Couple Up

19 July 2010 | 1 comment

The WonderLab was a three day exploration of what happens when performance meets play. As befits a lab, we did a lot of theorising, experimenting and inventing, and decided to use the medium of a card game to express the conclusions we’d drawn about the big issues facing designing these experiences. We didn’t want to produce just another document of vague polemic or unresolved theory, but rather make something concrete and specific, which we hoped would enable other people to respond in concrete and specific ways. Using a game in such a way was a very untested idea, which felt just like what a lab should be doing. It was conceived and produced in a single afternoon, and was launched on the public after only one very brief playtest. There’s lots that’s wrong with it – some things deliberately, some not – but I think we were all heartened by how well it performed.

So, for now, I’ll run through how the game works, and tomorrow I’ll talk through what the thinking was behind it. It will be interesting to see whether or not anyone picks up the threads from the ruleset alone.

Couple Up! It’s a game about finding your match and making the grade. Or, more brutally, it’s about finding a partner and getting a drink. Here’s how we played it:

You arrive into a large empty room, which is gradually filling with other guests. You can see another room beyond, full of drinks and nibbles and comfortable looking chairs, but access to this room is barred by a velvet rope and a maitre d’ in a snazzy bowtie.

It’s explained that the room beyond is the Upper Club. To gain access to its delights, you must persuade the maitre d’ to let you in. The maitre d’ however, is very picky. He won’t consider granting entrance to anyone who hasn’t found their perfect match. But how do you know if you have?

Easy. As the game begins, you’re given two cards. On the first is a number – something between 1 and 4. This is public and you can show it to anyone. On the second is your fortune. This is secret and you can’t show it to anyone – it’s so secret, you can’t even say out loud any of the words that are underlined on your card. To find your perfect match, you must first find someone with whom your number cards add up to 5. So if you have a card with a 4, you’re looking for someone with a 1. If you have a 2, you’re looking for a 3, and so on.

Then you have to discover if this person fulfils your fortune, and if you fulfill theirs. This is particularly tricky when you remember that you must keep your cards secret, and can’t say any of the underlined words (So if your fortune says ‘Your match is wearing blue underwear’ – forgive me for not knowing how to do underlines – then you need to find a way to ask the question without either of those words). Once you’ve found someone with the right number and a compatible fortune, and checked you match their fortune, then you may approach the maitre d’. He will check your number cards add up, and ask you each to pledge that you fulfill each other’s fortunes and then…

And then, something unpredictable happens. Some couples he lets in. Some he looks up and down and announces solemnly ‘There’s something not quite right about you’ and sends them back into the foyer. You soon realise that you won’t make it into the Upper Club until you figure out what the maitre d’ is being so fussy about, and he’s not giving you any clues.

As the players seperate into the two rooms, you scan them anxiously to try to see what makes them different from you. Some couples who failed the first time have succeeded the second. What did they change? Something they said? Something they did? Something they wore? Some new members have even filtered back into the foyer, sipping their wine and looking smug. You try asking them how they got in, but all they do is shake their heads and show you their Upper Club membership card, which simply says ‘Sorry, I’m taken’. It’s up to you to figure out what it takes to ascend.

And that’s it – the game ends when all the players have found their match and made the grade. Or, of course, when the maitre d’ takes pity on any remaining lost souls. It aroused some strong feelings and interesting debate when we ran it, and we’re looking forward to running it again in different ways, with different audiences, to explore those issues further.

You can download a gamerunners ruleset for Couple Up here, in case anyone wants to give it a whirl themselves. We’d love to hear feedback – although I can’t help but remind anyone who spots any of the obvious holes that this was a game made from scratch in an afternoon. It was designed to entertain, but also to embody and explore some of the biggest issues WonderLab participants felt were facing the gaming and performances spaces. Next post, I’ll run through them explicitly.

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