You’re at the club. As you bask in the ethereal glow of the disco ball, you take notice of her lovely face, her polyester jumpsuit (she must be a fan of the Bee Gees too!), and, most importantly, her cell phone which desperately needs your number. Eyes closed, you reach out a tentative hand out to tap her shoulder. Instead of your disco diva, you find a hulking, gothic, metal-loving man. I mean, he’s no Farrah Fawcett, but he’s not so bad- and, he too, has a cell phone that could use some sexy digits. Do you take the risk and let it blossom into something beautiful? Or do you, once again, leave the club alone?
These are the choices you face in The Club, by designer Jussi Autio. You, and up to three of your friends, play bartenders at the local discotheque. Like any good barkeep, your career satisfaction comes from making a memorable Old Fashioned and, of course, helping your patrons get some. And by some, I mean sex.
Your patrons are tiles, pulled from a drawstring bag at the beginning of every turn. Each patron has four outward characteristics (size, gender, favorite type of music, and level of sobriety) and a hidden secret. These hidden secrets are located on the back of the tile, meaning that only the bartender who drew the tile originally can know what truly lies beneath. This can range from still living with your mother, to being a single parent, to even being a rock-star.
As new patrons are added to the “dance floor,” earlier entrants are moved closer to the middle of the board where, under the seductive influence of the strobe lights, they can be paired up and scored for points. You can receive up to five points for all of the physical characteristics that match. Scoring is completed when the tiles are flipped, revealing the hidden qualities of each dancer. This is where The Club really shines. Comparing the “inner beauty” of these characters provides the game with a storytelling mechanism designed to illicit laughs and fond, if crude, memories with your friends. If two religious folks find each other, mazel tov! You just scored 7 points! Did you pair a customer who happens to have a beautiful roommate with someone who has, and I quote, “a big personality”? You just made three people’s night. But pair up a single parent with a married person and you can say hello to a negative score.
Tuonela Productions, the Finnish game company that originally distributed this quirky little gem, has a tendency to go beyond the cutthroat competition of railroad line building (we board game geeks do love our trains) and dungeon delving. Instead, their efforts tend to focus on small, relationship based ideas that end up being better in theory than in practice. The Club is the first Tuonela game I’ve played that I believe has delivered a successful game about relationships. The strange, perhaps embarrassing, moments found within are what make us human- a quality not often explored in the cardboard world. For someone like me, socially anxious and having chosen to invest my money in games instead of alcohol-fueled nights on the town, I was finally able to truly understand the appeal of the elusive “night out.”
While board gaming, at its core, is about solving puzzles, The Club is unequaled in how it tackles the puzzling relationships of our society. I can hear the dissidents shouting from here. “What about bluffing games,” they cry. “What about grand scale civilization games like Clash of Cultures or…. Civilization?” Yes, these games do address “society,” but in a very removed, legacy-building sort of way. The Club tackles the social issues that matter on a personal scale. Disease in the game is not The Plague or another antiquated ailment that game designers usually add to their worlds because they’re non-threatening and outside the realm of political debate. Instead, it is venereal disease, depicted by the red ribbon of HIV/AIDS awareness. As such, you can easily see the disastrous effects a selfish one-night stand can have in an easily quantifiable score. Perhaps most controversially, this scoring mechanic depicts the harsh reality facing the LGBT community. No matter how perfectly matched a homosexual or bisexual couple may be, they will still never be “worth” as many points as a straight pairing. This seemingly bigoted design choice is what changes this game from a light-hearted romp to a poignant and honest commentary. In a community known for its inclusiveness, this theme has yet to be tackled before or after The Club in as blunt of terms. I sincerely hope to see more of this discant among board games in the years to come.
This is a quick game that will satisfy the lovers of crude humor in your group, while still allowing your heavy strategy players to manipulate the board in astoundingly cruel ways. It plays in 30 minutes or less and fills the “social theory” hole in your game shelf for less than $15. Most attractively, its short rule book is well-written, an unexpected rarity in a design group that are meant as a “step up” from casual games. I was lucky enough to pick this game up for free as part of a Kickstarter stretch goal, and I would certainly recommend it at that price. However, due to the polarizing nature and sometimes unsettling suggestions made, I would see if a member of your game group owns it first, so that you can try before you buy. The artwork, too, makes you feel like you just saw your geriatric neighbors having sex through an open window; it is weird and awkward, but you’re intrigued all the same. However, the allure of playing Cupid on a Finnish Saturday night forgives even the most bizarre artistic choices. Not unlike the nice guy who shyly asks to buy you a drink, The Club deserves a chance.