Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: FREEZE

For over a decade, I've enjoyed watching improvisational comedy both live and on television. There was a time, in fact, when I was so addicted that I requested my parents send me videotaped episodes of Who's Line is it, Anyway? from the U.S. I took notes on the different improv games and situations, and soon hosted improv parties with my friends and youth group in Berlin. There was, of course, the occasional over- or under-acting among the amateurs I assembled, but I was always astounded by the creativity and humor that almost always emerged from each skit. Rarely did anything fall completely flat, and we often laughed so much, we were literally gasping for air.

I have often thought about how one could turn one of these improv games into a successful party board game and can happily report that a new game – Freeze, released at the Spiel 2010 convention – has done just that. Fellow Berlin designer Andrea Meyer has teamed up with Hans-Peter Stoll – himself an improv actor in an amateur theater group – to create what will arguably be the game most likely to draw a crowd in Essen this year.

For my first play, I was able to borrow a demo copy of the game from the Spielwiese games café and tried it out for the first time with the gaming group I host at the community center where I work. We had a mixed group of three men, two young women and two teenage girls, all of whom enjoy playing a large variety of games.

Freeze includes ten plastic actor and actress badges for each participant to wear. Numbers are printed along the sides of the badges and paper clips are provided to keep track of a player's score by attaching it to the appropriate number. For a game in which the players are always moving about dramatically, this component works very well.

The game also includes a deck of cards, a sand timer, and a four-sided die. The rules to the game are laid out in a beautiful, full-color booklet in German, French and English, and the English translation is top notch – something uncommon for smaller German publishers.

To set up the game, a small table is needed, along with a larger area where the improv players can have room to move. A "stage" card is placed in the middle of the table, with an "audience" card (showing theater seating) placed below it. Four actor cards are placed above the stage card to show which players will form the first comedy troupe. The others are placed below the audience card, as they will watch the skit and one of them will try to guess the situation being acted.

A deck of situation cards is shuffled, and the top card is drawn and shown only to the actors. Each card has four different situations (for example: "in the castle" or "at the cash register") and the die is rolled to see which one on the card will be acted this time.

The final preparation is the distribution of "rank" cards, which are the heart of the game. The ranks range from 1 to 4, and each actor will receive one, keeping it secret from the audience AND from the other actors. After the skit, each player wins or loses points based on her ability to guess which actor has a chosen rank. The actors also gain or lose points depending on whether or not at least one other person guesses her rank.

When the sand timer is turned over, the skit begins, and the players must act out the scene while trying to play out his or her "rank" within that scene. For example, if the scene is a hospital, and you have the rank of 1, you will probably try to play the part of the head doctor. If you have the rank of 4, you might be a patient, while the other ranks could fill out the roles of assistants and nurses, etc. None of the actors are allowed to mention their ranks or the situation specifically during the skit, but they are otherwise allowed to speak and act as much as they like, even incorporating nearby objects as props.

This would all be a bit too easy, except that the designers included a nice mechanism to make it possible for two actors to have the same rank, in which case one of the ranks is completely missing! This is accomplished through the use of two sets of four rank cards each. One set is shuffled, after which a card is drawn from it without looking at it and added to the other set. Those five cards are then shuffled, and one is drawn and placed face-up, while the other four are distributed secretly to the four actors. This sounds a bit complicated in the rules, but is actually quite easy in practice, and makes the game much more interesting. The face-up rank card gives everyone a hint as to which rank will only be in the skit a maximum of one time – and possibly even be missing altogether.

After one minute of improv, the sand timer runs out, and the audience shouts "Freeze!" The audience member with the lowest score gets one guess at the situation. If correct, she wins 2 points, which is very helpful as a catch-up mechanism.

Then, the die is rolled again, and all players (actors and audience) simultaneously guess which actor – if any – had the rank shown on the die. Players hold both hands in the air, and on the count of 3, point to the actor or actors thought to have that rank. For example, if you thought only one actor had that rank, you point to that person with one hand and keep your other hand in the air. If you have the rank indicated, you point to yourself with one hand – and use the other to point to someone else if you think another actor had the same rank. Again, this seems a bit complicated when reading and explaining the rules, but after a round or two, all the players are completely comfortable with it.

Players receive 3 points for each correct guess and lose 1 point for each incorrect guess, thus it does not make sense to "play it safe" and just keep both hands in the air each time, as that neither wins nor loses points. An actor who has the rank indicated receives 3 points if at least one other player guesses her rank correctly, and loses 1 point if no one did (and, of course, that actor can still get points by correctly guessing which actor had the same rank, if that is the case).

Once all players have updated their scores using the paper clips on their badges, some of the cards from the stage are shifted to the audience, while some from the audience are moved up to the stage area to determine the next group of four actors. Freeze is for 5-10 players, and I have found in subsequent plays that it works fine with five, although the game naturally wants an audience of more than one person.

During the first round or two, the rank cards and the guessing/scoring system take a little more time as the players learn the game, but thereafter, they breeze through these elements quickly, and the improv acting takes center stage.

The acting aspect of the game is laugh-out-loud fun, as the situations are well-chosen, and even the most introverted gamer can find a humorous role to play that might fit his rank. But this game also has plenty of depth to explore, and as the mechanisms become more transparent, the actors noticeably improve in how they respond to the rank distribution and how they interact with each other onstage.

One of our first situations, for example, was a "Film Set," but none of the actors had the Rank 1 card. Consequently, no one took charge of the scene, playing the role as director. I had the rank 4 and tried to play the part of an "extra" off to the side, but the other actors mistook me for the director, and I had to quickly adjust, grabbing a house plant and taking a more lowly position on the set. The other actors were not sure what to do, however, and the skit was a bit of a flop.

We learned from this experience that the situations in which there is no Rank 1 are the most challenging to pull off, but by the end of the game, we all had gained the skills necessary to make even these scenes work. The ranking system is wonderful in requiring an awareness of the other actors, especially as the rank distribution is never fully known. And as the game progresses and the actors become more comfortable with the system and each other, the skits improve both in their clarity and hilarity.

The game ends after about a half-dozen rounds, when one player reaches 16 points. Even the more introverted strategy gamers in our group enjoyed the experience, and several have purchased copies of the game for themselves as well as extra copies to give friends and family as gifts.

For those who are looking for a party game with some creative and communicative depth to it, or even an interesting filler to get your game group moving about in between cube-pushing sessions, I can heartily recommend Freeze.

Game images courtesy Andrea Meyer and Bewitched Spiele.

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