The Ungame

I recently heard about this interesting ‘game’ (if you want to call it that), The Ungame. The original is from 1975 and seems to be a product of the New Games Movement philosophy: the game is about asking and answering questions and making comments on whatever is written on a card. The Ungame is a boardgame with no winning condition though it does have a rule that states you play the game for an arbitrary amount of time, so there is an ‘end state’.

Board Game Geek hasn’t thought too highly of it and user reviews state that the obvious – that the game feels forced when played with people who don’t know each other. As a result of the game’s structure, it seems to work best as a game played among close friends or a therapy tool.

An interesting note is that while the game has a start space, it has no end space – it makes me wonder if a start space is really necessary as the relationships between the pieces don’t matter. If there is no ‘goal’ other than to ask questions, this seems eerily similar to Salen and Zimmerman’s sample ‘horrible game’ The Grid (Rules of Play, 156) where players just moved pieces around a board without affecting each other. The difference is that The Ungame (a) has a set of random questions to ask at the end of most turns and thus something interesting to do and (b) has a set time limit determined by a timer. In this regard, reminds me of the latest design of The Game of Life, which also lacks an end space. Further, not every space has a question or comment box – this means some players may go for several turns without being asked a question. Perhaps there’s a reason to this that can be uncovered through play testing.

While the game appears to have a compelling ‘play mechanic’ of asking and answering tough or interesting questions, the choice of a game board seems odd. Perhaps the board produces a ‘magic circle’ that allows players to position themselves around a central space more directly than would a deck of cards. But at the same time, some elements of the game board seem unnecessary considering how none of the pieces affect each other in any way (thus why do we need a start space?).

As an object for game study, The Ungame seems interesting to test against Salen and Zimmerman’s game definition. Without actually playing the game I can’t say a whole lot more about it, though it certainly seems to have been successful in social and therapeutic applications. I suspect there’s a reason for the board game design, but I can’t help but wonder if it couldn’t be done better or if it’s even necessary.

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One Response to “The Ungame”

  1. johnwharris Says:

    Interesting you should bring this up, I’ve got a bunch of Ungame cards in a box somewhere.

    They also released an explicitly Christian edition of the Ungame some time back. Some heavily-Christian family friends had a copy, unsure I ever saw ’em play it though.

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