Before Facebook, “social game” had a completely different meaning. Social gaming used to mean in-person experiences in which the people playing were at least as important as the rules of the game. Apples to Apples is one of those games that is a riot to play around a table with friends, with lobbying, jokes and good times abounding. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t fare as well as a video game unless you’ve got people in the same room, which almost defeats the purpose.
For those that haven’t played, Apples to Apples is a card game for three or more players. There are two decks, the green deck of words with definitions and the red deck, which is loaded with phrases from pop culture, history, science and more, each with a funny or witty bit of flavor text. On any given turn, one player is the judge, drawing a card from the top of the green deck. The other players must pick a red card from their hands that complements the definition on the judge’s card.
Depending on the people in playing, this could be played straight, with the judge choosing strictly based on fit or humorously, with the judge picking the word that he/she personally finds amusingly connected. Often, it’s a mix, but there is always a lot of conversation. It’s rarely a secret who played which word, making it a game about persuasion and relationships as much is at is about related words. Judging passes to the next player in line when playing the classic version.
The multiplayer aspect of Apples to Apples on XBox Live is the same, though there are six standard variants and a custom game option. The variants are Classic (as I described above), Baked (the winner becomes the next judge), Crab (focused on dissimilarity rather than similarity) and each of those with unlockable Golden Apple cards mixed in. Golden Apple cards can let you steal a point from another player, exchange hands, cause someone to miss the next turn and more.
The single player game is completely different. It took me less than an hour to fly through the 12 levels. In each, an apple with a distinct personality will be the “judge.” You’ll be presented with three red cards and need to choose the one that fits the judge’s attitude. These could be cards pertaining to space, sports or puns. You choose by finding a five-letter word in a grid. Get it right and you receive a time bonus. Get it wrong and you’ll be penalized a large amount of time. Later on, the cards are missing words, adding a level of complexity that was rarely hard to grasp, with the exception of a couple of levels in which the personality wasn’t well defined.
Playing multiplayer online wasn’t terribly enjoyable. My repeated efforts to start up a game with one of the standard variants met with failure as there are very few people playing. My best hope was choosing the Quick Match option, but even then, I ended up having to leave and come back later to find new people to play with. No one was talking on the headset, even though I made clear that I was. This took a lot away from the Apples to Apples experience.
If you have people playing in the same, room, though, you can recreate the card game atmosphere pretty easily. This is the only reason I can recommend purchasing the game. If you don’t have people on hand to play with (or a dedicated group planning on purchasing the game for play online), it’s simply not worth purchasing.
The online also has some serious glitch issues that popped up repeatedly. Often, at the start of a game or in the first round, judging would pass mid-turn or time would run out and begin counting into the negatives. The only way to fix this was to quit back to the menu and try again to find a group to play with. The visuals and audio are cartoony and retain the look of the card game. They are amusing, but nothing special.
As a board game enthusiast, I love to see digital representations of my favorite tabletop experiences. Unfortunately, simply bringing a game like Apples to Apples, which is as much about the people as it is about the rules, doesn’t work except in the most rare of circumstances. The single player is an interesting concept, but too short to make much of an impression. Playing with random people online didn’t provide a satisfying experience, when I did manage to get into a game. Unless you have people to play with, let this one pass you by.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher.