Buzzworthiness: Shenanigans the Musical

Thanks to the People’s Orchestra of the UK for providing a preview copy of this game.

There is a dearth of musically themed games in our hobby, and it’s tragic.  Most music games are trivia based, and those that aren’t are few and far between.  I’ve frequently wanted to design some musical games of my own to fill the void (hence last week’s April Fools “announcement”), but I’m not really a designer.  I guess part of the problem is that music and games do not deal with the same senses.  Games are visual and tactile, whereas music is an aural experience.  So I’m always on the lookout for more music games.  Well, here comes one:

Cards v3 landscape49Shenanigans: The Musical is a social deduction game designed by Gregory Carslaw that is coming soon to Kickstarter from The People’s Orchestra.  The People’s Orchestra is a charity orchestra from Birmingham, UK, and they collaborated on this project.  According to Carslaw (who is not a member of the orchestra, but was brought in as a Kickstarter consultant and later as the designer for this project), the Orchestra was looking for ways to diversify their revenue stream – trying to think outside of the box, as it were.  Several of the members were into games, and so they made the decision to make their own.

The game is for 4-10 people and takes around 10 minutes.  Shenanigans is a game that is set in an orchestra that has been infiltrated by a pretentious know-nothing known as The Artiste.  The Artiste doesn’t know how to play any instruments, but has faked their way into your orchestra.  In the end, the Manager must expel someone from the group, and most people will win if the Manager is correct.  Otherwise, the Artiste and his allies will win.

The game comes with four sets of cards, a base set and three expansions.  Each set contains a number of new roles, as well as a character image and a symbol indicating that set in the background (a circle for the base set, a heart for the Lovers expansion, a star for the Performance expansion, and an oval for the Artistes expansion).  Each card is also in one of four colors – red, blue, green, and yellow.  Green roles want the Artiste ejected, while red roles do not.  Yellow and blue roles tend to have more complicated goals in mind.  Cards also outline powers that can be used during the game, as well win conditions.

image by BGG user x_equals_speed
image by BGG user x_equals_speed

At the start of the game, you’ll create a deck based on the number of players.  The Artiste and Manager will be in every game, with a number of green/yellow cards and a number of red/blue cards added randomly and secretly.  For example, if you’re playing with 8 people, you’ll shuffle in the Manager, the Artiste, 4 green or yellow cards, and 2 red or blue cards.  You then deal the cards and everyone may look at who they are before placing their cards face down on the table.

Shenanigans plays over four phases, and you may only look at your role at certain times.  In the first phase, players will take turns using their powers.  The first player looks at her card, uses the power as indicated (such as look at another card, muddle cards, make someone else use their power, etc.).  Play then passes to the left until everyone has taken a turn.  You may only look at your role on your turn.

The second phase is the muddle round.  To “muddle” is to take two cards without looking at them, hide them and then return them to their owners in either order.  So you could give the players back their original card or switch them, but you’ll be the only one that knows.  In this phase, you’ll muddle your card with another player’s card.  You may not look at your role at any point in this phase.

The third phase plays exactly like the first – look at your card, use the power, play passes.  Once again, only look at your card on your turn.

The fourth phase is the Endgame.  Everyone may look at their role, but then must place it down on the table and cannot look again until someone is ejected.  The Manager reveals him or herself, then must decide who the Artiste is.  All of the other players can say whatever they want to get the Manager to choose the Artiste.  The Manager eventually must eject one player.  If it was the Artiste, the Manager and anyone with that win condition wins.  If not, the Artiste and anyone with that win condition wins.  Players with other win conditions (the manager votes for who you tell them to, someone whose card you’ve not seen is ejected, etc.) check to see if they’ve won as well.

There are three expansion packs with the game, each adding about ten cards to the experience.

  • The Lovers expansion adds some behind-the-scenes hanky-panky to the proceedings as players get their feelings mixed up in the game.  Your objective may change to have something to do with a pair of Lovers cards that are now in the game.
  • The Performance expansion adds some extra actions to the game.  During the endgame, several players may have to do something like sing, whisper, talk like a pirate, etc.  You also may have something you have to do as your power during the power phases.  Other players may fake this abilities (there’s a cheat sheet that lays out all of the powers).
  • The Artiste’s Conspiracy expansion adds seven new Artistes so you can randomly get one and make the Artiste’s power a little less predictable.
image from Kickstarter project page
image from Kickstarter project page

COMPONENTS: I received a prototype copy of this game, so nothing is final.  There are some errors on cards and language that still needs to be cleaned up.  But I did find the graphic design that they have so far to be quite good.  The symbol that identifies which set the card is from is not just innocuously placed in the corner of the card, it is right smack in the middle.  The characters, all uniquely illustrated by Amy Marshall, stand right in front of the symbol and give a sense of fun to the game.  The art makes it clear that this isn’t some stuffy classical music game, but is cute and humorous.  I like it.

The cards themselves are laid out well, with the powers and win conditions, as well as extra information, always located in the same place on each card.  So while nothing is final yet, I like what I’m seeing so far.

THEME: As I mentioned, there aren’t nearly enough musically themed games out there.  This one, while maybe not the most thematic out there, definitely does a lot of things right.  When you think about it, it’s weird that roles are shifting – you’d think that a person’s instrument wouldn’t change.  I was all set to give the game grief about that, but then I did some research into The People’s Orchestra.  It’s a community orchestra that has a goal of bringing people back into music – people who maybe learned as a kid, but then put their instruments down and didn’t pick them back up again for years, even decades.  According to an article I read from the Birmingham Post:

Some of our members have not played for 20 years or so. They find they’re a bit rusty at first, but it’s like riding a bike, it comes back after a few rehearsals. A lot of people have surprised themselves by how good they are.

So when you think about that, it does kind of make sense that people are kind of finding their place in the orchestra.  It also explains why it’s so hard to find the Artiste – with a lot of rust around, it might be tough to point out the one who can’t play at all.  It doesn’t really explain why the Manager is unknown, but let’s say that that’s an elected position and it’s her first appointed duty to get rid of the Artiste.

Carslaw gave me a little background into the collaboration with the orchestra to make sure the instruments were well represented:

I spent a fair bit of time interviewing various members about all sorts of aspects of the orchestra, so that I could try various designs. I knew it was working out when I threw a pile of cards onto the table with a bunch of them and said “Can you sort these into ones that tell the truth about what people in the orchestra are like and ones that are off base” and the truth pile wound up being 95% of the deck. The most common complaint is “Well what you’ve said about every other instrumentalist is true, but people who play my instrument aren’t like this” which I take to be a good sign.

Being a musician myself, I know that’s true – there’s a stereotype about all instruments out there, and most of them are justified.  Except those about trombonists – trombonists are awesome.

MECHANICS: This is first and foremost a social deduction game.  That means that the driving force behind this game is the quest to figure out who everyone else is, and specifically the Artiste.  Every role in this game is unique, though many of them share powers.  The powers themselves are fairly easy to understand, though some of the cards are wonkier than others.  I do like the variety here.  I have to ding the game for including some “Do nothing” powers because that is my least favorite thing in games like Werewolf – you’re a Villager, which means you have no interesting abilities, you just have to take wild guesses.  Most of the “Do nothing” powers have something else going on, such as the Wealthy Harpist who can force the Manager to change their mind during the endgame.  However, the Jovial Tuba Player is, as far as I can tell, the boring card in the set – a “Do nothing” power and a win condition of the Artiste getting thrown out.

This, however, brings me to Muddling.  When you muddle cards, which is a power for some roles and a mandatory part of the second phase, it is your opportunity to shake things up.  It’s your chance to get rid of that boring Jovial Tuba role, or to see what someone else had to narrow down what you’re looking for.  The process of muddling means that the game has a significant memory aspect, for better or worse – you can try to keep track of where your card went, but if it gets muddled again, you’ll have to keep track of who might have it and that can get pretty…well…muddled.  Which means that Muddling is the perfect term for the action.  I do like Muddling as a means to figure out what else is out there.  However, I know it didn’t go over that well with at least one person I played with.  He told me that it was frustrating for the one thing he knew to be taken away from him.  And I can understand that.

The roles are hidden in this game, which is standard for social deduction games.  This one adds the twist that you can only look at them at certain times, which is reminiscent of the One Night series.  I had to keep telling people to not spend too much time studying their roles as it was likely they wouldn’t have them long (as I proved as the Dependable Double Bass when I forced everyone to pass left on the very first turn of the game).

Shenanigans does away with the voting common in games like Werewolf and The Resistance, and puts the whole decision on one person’s shoulders.  This means there should be some spirited debate at the end of the game, and this is where the deduction comes in.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I can foresee a potential anticlimax where the Manager knows exactly who has the Artiste, and the game is over without that debate.

I have not had a chance to play with any of the expansion decks to really try out how they work.  However, the Performance deck looks like it would be the most fun to introduce as it adds some extra bonus actions that must be done in the endgame.  The Lovers expansion just adds some extra win conditions (both Lovers must win or they both lose, no matter if their primary win condition was met).  The Artiste expansion looks like it will be better with people who know the game well as it changes up what the Artiste can do.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Most social deduction games boil down to taking wild guesses about who your opponents are.  This one is different as it gives everyone a chance to gain some kind of info about who is in the game.  But there’s still quite a bit of chaos thanks to the Muddling process.  In the end, it is all about the Manager finding the Artiste, and who he believes is telling him the truth.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a complicated game, and I think that anyone could learn it.  There is the caveat that it does have some wonkiness, and you have to expect that there’s some extra explanation that will have to go on for at least the first play.  I do know that we had a couple of people new to our game group playing in my last game.  I don’t know what their gaming background is, but I heard one say that the game was ridiculous, and she liked it.  So there you go.

REPLAYABILITY: With the variety of roles, as well as the expansions, I think this is a very replayable game just as it is.  And I suspect it will get better the more you play and learn the cards, necessitating more sneakiness.

SCALABILITY: I’ve played with 4, 7, and 8 players, and I thought it played well with all numbers.  The four-player game is probably not ideal, but it worked fairly well, especially with the Muddling (the Artiste won that game).  The game is fairly quick, but as a turn-based game, it will take longer the more people you add.

INTERACTION: There’s a lot of interaction in Shenanigans.  Part of it is the discussion at the end, but there’s also a lot of talk going on during the turns.  This game does the social part of social deduction VERY well.

COMPARED TO OTHER SOCIAL DEDUCTION GAMES: I used to say that I was a fan of social deduction games, but as I’ve progressed in my gaming career, I’m coming to the realization that I think I like the idea of them more than I do the actual execution in most cases.  Werewolf is a perfect example.  Before I ever played a game, I thought it sounded fascinating, and like something that was right up my alley.  And my first game was OK, but every game after that has been torture.  I cannot stand Werewolf – I hate the use of player elimination, I hate that there has to be a moderator, and I hate that there is almost no way to gain information beyond just throwing darts at the wall.  The Resistance is better, and I do like that, but I am quite burned out on playing it as I don’t feel it plays out very differently from game to game – the Resistance wins the first round, the spies win the second and third, the Resistance wins the fourth, and then you can flip a coin for the last round.  At this point, I think I like Shenanigans better than both of these because of the ability to gather information.  It’s not better than Shadow Hunters (which is my favorite social deduction game), but I would put it closer to that game than the other two because the factions aren’t as clearly defined – you won’t necessarily win or lose based on the ejection of the Artiste, but rather on if you’ve fulfilled your personal win condition.  I find that the extra added chaos of not having clearly defined teams makes social deduction games better.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  The game does have some problems – it can drag a bit, there’s the potential for an anticlimax, and there’s not a ton of strategy involved – but I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s a game I can wholeheartedly recommend.  Backing it will not only get you a copy, but will also help to support a great cause in The People’s Orchestra.  The Kickstarter should be launching on April 11, but here’s a link to the preview page so you can go check it out now.  The game will cost £10, or around $14 USD, and they’re looking for £5,800 in funding.

Thanks again to Greg Carslaw and The People’s Orchestra for providing the prototype of Shenanigans: The Musical for this review, and thanks to you for reading!

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