|Second Chance (2019)
|Meeple Like Us
The last time I covered a polyomino placement game (Cottage Garden) I said that I probably wouldn’t look at another game of this type unless it actually captured what I feel to be the most important aspect of what I’ve occasionally referenced as ‘Tetris style games’. For me, that’s the sense of an orderly system falling into disorder at ever increasing speeds. Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Barenpark and a pile of other games have come along and attempted to capture in cardboard the thrill of the activity. Patchwork, is in our view, the best of them and every new variation on the theme just seems to take designers farther away from where they should be going. So imagine my surprise when I checked out Second Chance to find… well, you’ll see.
Here’s what’s interesting about Second Chance. It grabs this fumbled ball with confidence. It runs at speed towards the goal. Except… it’s not the goal that it should be trying to reach. It’s the goal at the other end of the pitch. An own goal, if you like. And the strange thing is… it actually works. It doesn’t really try to offer you challenge or constraint. It’s what might happen if Patchwork went on a trip to a remote Chinese mountain to discover itself and came back with a refined sense of contentment. It’s like it saw Buddha on the road, and genuinely did take to heart the old Zen koan about what should be done in the circumstance.
To bring it down to a less spiritual level – this is the game you’d get if you were someone that stopped taking inspiration from theories of game design and started to draw it instead from an adult colouring book. Second Chance removes anything as troubling as an obstacle from your experience. It replaces difficulty with a kind of meditative presence in the moment of play. And yet, while it does sterling work in that capacity, it’s also something that requires players to bring a certain mindset to the act of opening the box.
Okay, here’s the skinny. Each player takes possession of a 9×9 paper grid. Making use of a pen or pencil (not supplied), each will mark off one of two possible shapes on that sheet. They keep on going until such time as they can’t fit a shape on their pad, or the deck runs out of cards. To begin with, each player is given a ‘starter shape’ and must mark it out with one segment covering the central dot in the pad. Shapes can be freely rotated and mirrored, and that’s good because some of them are sufficiently pernickety that you’ll need that flexibility to fit them anywhere.
Every round, a player reveals two new cards from the deck, and everyone picks the shape they like the most for their pad. If neither shape will fit, a player can have their second chance – they get to draw a third card. If they can fit it into the grid, they draw it and continue on. If they can’t, they’re out of the game. The player with the fewest uncovered spaces at the end wins.
The first thing you should notice here is the mechanical austerity of the experience. There’s nothing fancy at all – the closest thing it has to excess in its design is its eponymous second chance rule. Everything else is stripped back to the barest possible bones. As a game, it suffers immensely from this parsimony. It never feels like more than you might invent for yourself on a rainy day were you to have a pad of grid-paper handy. It’s neither thematically nor structurally interesting. It’s like a doodle of a thought, as ephemeral as a wisp of cloud on a windy day.
So, why is it so weirdly compelling?
It turns out to answer that question, we have to focus a bit on some of the word choice in the previous paragraph. Second Chance isn’t so much a game as it is an excuse for some lightweight abstract doodling in the margins of the experience. Second Chance works because it has essentially gamified what happens when you gather a group of people into a boring meeting and given them a pad of paper and a pencil. Second Chance is not a game of placing shapes. It’s a game of enabling the compulsive human need to annotate.
The thing is, Second Chance never tells you how to fill your pad. It suggests ‘draw the outlines of the shapes and then mark off all its squares’. There’s something in that sparse instruction that is weirdly permissive. All you really need to do is put a cross in each box you’ve completed. You don’t need to be able to identify specific shapes that came out earlier unless you have a rules lawyer in the group that’s going to demand an explicit audit. Actually, I guess that’s something you’d hear from a rules accountant rather than a rules lawyer, but never mind. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as there’s an accurate transcription from card to pad.
But that’s not what happens. People don’t just draw the X.
Many humans aren’t great at abandoning information. We hold on to data as if it’s going to actually become relevant one day. That’s why in a drawer of your house you probably have the instruction manual for the washing machine you owned before the one you owned before now. You’ve probably got receipts somewhere for a big purchase you made five years ago even though the retail chain no longer. I still had my comedy staff ID for the first job I ever had. I look at it and laugh every so often. I’m amazed a simple visual desk-check didn’t invalidate every application I’ve ever made for enhanced disclosure.
So, what happens when you ask people to record a data point like – a shape they need to draw? They’ll outline it as requested, and then as likely as not they’ll texture it unprompted. A few diagonal strokes to fix the abstraction to the pen. No big deal, just keeping things visually clear. But the next time? Well, you’ll probably texture it differently. Nothing major, you’ll just probably put those diagonal strokes the other direction. That way you can see which shape is which. It’s a persistence of unnecessary information but it doesn’t really cost you anything to record it. And so, as the game goes on, you’ll find yourself engaged with your own personal experimentation within the four colour theorem. You won’t be busying yourself with maps though. You’ll be massaging the aching parts of your own conciousness. You’ll be working within the medium of mindful mindlessness, trying to find the minimum number of textures that yield catharsis.
Look at this example from a game I played with Mrs Meeple. Left to right diagonals, right to left diagonals, and side to side straight lines. A few turns later…
I wasn’t even really conscious of it, just absorbed in the task. I’d look up, tongue poking out the side of my mouth, to see Mrs Meeple watching and waiting for me to make the next move. My placement of pieces was sometimes as much to do with some kind of low-grade aesthetic symmetry as it was to do with spatial placement. If I’d had a pack of coloured pencils with me, you’d better believe I would have employed every single one in the pursuit of my own personal homage to Piet Mondrian.
Still, it’s not like she wasn’t gripped by the same impulse.
Second Chance then isn’t really a game. It’s an excuse for a sort of geometric scribbling. A justification for ludic psychography. It’s more like an exercise for therapy than anything I might seriously recommend your way as something especially worth adding to your game collection. But even in that, there are some design elements that I think are especially notable because of how they influence the tenor and tempo of the experience.
The first is that starting symbol everyone has to draw. It’s such a quick and elegant way to counter the mirroring problem that exists in games like Nmbr9 and Karuba. In those games you’re all drawing from the same pool of options and as such if you decide you’re going to copy every move an opponent makes you’ll end up with identical outcomes. Second Chance could have suffered from that but it doesn’t because it creates a divergence at the start that ensures convergence in the middle will never work. It’s a nice way of ensuring that players are forced out of their comfort zones and can’t simply crib off of the smarter player.
The bext neat thing is the second chance mechanism. It’s a nice way to deal with the randomness of the draw, but it’s especially nice because it’s also a very subtle acceleration system, both in terms of emotional heft and gameplay crescendo. The game ends when all the cards are played out, so when you get your second chance you get the thrill of hopefully saving yourself from the void while also reducing the cards available for everyone else. The tighter it gets at the end, the more generous those second chances feel and the nippier they make the game. It’s not the kind of feature I think every game should implement. I just wanted to point it out, because I think it’s easy to overlook its twin payload.
On the negative side, come on. Look at this box. A total of 46 cards and a pad of game sheets, and it arrives in a box that is somehow way too big for what it contains and still ungenerously tight when fully packed away. There’s not just an unforgiveable amount of wasted air in this box. The air is partitioned in such a way that you can’t even use what it gives you without throwing out the inlay. Normally that’s a no-brainer, but this inlay actually conveys game data and you know how loathe we are a species to abandon information.
Second Chance then isn’t much of a game. It’s more something built on the quirk of human psychological hoarding. It’s what would happen if someone made a board game about your impulse to save the power cable of every electrical device you’ve ever owned, and then made you create an inventory of your collection during an especially dull family meeting. It’s about taking down the minutiae of procedure while your subconscious mind works your hands to ornament the results. It’s something I can recommend as an occasional meditative experience. I think though you could comfortably enjoy the same impulse with nothing more than a pad of paper and your presence during a tedious chore.