This is your brain: 'Wooden stairs.' 'Wooden? No.' 'Stairs? Yes, yes!' 'Wooden.. stairs...?' 'Yes, yes!'
This is your brain on Blabel: 'Dilonak ashla.' 'Vacatto? Gal.' 'Ashlah? Chin, chin! 'Dilonne... Ashlah.. ?' 'Kek, kek!'
In Blabel, a cooperative communication game designed by Tomas Tarragon and published by T-Tower Games, the 3-9 players are builders from the city of Babel, trying to construct the infamous tower to the heavens, cursed to speak in different languages. Well, not so different as you might initially think...
Each game starts by picking a dictionary from four sets of Material, Component and Word cards. These are arranged to form a book for each player in which the Materials and Components are given translations which may be similar to those of one other player; the more players you have, the greater the chance of commonality. On each Word card there is also a translation for Yes and No, but as these can be paired with nodding and shaking your head, this adds flavour more than it does confusion.
To complete the tower in the basic game, six tower Components must be built in the correct Material, which the round's Architect asks for and, after 'discussion' between the players, selects the one in whom they have the most confidence. That player indicates which Material and Component they plan to build and, if it's the correct combination, that's one success for the team. Get that right another five times before the ten days run out and the game is won.
I've taught a lot of games in my time and Blabel is one of the trickiest to get across; the puzzled looks on people's faces when the first Architect says, 'Izvetan Haruliat' is a sight to see, as is the dawning realisation over a couple of rounds, that this gibberish is, in some way, interpretable. That moment of delight is almost worth the admission price; but, then, when that switch is flipped, the game can go from incomprehensible to fluent in a flash, particularly at the higher player counts where the chances of a player having a 'matching' dictionary entry is higher. Conversely, at the lower player counts, there might be a lot of 'Nuf, nuf'ing before the game peters out in failure, which strongly suggests a sweet spot somewhere in between.
There is an option to add the Lookout role to take things to the next level in the advanced game. This mode adds a Catastrophe on turns 4, 7, 9 and 10 which can destroy sections of the tower; with the group having the choice to build a solid tower or a spindly one, the latter giving the advantage of more foresight but making it less resilient. Using a previous word or cards to clue in the other players, the Lookout hopes the majority can foresee the Catastrophe to reduce damage. By the end of the game if the tower is at least three floors high, the team wins.
Blabel is, in my quite wide-ranging experience, a unique game. I don't think it is ever likely to be a gamer's game and initial difficulties might make it a struggle to teach as a family game, but as a social experience - and, particularly, a lubricated one - it does paint itself into a quirky corner all its own. The variability in dictionary set ups should give it replayability and the option of the advanced game is there to muddy things up if the waters run too clear. To be honest, you really should try it out, if only for the opportunity to say 'Endagurt Shambarten' which, I'm fairly sure, is a phrase you were not expecting to read when you woke up this morning.
(Review by David Fox)