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Subject: Classic Parlor Game Gets a Make-over rss

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Randy Cox
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Disclaimer: I didn't think I had to say this, but my reviews are my opinions. While they are intended to be useful to the reader they are not intended to be unbiased, objective discussions of the game. You can get that elsewhere. My reviews reflect my opinion of the game's merits. This is part of the IWTRTMTWWW (I Write the Reviews That Make the Whole World Whine) series, as are all my reviews.

Facts in Five is listed in this database as dating from 1967, but the boxed version is older than that. Tim Stabosz is a fellow I receive periodic e-mail listings from. See, he gathers and sells games, writes up a lengthy catalog with his prices, and allows you to purchase from him. One of the games he has attempted to sell in the past for a high price is an original version of this game, published by some entity with the name "Research" in the title. And I think he says it dates from the 1950s (or maybe 1965). Anyway, it was pre-3M. But that's not all that important, because I've played the game with people who simply refer to it by its parlor game name, "Categories." It’s been around a long time.

Anyway, it's a simple fill-in-the-matrix trivia game. Get five categories and five letters and there you have a 25-cell grid to fill in--in five minutes. Ready, set, go! But I'm ahead of myself. Let's discuss the game.

Components

I own many versions of this game--3M, various packagings by Avalon Hill, and the most recent release (2007) by University Games. They are all just about the same. You get a deck of many category cards. In fact, the card-back artwork is the same in the 1967 version and the 2007 version. The cards are of a little less quality in 2007 (stiff, nearly brittle), but otherwise, things are essentially the same.

The card contents, however, have changed radically. The game as published from 1967 through 1995 had some very 1950s-style categories.

Sample Cards from older set -- Photo Credit: DCosby

Sample Card from older set -- Photo Credit: Lemming

See, the original game allowed for multi-layered choices of categories (e.g. "Music Composers, Symphony: Of Latvian Descent" or "Military Figures: Medieval"). These could cause some grueling rounds of brainsweat.

Compare that to today's types of cards:

Sample Card from 2007 set

Sample Cards from 2007 set

The story is that the original designer redid the cards in 2007. Now, they're much simpler. Fewer options and only two levels of category, some of which have a main category of "General." I don't know that there are any military categories now and the types information you now must stretch for are more geographic or pop-culture based. Some might call this "dumbing down" the game; others may call it "making it more marketable and accessible."

In addition to the cards, you receive many score sheets for game play (double-sided, which means that if you play the suggested 5 rounds, you'll waste the back of one sheet for each player). You'll get another, smaller, pad of master score sheets (to track scores). In addition, you get a bunch of little letter chits. From memory, I think older sets had a couple of chits for each letter in the alphabet plus two wild cards. The newer edition has a much more varied frequency count for the letters (see image below). Finally, you'll get rules and a "five minute" timer (mine clocks in at 5:51). All this is housed in a nifty book-like case in the newest version.

Game components in 2007 set

Except for the lessened quality of the cards (mighty stiff and hard to shuffle), the components are fine.

Rules

The rules are easy to understand and do a good job of documenting the proper use of people's names (use last name unless they have only one common name or the category calls for first names). There is also a very good example that shows how to score a round.

Give them an "A" for rules.

Play

The game is played in five five-minute rounds. Each round consists of choosing five categories (deal cards out to players, some may get more cards than others, but that's fine, as the last player dealt to is the dealer next round). Then choose five letter tiles. Then go at it. Fill in all rows (letters) and columns (categories) with answers that fit the category and begin with the letter of the row. Edit to answer a query: All players will be playing identical grids of categories and letters. And don't duplicate any of your own answers (it's OK to have the same answer as other players). Wild letter tiles can be anything and can even change from column to column.

After five minutes (I suggest using a kitchen timer as it is audible and you don't have to keep checking the sand timer), everyone put down your pencils and pass your sheet to a neighboring player. At that point, the neighbor "grades your paper," like in school.

Anything that is obvious gets marked as correct (check). Anything that's questionable is asked to the group of players. If any one player (other than the person who wrote the answer on the paper you are judging) agrees that the answer is valid, then it is valid. If no one else agrees, then the answer is wrong, even if the writer knows damn well it's valid.

In a way, this was the original incarnation of What Were You Thinking. I'm of two minds about this. If two or more people at the table think that Ben Franklin was a president, then it counts. But if only one person knows that Draco is a constellation, that person is hosed. I like the hosing rule, because it keeps one geek from choosing a wild card category (there are wilds in the deck) of something like "NCR cash register computing platforms: 1978-1986." So what if I once didn't get credit for Frankfurt as a US State Capital simply because no one else at the table knew it. You have to know your audience or be very persuasive with them during the scoring round. But as to the groupthink part of the game (the “Franklin Was a President Conundrum”), I'm not so happy. Fortunately, that almost never comes up because mature players realize you’re playing the game, not the system.

When everyone has graded, it's time to score the round. Here, it gets unnecessarily tricky, but that is part of the old-school charm of this game.

You will have five columns of answers, each column representing a category. At this point, the relative positions of the correct answers are no longer important. Your paper-grader must take each of your columns and draw a tick-mark (or check) on your scoring grid (another, much smaller, 5x5 grid) starting in the top cell of each column, filling in downwards, until they have as many tick marks as you had correct answers in that category.

Let me give an example.

Boardgames .......... Cities ... Trees.. Songs................ Children's Books
D Davinci's Challenge Denver ... Dogwood Down in the Boondocks ------
F Fearsome Floors ... Frankfurt. Fruit.. Farfale ............. ------
M Medici ............ Milan .... Maple.. Make Me Smile ....... Mary Poppins
E Emerald ........... Evansville ------- England Swings ...... ------
R Reiner Knizia's.... Richmond.. Ragweed Roll Over Beethoven.. Ramona the Pest
..Decathlon


In this instance, your grader (and opponents) did not allow Knizia's Decathlon, saying that game doesn't officially start with "R". They also didn't give you "Fruit" or "Ragweed" for trees (rightly so). You should have known your audience better, as they weren't familiar with either of "England Swings" or "Farfale," no matter how much you recall playing those 45s (and 78s) as a child. And amazingly, someone else put "Mary Poppins" on their list of books so they obviously voted to allow it. So your grid of proper answers (noted with an "X") looks like this:

X X X X -
X X - - -
X X X X X
X X - - -
- X - X X


But the scoring grid looks like this (I'm putting in 1s for the 'tick marks').

1 1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1 1
1 1 . 1 .
1 1 . . .
. 1 . . .


See how everything "bubbled to the top"? That is one of the harder things to explain about the scoring of this game. From there, it's easy. Just sum the "1"s along the rows and down the columns and square your sums. Then add your squared numbers together. Like this:

1 1 1 1 1 = 5x5= 25
1 1 1 1 1 = 5x5= 25
1 1 0 1 0 = 3x3= 09
1 1 0 0 0 = 2x2= 04
0 1 0 0 0 = 1x1= 01
===================
4 5 2 3 2 ...... 64 (General Knowledge Score)
x x x x x
4 5 2 3 2
16+25+04+09+04=56 (Specific Knowledge Score)

Total Score: 64+56=120


It's not that hard, mind you, but it is different. The gist of it is, I believe, to see how much "General" knowledge you have (total answers) and how much "Specific" knowledge you have (dominance of categories). It doesn't really matter, though, as you add the scores together and don't compare general vs. specific across players.

In fact, at the WBC, they have dispensed with the whole scoring system and simply count total correct answers in the matrix (in this case, 16) and let that be your score for a round. In almost all cases, this works exactly the same as doing the convoluted math. But I kinda like the funny math.

Anyway, you do this five times and total score determines the winner.

Our Play – 10/19/2008, 3 player

Three of us sat down to play Sunday evening--D, R, and J. (I'm D, by the way.) After explaining the rules, we started out with two wildcard categories, one about Judaism and one about literature. The non-wildcard categories were no better and after the first round, scores were very low: D-80, R-72, J (playing his first game)-44.

The second round wasn’t much better for two players, but happened to have a lot of good categories for me (song titles, famous quotes, boy names 6+ letters, girl names names less than 6 letters). Scores: D-174, R-94, J-40.

We had only a few questionable answers and usually shot them down, even if they were valid. The audacity of someone trying to show off their knowledge of arcane facts! They should know that to succeed, you must display your knowledge of common facts. So over the next two rounds D scored 90 and 80, R 80 and 90, and J 90 and 62. If not for the skewed second round, we would be pretty equally matched.

Scores going into the final round: D-424, R-336, J-236.

At this point, J asked if there was some sort of “all in” aspect to the final round, which is interesting and we’ll get to later. I can see the reason for the question, from his perspective. He would have had to outscore me by almost 200 points in a game with a maximum score of 250 per round.

Anyway, the final round had much easier categories for the group, though I can’t recall them right now. Last round scores were: D-130, R-160, J-146. Final scores: D-554, R-496, J-382.

It clocked in at 73 minutes and was enjoyed by all.

Findings

That question about all-in got me to thinking about modifications to this game. After all, the game would have been more fun for all involved if the final round had yielded more sway. It would also have been more fun if that runaway early round hadn’t pretty much secured victory. Here’s a graph of how the game played with some additional blips and blops that I’ll explain below.

Game Graph

The solid lines show our game-by-game scores. The darker red shows my scores (D), with a big blip in Round 2, but pretty average performance otherwise. J shows a very shaky start, then ramps up, falls a bit, and jumps mightily at the end, having gotten the hang of things. And R played, arguably, the best game of all, steady or gaining in respect to the other players all the way to a dominant final round.

You may also notice that I dropped the score for D from 174 to 144 in Round 2. That’s the first of my enhancements to the game. I think it would be a better game if

- No player can win a round by more than 50 points.

It’s a pretty simple thing to do, trebling scores for the winner of a round to be no more than 50 above the second place finisher. In fact, it happens pretty rarely, but when it does, it pretty much kills the game. So let’s call that Major Improvement #1.

And Major Improvement #2 belongs to newbie J in this game. What if we still kept Major Improvement #1 but then doubled all final round scores? That would put more on the line for the final frame.

In our case, you can follow the ascending lines to see our total scores (the scale for total score is on the right side of the graph, individual game score is on the left Y-axis). You can see that I held a lead after four rounds and that using the regular rules (no doubling), my score (follow the dashed line) ended up at 524, winning by 28 points. But if you double the final round and follow the steeply increasing graph, you see that R slipped past me by a score of 656-654 (J was still last, with 528).

I think that these two Major Improvements should be incorporated with any future plays of this game.

So, it’s a great game that has been repackaged to include categories that make an old classic even better. And by incorporating the two suggestions above, I think it can be an uber-classic, or something like that. As they say on eBay, “A+++++”.

The curmudgeon has spoken, so be the word.

Edit note: way up above where it says "girls names less than 6 letters," I used to have a less-than sign. That terminated the entire review, rendering it pretty silly. I changed it to "less than" and now you can read it in all its glory.
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John Hilla
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Great review, Randy, thanks! I grew up with this game and am still very fond of it ... It feels like your review trails off a bit at the end, though. I missed a sort of summary paragraph, possibly? But I'd love to hear what you ultimately think of the University Games edition in particular ... I still have my old Avalon Hill copy of the game but could be interested in picking up the updated version. Do you yourself feel that the new edition as been "dumbed down" or not? Thanks!
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Randy Cox
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I'll have to go back and check the review. That's what I get for writing it over three days during meeting breaks. :) Edit: I found the problem and it's a bug in BGG. You can't use a "less than" sign. That terminated the review many paragraphs too soon. It is now corrected.

I would suggest purchasing the new edition. I like the newer categories a ton more than the old ones. I particularly disliked the "spelling of foreign words" type categories and anything that said "Of ________ descent." The new set doesn't include any whammy categories. There is always a pretty simple option on every card and the rest are only moderately difficult.

Without a doubt, I'd go with the new version over the old.
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John Hilla
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Wow, that fix made quite the difference, Randy! Nice work! I am going to pick up the University edition & try your suggested improvements ...
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myles
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If you can get an older copy, I'd go for the 3M. It has a better quality case and letter tiles, but plays the same as AH.

Regarding the UG version, it does sound like it's been watered down for dumb masses. Even said, I'd probably just as well like the new version, making it a more accessible party game, than a scholarly game.
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Randy Cox
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Great_Mazinga wrote:
If you can get an older copy, I'd go for the 3M. It has a better quality case and letter tiles, but plays the same as AH.
I'll have to check mine tonight. I've got a couple of 3Ms, about six AHs, plus the new one and now that I think of it, I may have never really looked at the 3M copies very much. If the tiles are different, I probably would have noticed. :)

However, the new letter distribution is radically different and, arguably, better than the 3M/AH editions. So that's another reason to buy the UG version.
 
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Mike Jones
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Randy Cox wrote:
Disclaimer: I didn't think I had to say this, but my reviews are my opinions. While they are intended to be useful to the reader they are not intended to be unbiased, objective discussions of the game. You can get that elsewhere. My reviews reflect my opinion of the game's merits. This is part of the IWTRTMTWWW (I Write the Reviews That Make the Whole World Whine) series, as are all my reviews.


IMO, the best reviews are about stating an 'opinion', even if I don't agree with the writer I want to know how the game makes them 'feel'.

Thanks!
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Randy Cox
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Mike, I'm surprised you looked at this one. Didn't I read somewhere that you said you didn't like long reviews? :) Anyway, there wasn't much controversial in this one, but I've included that disclaimer ever since my infamous Blue Moon City review.
 
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Mike Jones
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Randy Cox wrote:
Mike, I'm surprised you looked at this one. Didn't I read somewhere that you said you didn't like long reviews? Anyway, there wasn't much controversial in this one, but I've included that disclaimer ever since my infamous Blue Moon City review.


I don't like reading long reviews. But, you let me know right off the bat that you actually had an opinion, so I skipped down to read your opinion on it.
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katk katk
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Would you mind posting the two different letter distributions? I just got the vintage game and the letters are largely missing. I'll reconstruct them with scrabble tiles. Thanks!
 
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Randy Cox
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Well, without digging out the games, I looked at images here on BGG (such a great resource) and here are shots showing the one-per distribution of the 3M/AH edition and then the updated edition's distribution:

 
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katk katk
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Thanks for pulling the photos out for me. I'm new here (of course) and only saw the partial tile shots above, so thanks for making these photos much more obvious! BGG is a great resource, and I'm glad I found it. Thanks again!
 
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