Gaming at XOXO 2015

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XOXO sign

Recently I had the privilege of attending XOXO, a local experimental arts and technology festival, and I came away with a head full of ideas ping-ponging around inside, things that I’m still processing. Many people have already written up their own experiences of the weekend, from the way XOXO used Slack as a tool to build community before the conference to the color-coded lanyards for a photo/privacy policy to asking people the question “What should you spend more time on?”

I wrote a short piece about the experience, too, but it was just to get a few thoughts down, and the rest are mostly in a little notebook waiting for a little more processing and digestion before I do anything with it. Not all of it seemed to fit neatly in the categories I usually cover for GeekDad.

What I want to focus on today, though, is the gaming at XOXO. There were two evening events, Arcade and Tabletop, spotlighting independently produced games. You can get the full line-ups by clicking on those links, and I certainly didn’t get a chance to experience everything. But I did have a great time and got to play a few pretty fascinating games.

I’ll start with tabletop games. Since XOXO was near my house, I was able to have people over to play games and also brought a few with me to play when there was free time.

Trove at XOXO
I taught a few games of Trove at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I taught several people to play Trove: The Crystal Cavern while the Kickstarter campaign was still active, and had a lot of fun with it. It was great to be able to introduce people to it while it was still on Kickstarter.

Spaceteam at XOXO
Spaceteam was a huge hit at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I also got a prototype of the Spaceteam card game that weekend, so I took ran many sessions of it both during Tabletop event and throughout the weekend. It’s a card game version of Henry Smith’s cooperative app, and it’s a blast to play. The Kickstarter launches this week, so watch for a full review here soon.

Bycatch
A poorly-cropped photo taken by my “drone” of another player’s cards. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Bycatch was one of the featured games at the Tabletop event and the description sounded fascinating to me even before I’d seen it. I played a demo and immediately bought a copy–if I have time, I’ll write it up more fully later. The game is about drone warfare: there’s always a current suspect and players are trying to eliminate the suspect. However, things aren’t perfect: ordering a strike generally means killing innocent bystanders, so you have to weigh the penalties against the potential rewards.

Key to the game, however, is that you use your smartphone as a “drone” to snap pictures of other players’ cards. But these photos can turn out blurry and indistinct, cropped poorly or overexposed. There’s a message built into the game about making decisions based on imperfect information–when do you feel you have enough information to take action? It’s a fun game in and of itself, but it’s also great for sparking some deeper conversations about the nature of modern warfare.

Codenames XOXO
Codenames at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I took my copy of Codenames with me and got the chance to play that several times over the weekend as well. It’s just such a great game, and it’s fun to play with new people because you find out about the sort of connections they make between words and concepts. There’s a free app now (iOS or Android) that you can use for the key card, and it came in handy when we were playing in low light conditions where the physical card could be hard to read. Several people I played with have since experimented with playing Codenames using cards from Dixit, Anomia, or Cards Against Humanity.

Destruct Sequence, Disengage!
Designer Dave Fooden (far right) taught us how to play Destruct Sequence, Disengage! (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Game designer Dave Fooden (also known for Oh My God There’s an Axe in My Head) was also attending XOXO and he had a couple of prototypes with him as well. We tried his real-time cooperative game Destruct Sequence, Disengage! He says it was actually inspired by Spaceteam, and it involves placing tiles onto a board within the time limit–but you also have to match patterns. If they don’t match, you can try to use gum to patch things, but there’s only so much gum available and sometimes tiles will pop back off. Also, there’s a cat who sometimes helps and sometimes interferes.

Yukon Salon
Dave Fooden’s Yukon Salon is about tough customers: bears and lumberjacks. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Fooden’s other prototype was for a game called Yukon Salon, in which you play stylists facing some tough customers: bears and lumberjacks. The various style cards (with names like The Tsar and The Permanent Wave) can be played either as hairdos for the bears or beards for the lumberjacks. Some customers are harder to please, and some styles take a little more convincing, and you and your opponents can also use cards to charm clients or be snarky about somebody else’s suggestion. It was very silly, in a good way.

Since I was running Spaceteam demos, there were several games I didn’t get to play at the Tabletop event, but I’ll mention a few of them in passing. The guys from Tuesday Knight Games were there running demos of Two Rooms and a Boom the whole time and they always had a good crowd. I played it last year and backed the Kickstarter project for a copy, but it’s a fun game when you have a huge group. John Teasdale, one of the designers of The Contender (which Gerry Tolbert wrote up last month), ran demos of the politics-based party game. And Erika Svanoe, designer of Marrying Mr. Darcy, had a couple tables going of the Emma expansion to the game. I did manage to break out my copy of Emperor’s New Clothes a couple times, roping in some new players and teaching them to see the ROOS.

And now, on to the videogames. I don’t generally play as many videogames–mostly some things on my iPad, and the occasional game on Steam (though I’m usually a couple years behind on those). But XOXO is all about experimental games, so I got to enjoy some really quirky and different sorts of games. And, hey, since videogames have trailers, I’ll include some of those (because my iPhone pics of the screens didn’t turn out so great).

Donut County by Ben Esposito reminded me a bit of Katamari Damacy, except that instead of making a big ball of stuff, you were a hole in the ground swallowing bigger and bigger things. (Interestingly, the more things that went into the hole, the bigger the hole got.) You’d start with a scene filled with all sorts of things, and your goal is to eat up everything on the screen. There are some puzzles to be figured out, but even when it’s just a straightforward smallest-to-biggest approach, it’s pretty fun to watch. Donut County should be out for Mac and PC soon–visit the website to get on the email list.

And speaking of Katamari Damacy, designer Keita Takahashi’s latest game was also on display: Wattam. I didn’t get to play it myself but I watched others play for a while. The world is populated by a whole bunch of bizarre characters like flowers and clouds and mushrooms, and you can switch between them to access different abilities. Ultimately, though, your goal is to get a minimum number of them together holding hands, and then explode! Crazy and weird and very Japanese.

GNOG is a puzzle game that involves these crazy monster heads. You turn the head around, and there’s a little diorama inside it. You don’t get any instructions, really; you just have to fiddle around with things and figure out what can be flipped or turned or pushed, and if you can figure out what makes the monster head happy, then you pass the level. It’s expected for the Playstation in 2016, and on Steam and iOS later on.

Keep Talking Game
Chris Johnson refers to a manual while I try to defuse a bomb.

One of my favorites of the evening was called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Although I would say the title is a bit misleading, because we kept talking and we still exploded. It’s a two-person cooperative game about defusing a bomb, sort of simulating the classic movie scenario where one person is faced with a ticking time bomb and the expert is on the phone trying to talk the person through it. One player wears a VR headset and has a controller–it looks like you’re sitting in a small room with a bomb on the table. You can pick it up, turn it around to inspect it, and manipulate various parts of it.

Keep Talking Game
A screenshot of the bomb.

The other player sits with an actual binder with pages of instructions on how to handle different types of modules, from colored wires to huge buttons to color-coded switches to passwords. Often you have to refer to other parts of the bomb, like checking for a serial number or looking at the types of batteries visible. You have five minutes to disable all of the modules, and if you make mistakes you lose time.

It was pretty intense. I played twice, once as the defuser and once as the adviser, and blew up both times (on Level 2). Definitely a game I’d love to try again. The PC release is expected October 8, with other platforms in development.

S Voltron screenshot

There was a big arcade cabinet running a game called (since there may be kids in the audience) Crappy Voltron. Remember that nearly impossible Flash game QWOP? You controlled a person trying to jump hurdles by controlling the joints of the legs, and it was mostly an exercise in futility–could you manage to take two steps forward rather than launching yourself backward from the start line? Well, Crappy Voltron is kind of like that, except each of four players controls one limb of a giant robot. You have to grab the sword, fly up to the top of a big spaceship, and hit the giant orb on top. It was originally designed in 48 hours for Global Game Jam.

S Voltron win
I have this blurry screenshot as proof of defeating the enemy ship. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Meanwhile, there are planes and tanks and helicopters attacking the city–buildings are falling, people are dying, and they’re all wondering why their giant robot defender is lying on its back with its legs sticking up in the air. It’s a hilarious game and I played it a couple of times–I even managed to be on a winning team once! You can actually download it here for PC or Mac, but you’ll need four Xbox controllers to play.

Superhypercube was featured in the “VR Lounge” area of the festival, and I played it on the very last night. It’s a VR arcade game that reminds me of that Japanese game show with Human Tetris. You’re presented with a slowly approaching wall, and you have a shape made up of cubes that you rotate and flip so that it will fit through the hole in the wall before you crash into it. Each time you succeed, another cube is added in a random place on your object. It’s expected to be available on Playstation Morpheus at launch.

There were several other videogames on the list (you can see the rest of the XOXO lineup here), and I walked around and watched people playing them. It’s was a fascinating mix of games and I’m glad I had the chance to try them out.

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