Critical Play (Getting Vulnerable): We’re Not Really Strangers

Inspired by our in-class playtest of this card game as well as Daniel Cook’s “Game Design Patterns to Build Friendships,” I sought to replay and analyze it further with concepts we learned from the readings. Through 3 crafted levels of questions and wildcards, “We’re Not Really Strangers” encourages and facilitates meaningful conversations, starting from Level 1 (Perception) which challenges surface-level assumptions, Level 2 (Connection) which delves deeper into rarely asked personal questions, and Level 3 (Reflection) which looks back on the information and intimacy gained over the prior 2 levels and synthesizes insights.

Formal Elements

Players: This game is optimally designed for 2 players, but can be played in a group of 3-6 players, with smaller groups preferred for greater intimacy.

Objectives: The core objective is to deepen your existing relationships (or create new ones) by answering questions authentically and encouraging other players to do the same.

Outcomes: Do you really know your best friend, partner, or family member? After playing this game, you will learn more about them, and hopefully with many more friendly feelings and memories shared between you all!

Resources: The printed version includes 3 decks of cards (corresponding to Levels 1, 2, and 3) of approximately 40 cards each, and you can purchase additional expansion sets for specific topics such as “Honest Dating.”

Rules: For 2 players, at each level Player A draws a card, and then player B answers. Alternate back and forth until at least 15 cards have been played for each level, after which you can advance to the next level. At the end of all 3 levels, write a note for the other player and exchange notes, to be opened only once you have parted.

Procedure: This game takes place across 3 sequential Levels from surface-level Perception, deeper Connection, and synthesized Reflection, with the intent to foster deeper intimacy and openness as the game proceeds.

Boundaries: The questions are limited to those in the card deck, which were purposely written to pare down ambiguous language and focus on the core task at hand: asking and answering thought-provoking questions. Though not explicitly written, players also have the option to not answer questions that they do not want to discuss, and to leave at any time.

Fun and Feelings

This game excels as a medium for structured intimate discussion, with the “fun” in building Fellowship (usually between 2 players, but can be extended to a group of up to 6 players) along with the Discovery of self and the other players! This game does expect a certain level of goodwill, in that players are encouraged to answer openly with each other, be honest if they cannot answer a question, and support the other players if sensitive topics arise. Beyond a simple icebreaker, by asking provocative questions such as “Do you think I fall in love easily?” or “Make an assumption about me,” the game prompts players to reflect on how they perceive the other players, and to answer the question in a way that still honors their existing relationship (or if played with strangers, to honor the possibility of a relationship). Level 1 thus establishes a baseline level of commitment, since players will only continue the game to the deeper levels if it is proven that other players will answer thoughtfully and take this game seriously. Likewise, because this level is about challenging a player’s perception of another player (not the actual truth of a person’s life history), players are only risking surface-level assumptions and not more sensitive truths. 

This is important because in Level 2, the questions are turned inwards, such as “Are you lying to yourself about anything?” More guarded players would be unlikely to answer such a revealing question if it were the first one in the entire game, but as Level 1 had engendered baseline trust, answering this question now feels more approachable and facilitates even deeper intimacy.

Lastly, Level 3 strives to synthesize all the insights and new information gained among players from the prior two rounds. Questions such as “What do you think is one thing I could do that would drastically improve my life?” have the underlying expectation that the other players’ advice is worthwhile, and that the other players’ have your best interest at heart — after all, they have just played this game with you and revealed parts of themselves as well! Likewise, the question “What do you think are our most important similarities?” emphasizes the shared qualities between players and engenders positive feelings, as humans like other humans who are similar to them. The question also asks the player to reflect on what was learned over the game, and what can be woven in with prior memories together.

This game gradually builds trust among players from the themed Levels instead of assuming deep intimacy from the beginning, and places the weight of selecting thought-provoking questions onto the cards instead of each other. We’re Not Really Strangers then takes on some of the mental burden of guiding an intimate discussion between players, and reduces the potential ambiguities of language (from flawed, off-the-cuff questions) and deflection (the cards explicitly have the question written on them, and the back-and-forth turn-based nature of the game ensures relatively equal participation). Overall, this results in a game that is not focused on bluffing, judging, or persuading, but on raw emotional honesty with each other, and creating and establishing trust that can be carried forth outside of the game context.

Growing Points

Thought it is a worthwhile experience to play this once or after months apart from a partner or a group of friends, the relatively limited starter card deck does trend towards sparseness if a Level is going on for a long time, or if the game is played too frequently and players remember their responses to prior iterations of the game. One way that this game has sought to address this issue is by including wildcards and expansion packs as add-ons, or by encouraging players to create their own cards. However, I also wonder if another improvement is having additional different types of Levels that also encourages other Fellowship-building actions tied to strengthening the existing relationships after the game, such as questions like “What do you hope that we could do together in the future?” or “What’s something that we can learn together?” “The Future Together” could be an additional optional Level beyond the Final Card note (which does leave a physical memento, but not necessarily future plans). Perhaps this already exists as an expansion pack!

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