When I was in high school, I played a lot of video games. Granted, I’ve been a gamer since as long I can remember. My fondest memories of childhood were those spent in front of my television with my brother by my side, trying desperately to get past even the second level of Battletoads on our old NES. Back before Steam was emptying my wallet with their never-ending sales, my friends and I hounded our local Gamestops for any juicy deals. A lot of game stores were dumping their old inventories back then, so we scoured bargain bins for any overlooked gems from the NES, SNES, or N64 era. Yard sales, pawn shops, and flea market stalls were our gold mines. By the time I headed out to college, I probably had around 300 games in my collection.
Needless to say, I did a lot of arguing about games. I met friends who also played and loved video games like I did. We talked about which game had the biggest influence on each genre, argued what game pulled off a specific mechanic first. Of course, I had my biases. All of my friends did. We were more likely to love a game from our childhood over another game, even if it was comparatively mediocre by most measures. And like most geeks my age, I spent many of my teenage years on the Internet. I spent many hours online researching games made before my time, learning the intricate history of gaming, and debating the merits of one game or another to total strangers.
Now, imagine taking all that arguing and then turning it into a game: that’s Metagame in a nutshell. It’s a card game for geeks who like to argue about games (which is probably most geeks). Functionally, the game plays a lot like Apples to Apples (or perhaps more appropriately, Cards Against Humanity). Players draw a hand from one stack of cards containing titles of video games and try to best match them with a set of hypothetical questions. Which gave players more freedom: Morrowind or Grand Theft Auto III? Which is funnier: Katamari Demacy or Grim Fandango? The game can be played with two competitors and an impartial judge, but is even more fun to play with a large group of people.
Let me give a quick example of something you might expect during the game. The judge draws a card and throws down the question “Which game is more educational?” I peek into my hand and play SimCity, rationalizing that a game about simulating city building must at least impart some sort of managerial knowledge on its players. Besides, SimCity requires a lot of thinking to play, so it seemed like a dead giveaway. However, my opponent puts down Oregon Trail, a tough card to beat. We’re each given one minute to argue our cases. Rather than talk about SimCity, I talk smack on Oregon Trail, claiming that the game really boils down to nothing but managing rations and shooting 500 lbs. of buffalo with your rifle. I win the round, despite the fact that Oregon Trail is mostly remembered by people my age as the one game we were allowed to play on our school computer way back in elementary school.
That’s the beauty of Metagame – sometimes it’s all about how you interpret the question and phrase your argument. Is Wind Waker really more beautiful than ICO? Who knows. You’re the one responsible for making the case. Of course, like Apples to Apples, sometimes you have no choice but to play your best card and hope the judge likes yours the most. Metagame is all-encompassing in its sampling of video games. There are games from all genres and every generation – from Zork to Farmville and beyond. Therefore, the trick to winning is knowing your video games, and knowing how to argue for and against them.
One of the nifty features of Metagame is the unique artwork on each card. Since the creators couldn’t use copyrighted screenshots or box art, each card has its own graphic that represents the game itself. Half-Life has an illustration of a crowbar behind a breakable glass emergency box. Metal Gear Solid has a picture of a cardboard box. Super Mario Kart features a rear-view mirror with a winged blue turtle shell sailing toward the driver. Some of them are even subtle inside jokes about the games themselves – Street Fighter II is merely a picture of a turtle with Ryu’s red bandana. Wii Sports has a picture of a Wii-mote embedded in the screen of a television.
If you’re interested in purchasing a deck, you can grab one on its Amazon page. There are actually two decks – the basic deck, and an expansion that adds additional games and questions to your collection. Unfortunately, the game is relatively expensive: $25 for the starter deck, and $15 for the expansion (though this seems to be on par with other nerdy niche board games). I’m not a huge fan of the nickel and diming that comes along with releasing two separate decks, but I suppose that’s to be expected if the company wants to make money. The good news is that each deck is top quality, the cards so sleek and beautiful they almost feel collectible. They nearly are, or at least feel like the could be. What’s intriguing is that a special set of cards are also released every year at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, where the game was originally born. This means that out there somewhere, a group of people actually own a unique deck of Metagame cards that no one else owns.
The prospect seems almost tantalizing – a trading card game where players collect video game cards for the sake of debating others who play the game. Sure, there would probably be about 500 players nationwide who would actually play it. A man can dream, though. A man can dream.