration that it detracts from the overall experience. The mere inclusion of victory points introduces a competitive element that goes against the spirit of exploration. Even the board is laid out with rigid icons outlined in thick black lines that funnel players into narrow uses. And the reference sheets. Oh, the reference sheets. They list every icon on the board with definitions beside them. Deciphering the icons is the point of the game and the reference sheets takes that away! I understand that they are supposed to be jumping off points, but they become just the opposite. All too often, they limit the imagination of the players to only the definitions given. Players who are unable to break free free from the from the rigidity end up frustrated and confused. I've seen it happen. And I feel bad for them. Not because they didn't enjoy themselves, but because they missed out on something special.
There's an excellent experience within Concept's box, but it tries its hardest to hide it from you. If you ignore the rules about winning and forget the reference sheets exist, if you are willing to dig a little deeper you just might walk away having experienced something truly transformative. Concept is an amazing experience bound by its own self imposed rigidity. The worst part is that it seems to be a product of good intentions, an effort to try and ease players into the experience. It's as if the designers didn't trust the players enough to figure things out on their own. And instead it obfuscates the true spirit of the experience. Concept is a gem hidden beneath the rulebook.