I’ve played countless games where complex mechanics interweave in fascinating ways to elaborately create powerful themes or clever gameplay. It’s very satisfying to watch as individual mechanics come together to form something greater than their whole, and this, of course, has led to some amazing board games. For all the complexity in the world, though, there’s something genuinely beautiful about simplicity. Following reviews of titles like Arkham Horror and Robinson Crusoe I’m today going to review something simpler, a game aimed at children but that adults can become astonishingly engrossed in. Through its simplicity something wonderful happens, something that can often get lost in more complex games; fun.
It’s called Dobble, which I can only assume to be some sort of creature that runs around mountaintops scream about how Dobby from Harry Potter is totally a copyright infringement. The easiest way to describe the game would be to say that it’s like playing snap, but with more going on. It’s accurate, really, but still, it warrants explanation, so let’s delve into this.
Dobble is made up of 55 round cards, each boasting eight symbols that range from hearts to eyes to snowmen to skulls and much more. The catch is each card only ever has one matching symbol with another, an impressive feat that frankly makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. There were countless times where me or a friend were adamant that there was no matching symbols, only for someone to quietly point it out and leave us embarrassed. This small game is packaged into an equally small tin, the kind that looks like it would have been used by soldiers in the trenches to eat their lunch out of. It’s cute, and takes up minimal space, which when combined with the very low price tag makes it an alluring purchase. It’s quick to play, fast to setup, small to store and cheap to buy. Perfect.
And then you open it up and some little part of you thinks, “is that it?” It’s just 55 fairly flimsy pieces of card. But oh my what those little pieces of card can do.
The basic game plays a lot like snap. Each player gets deal a single card, while the rest of the deck goes face up in the middle of the table. Everybody flips over their card and quickly tries to match one of their eight symbols to one shown on the draw pile’s top card. If they manage to pair up one of the little pictures they’ve got to proclaim its name for all to hear and then grab the top card of the pile as their own, revealing a new card in the process. This carries on until there’s no cards left, at which point it’s the player with the most cards before them that claims victory and glory. It sounds so deceptively simple in concept, but in practice it’s astonishing how quickly you can become engrossed in the action, your eyes flicking back and forth like a drug addict eyeing up his next line. It’s even more astonishing how fast your mind becomes a blank page. At first you seem invincible, matching symbol after symbol in a devastating display of Dobble zen, but then suddenly somebody snags a pair and your zen state is blown into smithereens. Before you know it everything has gone horribly wrong and you seem unable to see the huge symbols in front of you, failing to make a match card after card, watching in dismay as everybody else snags cards. Then the power of speech goes, because to claim a card you’ve got to call out the matching symbols, but for some reason the intensity of the situation has gotten the better of you and your vocabulary has melted into a puddle, words become a muddled mess of mangled muddiness . It’s surprising how even the most well-spoken of individuals can somehow forget everyday words like cat or moon when under pressure, but when it comes to those last few cards in play some strange words can be yelled by players desperate to claim some last-minute points. What’s a cataxi? No idea. A Canada leaf? Interesting choice, but we’ll let it slide. A big woody thing? Pretty sure you mean the tree, so okay. Inevitably somebody will also loudly declare “Ghost” or “Lips” and snatch a card, only to sheepishly put it back when they realise that their eyes were playing cruel tricks on them.
That’s the beauty of the game. It becomes a source of incredible tension, especially if you manage to round up people who are all to happy to just let themselves go and enjoy the game. In my case I drafted my 7-year old niece and her grandma to play with me, and was shocked to find all three of us crowding over the table, eyes bulging and hands shaking as we fought for those last few cards on the table. Primal noises became commonplace, especially from the smallest human at the table who became increasingly vocal as time went on.
There’s a total of five variations of Dobble contained within the rulebook. Each game only takes minutes to play, and the rules smartly include a tournament template so that you can cycle between game types with points carrying over. The second game type is the least interesting simply because it’s standard Dobble in reverse; the whole deck is dealt with one card kept in the middle that players must match their cards to, and the first one to get rid of their pile wins the spoils of war, bragging rights and, of course, everlasting glory. Things get vastly more interesting with Hot Potato, where each player is deal a single card that they must hold in their hand. When the game starts everybody flips over their card and must quickly match one of their symbols to somebody else’s, and when they do they give that person their card, or if they are holding more than one card then they hand them the whole pike. The player left holding all the cards loses and must place them down before a new round begins, and this whoever has the least cards after five rounds loses. Naturally this one is best played with plenty of people. If you can somehow find eight people to play then it’s a hoot, especially when it gets down to the last few folk who by that point are usually bouncing up and down like little kids. Next up is Gotta Catch ‘Em All, where one card is played up in the centre of the table and as many facedown cards as there are players are put down around it. When somebody yells go everybody flips the cards over and starts matching symbols to the middle card. Pair up two icons and you grab the card (but not the middle one) and can then continue trying to match symbols, quickly grabbing as many cards as possible before the round ends. Finally Poisoned Gift proved to be a favorite in my house, because in this game type the each player is dealt a card and then a draw pile is placed faceup in the middle of the table. The goal is to match opponent’s symbols with the card on the draw pile. If you spot a pair you grab the top card from the pile and give it to the opponent. The player with the fewest cards after the draw-pile is exhausted picks up the victory.
And that’s Dobble. See, pretty simple, right?
Inevitably two players will snatch a card at the same time and accusations begin to fly, each yelling loudly that the other shouted out a word that doesn’t even exist. Fingers will turn white, cheeks will turn red and usually the least gracious player will claim the prize. Sometimes you might want to referee these little breakouts, especially if tiny children are involved, but other times you might offer them both a sword and settle the dispute the old-fashioned way, because nothing says a good night better than bloodshed and thrilling gladiatorial combat.
If you play with a few different people you’ll invariably encounter the kind that attempts to memorize their cards, perhaps using the Sherlock style Mind Palace trick, a technique that I believe stems from the Romans and Greeks. And that means you also get to watch as that palace crumbles into ruins, probably leaving the player screaming something about a “treecat” despite no cat or tree being present. You may want to offer these players a cup of tea and suggest that they lie down on the couch for a bit. Intellects will be shattered in Dobble. It is a cruel and merciless game, unyielding in its desire to leave participants blubbering on the floor.
Pretty impressive for a simple set of cards.
That simplicity, though, brought a lot of laughter into the room. It’s also surprising to see just how much fun it can be for adults and kids alike. I didn’t think I’d be able to persuade many of my friends to take part in Dobble, and indeed at first they were hesitant to try it, but once they did it quickly became a favorite way to warm up before embarking on something more daunting and complex. As for kids, well I can safely say it has my nieces seal of approval, easily winning out another game that’s in for review called Hey, That’s my Fish. Regular snap can be a lot of fun, but it’s nothing compared to a couple of rounds of Dobble. It’s tense, makes you forget how to English good and is perfect for spending an hour or just a few minutes.