Pop music often has the reputation of being shallow, irrelevant mass-produced pap. Admittedly, this has to do with the fact that a lot of pop music apes other, more popular pieces rather unimaginatively. But even in the overabundance of pop music releases, there are always some careful compositions that impress through ingenuity and hide a lot of craftsmanship in how catchy they are. It’s why I like to compare party games to pop music. They, too, have a reputation of being shallow mass-produced filler concealing their insipiedness with bright colours and “funny” jokes. But even among party games there are some examples of craftsmanship. Designs in which familiar concepts and ideas are cleverly rearranged and find ways to surprise and entertain you.
Top Ten, by Aurélien Picolet, is based on a simple idea. The “captain” simply has to sort the answers of the other players in ascending order of severity. An amusing-sounding question is read out and then every players gives their answer. The question also sets up a range within which players need to put their answers. For example, you might be asked to name a condiment for a hot dog. Somewhere between disgusting (1) and delicious (10). You’re given a card with a number that tells you where on that scale your answer should be.
The first smart design decision in Top Ten is that it is a cooperative game. This frames play in such a way, that avoids the dangers of players looking for clever answers and particularly inventive rules bending. An issue that has banished many a Codenames box to the darkest corner of a game shelf until Codenames Duet fixed that particular problem.
What’s on the table does not compare to the mental images in the players’ minds
The much more effective design move, on the other hand, is found in a particularly inconspicuous rule. You only know your own card’s rank. Which means you only know where your own answer should land in comparison the answers of other players. This means, it’s not just the captain who gets an interesting and challenging task. Instead everyone at the table is involved in figuring out how everyone’s answer relates to everyone else’s. Should my answer be more or less delicious than “Dijon mustard”, if I have the 7-card. And what would my answer even look like?
Top Ten is called a party game on the box. This is true. Not least of all because everyone’s participation is required. It can’t be just one or two people taking center stage round after round. It is not a game for people who turn to board games in order to avoid other people’s attention.
It’s a group experience that sometimes asks you to come up with an answer off the top of your head. A certain amount of ingenuity, quick wit or creativity is needed to make the game feel loose and entertaining. At the same time, it can also turn into a slow and sluggish experience, if you overthink your answers. Not to mention the likelhood of it all backfiring, because your answer was too clever by half. Whether stepping out of your comfort zone a little asks more of people than games that need you to weigh up probabilities, anticipate other people’s decisions or optimise various chains of actions is a question most people probably have their own answer to.
Top Ten is a game that is easily approachable. It offers entertaining questions on the cards and the opportunity to make your group of friends laugh out loud with unintentionally funny ideas. If all this is not enough for people to praise or recommend a game, they probably just don’t like well-made pop music.