Another year goes by, and another Christmas bites the dust. Even if we get excited about it coming up, it always ends up being the same every year: you get Muppet-themed socks for a gift instead of a video games console, your mother drinks far too much brandy and starts revealing secrets about the family that were better left unspoken, and the parental-sibling unit that you thought loved each other so much suddenly breaks down in the midst of a ritual deemed so seemingly innocuous: the playing of a board game together. My own family has had a few table flippers over the years - Monopoly, Go For Broke, even the ludicrously-named Dobble - but this year was different. I got to play Concept for the first time with my in-laws (and extended family over immediate is always double the risk), and instead of curses of frustration and the theatrics of one person storming upstairs to their room, we actually had - wait for it - fun. Because Concept, a rotating team-based guessing game based entirely around icons and symbols, is mercifully free of those common pitfalls that so many other board games suffer from - edge-case scenarios that the rules don’t quite cover, and modes of play that give certain individuals a notable edge over others (think Trivial Pursuit). It is, as its name might suggest, incredibly simple to pick up and play for just about anyone, and the goal to victory is primarily determined by the people you’re playing it with - which may or not be a good thing, depending on how you like your board gaming.
Concept is a game that might sound very similar to those who have spent an evening or two playing classics like Taboo or Pictionary. It’s a ‘guess the word’ game but with a difference - instead of trying to get your team to figure out the answer by way of drawing or action, you have to offer clues by aligning different types of counters with a host of differing pictograms present on the game’s board. No embarrassing charades, no laughing that Grandma’s attempt to draw ‘balloon dog’ looks more like a penis - you simply match up the right pictures, each of which point to a different theme or form, and away you go.
Much like Taboo and Pictionary, game flow consists of two players given the task of drawing a card from the fairly generous deck the game offers, pick a word or term, and then try to portray it via the game board alone, for the others to guess. Take, for example, that you had to get your team to guess that you were trying to convey that classic horror film, ‘The Exorcist’. In completely conceptual layman terms, what’s it about? Well, it’s a film, and it’s got a creepy kid in it, but it’s also got a couple of guys whose profession is to expel rather devilish influences from such creepy kids. So you’d align one of the ‘main’ counters (given as either as a big question or exclamation mark) on the ‘film’ picture - because that’s what it is - and you’d then take a number of smaller cube-like markers and place them on other squares to flesh out further details.
One goes directly on top of the child in the family icon, another goes on the ‘skull’ - an attempt to show that this isn’t your wholesome type of movie. But it might also help to place further clues for ‘the exorcist’ of the title as well - so another one should go on the ‘profession’ square, and another one on the ‘prayer’ one, giving a hint about what the nature of such work entails. If that only seeks to baffle your guessers further, you can also break up your ‘concepts’ into related sub-parts - using a different colour of counters for each - to better organize your clues in the hope it’ll lead them on the path to getting it. If one of them does, pat yourself on the back - you and your fellow partner earned yourselves 1 Victory Points (depicted by ‘single light bulb’ tokens), while the successful guesser gets 2 (‘double light bulb’ tokens). Gameplay then continues with a new team in clockwise direction - the team member next to a player who hasn’t gone yet forms up with them - and the game concludes once all of the ‘double light bulb’ tokens have been awarded. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner - and can call from the rooftops about how their ability to illustrate a variety of terms via the positioning of game counters is markedly better than everyone else’s.
You’d think there might be a catch to this - some god-awful, unexplained situation that the rules don’t cover and which result in your Dad getting sweary over Christmas-time. But there isn’t - like all good board games, Concept is enjoyable primarily because it is so straightforward, and it’s very easy just to get into the flow of a game without there having to be a constant pause to re-explain how they work. Its biggest stumbling block doesn’t lie in the game mechanics in fact, but in the make-ups of the imagination and comprehension of each of the players at hand. Just like a Rorschach test, the pictograms of Concept have the potential to mean a different thing to a different person - especially when trying to piece multiple ones together. Players on different wavelengths may have a hard time trying to figure out what’s in front of them, simply because they don’t think about the given term to guess in the same way that the players providing the answer do. Because of this, Pictionary, Taboo and Cranium still have the edge - especially Cranium because it utilizes so many different forms of expression - over Concept, simply because their own arts of guesswork are far more pure. In a single game of Concept, the rules may remain simple, but the flow could be anything but. With the lack of a time limit imposed for each guess, some words could be guessed in seconds, while others are considerably more obtuse - for these ones, groups of players could end up sat for ages trying to understand a myriad of blocks and punctuation marks sat in front of them, clueless to what the answer could actually be, and end up bored and frustrated as a result. Especially if they’re playing with only the ‘Hard’ words (each card has a group of words with a different range of difficulty). Trying to get your Great Uncle Gilbert to guess the word ‘Atlantis’ when you have only a water icon to help you and he keeps saying “puddle question mark” is a taxing task for any time of year, let alone the year-end family get together.
Still, for the right people, and with the right people, Concept is a board game with the potential to be absolutely brilliant. It’s definitely a game that captured the enthusiasm of those with a discerning eye for this form of entertainment too, having picked up a host of nominations and accolades at various board game award ceremonies (Golden Geek, Spiel des Jahres, Lys Grand Public). And it still manages to capture those classic moments of hilarity involving players getting exasperated at one another for not being able to get their chosen word right. That, after all, is a critical component of board game magic - one that Concept delivers on, along with its pick-up-and-play simplicities and the genuinely guessin’ good time one can have with it.