MonsDRAWsity review

I can’t draw. Add it straight onto the pile of things I cannot do. Yes, artists out there, I have tried! I drew a comic strip for my middle school newspaper called “Kid Lightning” that had a handful of fans, but there were zero artistic touches in the strip. Only the thrill of seeing a monthly superhero strip in the school rag made the venture even worthwhile.

So when we had Eric Slauson on Gumbo Live! to talk about MonsDRAWsity recently, I was more than skeptical, I was a non-believer. But Eric’s description of a game that doesn’t require beautiful art skills and that gamers and families can play together piqued my interest. Thanks to the fine folks at Deep Water Games, we have a review copy to play. Does MonsDRAWsity have enough ink in the well to color it as the party game of the year? Let’s find out.

MonsDRAWsity is a 2020 game for 3-8 players that takes about 30 minutes (or even less with fewer players) to play, designed by Eric Slauson and published by Deep Water Games in partnership with Bread and Circuses. Deep Water Games recently released an expansion for the game, Cute Creatures, which gives you even more cards that are geared for younger gamers.

Players are sketch artists in D.R.A.W. (Dept of Recording Anomaly Witnesses) taking information from witnesses who only had the briefest of glances at the otherworldly and hopefully unforgettable creatures stalking our streets. (What an amazing coincidence that the name of the agency just happens to fit a very appropriate acronym.)  It’s up to the players with the erasable markers in hand to do their jobs as paranormal investigators and get as much of a description of the creatures on paper as possible. Players will score a point by drawing sketches that convince the other artists that their drawing is the best representation of the alien on the card, and the witness can score a point by choosing the same artists as the rest of the group to be the best sketch.

PRODUCTION:

MonsDRAWsity is a small box game, roughly the size of the KOSMOS two player line (Targi, Lost Cities), but the inside is packed with boards and markers for up to eight players, plus enough cards in the base game for plenty of sessions. Cute Creatures is a 2020 expansion geared toward younger sketch artists and comes with a small pack of additional cards with relatively simpler creatures to identify, and one extra board to increase the fun to nine players.

Although the boards are well made and the black and white markers are good quality, it is the cards and their art that shine as the stars of the game. There are so many artists credited in the rulebook, a mixture of familiar and not-so-familiar artist names like The Mico (North Sea, West Kingdom series), Shawn Daley (Spirit Island: Jagged Earth), Hector Amavizca (Council of Verona), and Kennedy Garza (webcomics). Kudos to Deep Water for having such an amazingly talented and diverse set of artists.

While all of the monsters are unique, they somehow all fit the style of the game. Most are freaky looking, some are disturbing and almost all are cartoonishly frightening in a way that is not horrific but definitely memorable in their own way.

The main cards are pretty intricate, with small details that separate each monster, but getting the kids involved is pretty easy especially if you have the small Cute Creatures expansion. Here’s an example of the simplified look of the Cute Creatures cards:

We found that those expansion cards were very easy for even four and five year olds to provide pretty accurate descriptions, but are still fun for the adults to do, too.

GAMEPLAY:

This is a party game, so the rules are kept intentionally easy. Players (the “sketch artists”) will get a whiteboard and a dry erase marker, and the “witness” will get a card with a monster on it. The witness will stare at the monster and try to memorize as many features as possible in only twenty seconds. Then the card is turned down, and the remaining players (“the artists”) will listen for two minutes as the witness describes what they just saw.

At any time, the artists can ask general questions of the witness, and this sometimes is the most fun part of the initial stage as players help the witness hone in on the distinguishing features of that creature. Was the monster tall? Did it have a scary face? Was it angry or happy? How many legs? Did it look like you could be friends with it if it were real (shout out to Beth Sobel for that one)? All of these and more will get thrown out as the witness continues with their description of the creature.

Once the two minutes are up, the artists flash their drawings to the witness, who secretly writes down the player board number for whoever they thought came the closest to what they remembered was the look of the monster. (No, witness, you can’t look back at the card to cheat.) Finally, after revealing the actual card art, the artists themselves take a quick vote – who do they think came the closest? That person (or persons if there is a tie) gets a point, and if the artist chosen by the artists is the same artist as the one chosen by the witness, then the witness gets a point for giving a really accurate description.

The game suggests that each player take two turns as the witness, which will trigger the end of the game, but this is a party game — we found it okay to experiment a little. Fewer players might want to extend the game a bit with three tries, while large groups may just want one try and then rotate some of the players on the sideline as some extra “witnesses.”

We played a modified version of MonsDRAWsity with Jeremy Howard of Man v Meeple plus the Chat Krewe on a recent Gumbo Live! if you are curious to see how it works.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Let’s not beat around the bush. In a year where it is was very tough to play party games — hello, pandemic — MonsDRAWsity easily took the top spot as my Party Game of the Year.  But, even in a normal year, MonsDRAWsity would probably have taken center stage. We’ve been playing it a ton over the last week, and I can only imagine how much fun it would be at 1:30 am at a convention, with everyone full of root beer and brain dead from chasing games all day in the halls. Even the short time you have between the art finishes and the arguments among all the artists as to who came the closest makes for some memorable moments.

But why? Why is a simple game, one that Eric Lang calls a mashup between Telestrations and Freudian nightmares, be so doggone fun? Sure, the theme of being a paranormal sketch artists is unique, and sure, the gameplay is simple and intuitive, and yes, the box has amazing art and amazing components. But is there anything else?

I see two reasons, one related to the game, and one related to the experience. Let’s take them backwards like the good little Tenet fans we are.

First, the experience.

My son Matt and I taught the game the other night after Christmas dinner. Instead of playing, though, this time all we did was “run” the game. Basically, we kept the clock moving, kept the discussions light and friendly, and helped players that were struggling a bit understanding the rules. Although the game is pretty easy, because there are time implications involved, it helps to have someone “run the show” especially with people new to the hobby.

While the witness’s face was an ear-to-ear smile having fun embellishing their encounter with this mysterious alien, and the artist on our right was sketching furiously, Matt and I agreed that MonsDRAWsity was just about as much fun to watch as it is to play.

It was entertaining for him to watch his cousin digest the rapid fire information as the witness rattled descriptions in machine gun fashion. Matt kept laughing the entire time, because what was important to Matt did not always make it on the page.  It’s a fascinating exercise — how do other people process information? And how is that information translated through their fingertips into a coherent drawing? The ability to watch people process the information and convert it into a stick figure drawings (or beautifully rendered tiny masterpieces) is priceless.

Next, let’s talk about the game itself. MonsDRAWsity works because it equalizes everyone in the game.  I’m not saying that people who can draw don’t already have a little bit of an advantage because of the tools in their shed. But since you only have two minutes, people good at painstakingly recreated scenes don’t have as much of an advantage as you think, and that’s equalizer number one. And it’s not only important to be able to communicate with a marker, but you have to process the witness’ description quickly and know what questions to ask, neither of which requires any drawing talent at all, and that’s equalizer number two. And finally, the decisions by the group and the witness herself in choosing whose drawing best represented the creature is unpredictable, like waves that lap against the shoreline but never in the exact same pattern, and that tiny bit of uncertainty is equalizer number three.

I’m not smart enough to spot all of the equalizers that Eric put into the game, but just with the ones I have mentioned, it should not come as any surprise that the best artists have rarely won in our games, although they were always competitive.

But there may be one more deeper truth to uncover, and that is the joy and humor that comes from the picture that an artist sees in their mind versus what is in the card art. Sometimes it comes out with uncannily good results, and everybody cheers or marvels at the accomplishment. But sometimes the drawing is so wildly divergent from the card art as to be completely unrecognizable. That unrecognizability even by the best artists in the group produced for us some of the most laugh out loud moments.

Exaggerating a feature because that’s what you heard the witness describe only to find out that you misunderstood what they were saying? (Or the witness’ memory was wrong?) is a priceless moment, one which everyone will remember long after game night recedes into the darkness.  The deeper truth is that the game supplies the tools to make lots of laugh out loud moments, and unlike certain *cough* *cough* games, it is not dependent on being cruel to anyone.

Eric Slauson has shown a gift in MonsDRAWsity that is not as common as I would wish it to be. He intuitively knows that tempo is important in party games, and that shared laughter is the best kind of laughter. MonsDRAWsity exhibits a mature sense of what are the critical features of a group game.

I’m not going to qualify MonsDRAWsity in any way — I recommend it to families with kids, families with gamers, and every game group willing to take its members a little less serious at the end of the night.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

BJ @boardgamegumbo

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