What happens when the winner of a game is chosen subjectively?
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my friend about our tastes in board games. He prefers Eurogames: Seven Wonders, Ticket to Ride, Power Grid, and other high-strategy point-based games. When I expressed my preference for games like Apples to Apples and Channel A, he raised an eyebrow and replied "but those aren't games."
Games like Apples to Apples, Channel A, and Cards Against Humanity all have a similar ruleset. There are two sets of cards, what I will refer to as "cue" cards and "player" cards. At the beginning of a round, one player will take on the role as judge. They flip over one or more cue cards from the cue card deck to serve as an inspiration. The remaining players then sift through their hands of player cards to find a response to the cue cards. The stated goal is to find a player card that is the most interesting, creative, or funny in response to the cue cards.
But which card is the most interesting? The uncertain element in this kind of game is the judge. Which card they ultimately choose as the winner is entirely subjective; what could be funny or compelling to the rest of the players doesn't matter if the judge chooses a different card as the winner.
So is this a game? There are points: whoever's card the judge chooses gets a point. There is a clear objective: come up with fun card combinations to win points, whoever has the most points wins. But a funny thing happens when a group of friends starts playing one of these games...
Let's take Channel A as our example. In this particular flavor of the game, the judge is the producer for a company that makes anime. They draw five possible cue cards that contain common anime tropes: Monster Hunters, Supernatural Battles, Kid Detective, Cyberpunk Dystopia, and Coming of Age are a few examples. They pick their two favorites, turn to the other players, and say something along the lines of, "Alright, team, we've had our marketing folks hold a few focus group sessions and we've determined that this season the kids are really into Monster Hunters and Coming of Age dramas. Show me an anime that has those two elements and we'll make a fortune!"
The players look at their hands of player cards. The cards have single words like Angel, Lucky, School, Robo, Rune, and Eternal. The player uses these cards to pick out a title that matches the cue cards. They pick between two and four cards and take turns pitching their anime ideas to the producer: "Picture this: there's another world hidden in the shadows of modern day New York City. An underground society of dark engineers have harnessed the power of an Old Magic and are weaving spells with machinery into an army of cyborg monsters. Of course, the world cannot know of the existence of magic. Thus, the ancient line of wizards safeguarding these arcane secrets have founded a new school to train worthy teenagers in the ways of mechanomagic. Our heroes must learn to work together and control their strange new powers in... ROBO RUNE SCHOOL!" The player reveals their title cards to the group.
The titles people come up with can be extraordinarily funny, clever, and witty. On the other hand, they can be hilariously bad. There's a ton of table talk; people laugh and joke about the best titles or rib the people with bad ideas. Occasionally the laughter will become so contagious that nobody at the table can catch their breath for several minutes. Sure, somebody's winning, but does anyone even care anymore? People keep playing until they get bored and then only briefly note who got the most points if at all. It isn't about the points anymore; nobody cares who won. It's become a social experience. Does this make it less of a game?
Some might argue that it isn't; it's a social experience and an icebreaker, not a game. I'd argue that this makes it more of a game. The focus becomes about the act of playing and less about who wins. I suppose it depends on what you want out of a game. If the point of a game for you is to win, then perhaps this particular style is not as good for you as a game as Seven Wonders or basketball. If the point of a game is to enjoy the experience and interact with other people, though, then these fit the description perfectly.