|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
A few weeks ago, Mrs. Meeple and I headed down to spend a weekend with my parents, with the explicit intention of playing some board games. I took a pile of boxes that are towards the simpler end of the complexity scale. The perception most people have of board games in this country is still Cluedo and Trivial Pursuits, and I didn’t really want to scare them with a game of Twilight Imperium. I’ll be writing about Sheriff of Nottingham before too much time has passed (the other big hit of the weekend), but today I wanted to talk about the whimsical game of Dixit which was deemed good enough to play twice. Dixit, Dixit, it’s a helluva game.
Dixit is a French game from designer Jean-Louis Roubira, and is one of the more famous winners of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award. It’s also perhaps the perfect introduction to the new renaissance of modern design board games. It’s a way to throw aside the perception that board-games are still all about not passing go and buying up Old Kent Road when you land on it. It’s so unabashedly, unashamedly different to stodgy ‘classics’ like Monopoly that it’s the board-game equivalent of a warm yogurt enema. Probably. I don’t really know.
Dixit is so simple and straightforward that you can fit the instructions in big, easy to read letters on the back of the box and still have room to spare. Nobody needs to invest time and effort into digesting a complex manual of rules, clauses and subclauses. You play an example round so everyone knows what’s going on, and then you’re on to the game proper:
Dixit is jam-packed with its own quixotic personality, like someone rendered Amelie down into her constituent bits and used them to make a game. If Audrey Tautou was a box, she’d be the Dixit box. The meeples are little rabbits! They scamper around a colourful meadow as you accumulate points! The game itself involves looking deep into your own psyche and delivering introspective bon-mottes which the other players around the table attempt to subvert in their own directions. It’s stuffed to the gunnels with beautiful, meditative artwork that you wield as verbal weapons to direct and misdirect the other players. It’s astonishingly clever, and very lovely to look at.
A game of Dixit follows a very simple pattern. You get dealt a hand of cards, and each of these cards contains a piece of artwork.
Each round, one person around the table is the ‘storyteller’, and it’s their job to express something about a card they are choosing to play. It can be a lyric from a song, a hummed bar of music, a quote, a hand-movement, a snatch of poetry – it can be anything, really. They just express something that they think represents a property of the card they have played. Then everyone else looks at their cards, and plays one that they think is reflective of what the storyteller has just expressed.
Let’s say it’s me to go. I look at my hand a pick a card, and I play it. I say ‘A disappointing day’, because if you found a massive oyster on the beach you’d probably be pretty disappointed it didn’t contain a correspondingly large pearl.
Everyone else hums and haws for a bit, and then they all place their cards face down on the table:
Those are all shuffled together, and the cards are played out in turn. If you’ve got fewer players than there are player tokens, you can use one of the spare ones to mark out which card is which as is done here. Otherwise, you just count them in order, left to right. Or right to left. Hell, up and down if you like. Whatever. I’m not your boss.
Once the cards are revealed, everyone except the storyteller has to pick a card they think was the one the storyteller played. The only restriction is they can’t vote for their own card. The best thing about this kind of game play is that it’s an exercise in collaborative empathy – the question everyone has to ask themselves is ‘which of these best reflects the relationship between the storyteller, and the cards played’. In the best rounds of Dixit, you might be faced with multiple perfect possibilities – I’d suggest that the played cards above represent a good example of this kind of round.
Once everyone has puzzled over the cards, they play a token face-down (so as not to influence other players). These tokens show the number of the card they think belonged to the storyteller:
Once everyone has played their token, then these are revealed an allocated to the cards:
It’s a little tricky to get your head around the scoring to begin with, but becomes second nature with a little bit of practice. First of all, everyone that selects the correct answer gets a cool three points, which then propels their little rabbit around the meadow. Everyone else that got a vote for their card gets one point per vote.
And this is where Dixit gets clever.
Why would I play ‘A disappointing day’ rather than ‘A boy looking into an oyster?’. The storyteller gets three points if someone picks their card, *but* they get zero points if *everybody* picks their card. Dixit in other words compels you to be indirect and subtle about your cards, but not so subtle that nobody picks up on your clues because then you still get zero points. Dixit is all about revealing enough of yourself to let a few people guess your card, but not so much that everyone does. In the event that everyone or no-one gets the storyteller’s card, everyone *else* gets a bonus two points. Ooft.
Everyone then draws a card to replace the one they’ve played, and the storyteller role moves on to the next player. When there are no cards left to draw, the game is over.
And that’s Dixit in its entirety.
Let’s look at another few turns of this, just to drink in just how nice it all looks. We’re no longer the story-teller, it’s someone else. And they give the story ‘Around the world’. We look at our hand of cards, and pick the card we think most reflects that clue (number three):
Oh no, they’re all good! We know it’s not number three, and we can’t vote for our own card anyway. But the three other ones are all perfectly applicable – we need to dig deep down and think ‘what would be the thing that would come to mind for the storyteller, for all of these cards, and how do I think they’d express that as a clue given the other people around the table?’. That’s our puzzle. Once we’ve decided, we pick the one that’s closest to our deduced understanding of the storyteller. Unlike many games, Dixit is explicitly about an emotional, intuitive connection with the people around the table, and that’s an almost magical design choice.
In the third round, the clue is ‘Pages of the Internet’, and the cards go down:
None of them are a great fit, so there’s an equal split except for the last one. But that’s the right answer!
‘Why did you pick an anchor? What on Earth were you thinking?’, everyone hoots at their web developer friend. ‘Uh, because the anchor tag is fundamental to how the world wide web works. You see, every link is…
In the act of understanding why a card was played, we get a chance to understand our friends and family a little better. It’s a game that actually brings people closer together, because we are driven to see things from their point of view. I’m not saying you’ll finally understand why your mad racist aunt is so committed to driving the Estonians out of her neighbourhood, but you will at least get a little glimpse into some of the ways she makes connections in her mind. It might be on the order of fractions of a percent, but everyone will just know each other just a little bit better. It sure beats talking to them.
See, I love the design of Dixit. It’s so clever it makes me genuinely excited. Its design is so unashamedly affectionate that I’d hold it up as the perfect example of the pro-social effects that many of us champion as core to great gaming experiences. But it’s also a game that lives or dies on group composition.
If you know the people around the table extremely well, then Dixit may hold few surprises for you – especially if you’ve already played the game together a few times. There’s a limited set of cards (although Dixit also has many, many expansions) and great familiarity is toxic to this kind of competitive, collaborative empathy. Similarly, if you don’t know anyone around the table very well you may as well roll dice for the winner – the results will be that random. That gives Dixit a very precarious band of fertile ground in which it thrives, and the more you harvest that ground the less fertile it will become. Predictability is poison in Dixit, it excels in the unexpected juxtaposition of expressed novelty.
Thematically too, it’s also a game that requires people to invent their own context. It’s an activity you engage in for its own sake, and not out of wish-fulfilment. I have no problem with games that have no thematic heft to them, but they can be difficult to pitch to reluctant groups. ‘Let’s hint at the meaning of pictures on cards’ is a harder sell than ‘Let’s go shoot some aliens as they invade the Earth’. It also offers few opportunities for improvement other than increased understanding of your friends, which as we’ve discussed will kill the game stone dead. You can’t *improve* at Dixit, not really, and that can be frustrating for those looking to demonstrate mastery over a tightly-defined formal system. One of the ways in which I demonstrate poor game design is asking the question ‘Considering the game you just played, how would you meaningfully change your performance so that you’d play better the next time?’. Dixit is very far from a bad game, but it suffers dreadfully if you ask it this question while shining a light into its adorable little face.
It’s also a game that can leave people behind if they can’t quite get into the mind-space of ‘suggestive, not descriptive’. A certain flair of creativity is required to get the best out of it – you don’t need to be a great poet or able to make phenomenal leaps of insight, but you do need to be able to look *beyond* what’s on the card and into what the cards say to you. Like any faculty, that’s one that can be improved with practise – people will get better at doing that as the game progresses. It can be tough though to be the one that plays ‘a sad clown’ just because you can’t think of anything more witty:
But these are really minor quibbles. Sure, you won’t play Dixit over and over and over again with the same group of friends unless you shell out for the expansion packs. You will likely though play it again and again and again with groups made up of *different* friends. Sure, you won’t pick it up if you’re just in the mood to crush an opponent with your superior strategic understanding, but you’ll certainly consider it when you just want people to have a bit of light-hearted fun. You’ll *find* reasons to play it, because the game is utterly, impossibly charming. That charm will eventually wear off, but introducing it anew to unjaded friends can return a considerable amount of its original glow to even a cynical veteran.
Dixit is great – an easy four stars, and I’d advise you to pick up a copy as soon as you realistically can.
 Yes I know pearls don’t work like that.