“I find it disconcerting that now, when I check my texts, I have a list of people who are dead. Thanks a lot Food Chain.”
Round 1: Ref
Round 2: Mouse, *WINNER*
Food Chain is a game I saw online in February and since then I have been thinking about it near-obsessively and dreaming about it. And so I planned to play it for my birthday and the plan went great. It's a game for 13 people and requires 5 refs. There were 26 RSVPs and 23 attended, so that's a great batting average for a weekend in December. We played 1 practice round of the game and 2 full games. A game is 4 rounds and lasts about 45 minutes, including 5-minute strategy phases in between rounds.
The game comes from The Genius, that Korean game show I love. In Season 2 Episode 1, the contestants played this game the first time they met one another. Many of the people playing at my party were meeting for the first time. Only I had a pre-existing relationship with all of them, plus I had another unfair advantage which is that it's my birthday so killing me is an unbecoming move.
When 18 people were present, we designated 5 refs and began the presentation in the living room. The interactions between 13 predator and prey animals make up the game Food Chain. Higher-level animals can kill and eat lower-level ones. Each animal has a win condition: “Survive to the end” might be a win condition, but another animal's condition might be that a different animal wins (e.g., the Mouse wins the game if the Lion is still alive at the end of the 4th round, AKA mouse wins if lion wins, even if mouse is dead/has been eaten).
The 13 players draw lots in secret for an animal identity. Once everyone knows who she is, each player gets to peek at 1 other player. It is a game of secret and partial information, of deduction as well as bluffing.
The game is played in 4 rounds and also in 4 designated zones areas; we used different locales inside and outside my house. The 4 habitats are the River, the Sky, the Forest, and the Field. Each animal has a home habitat; if you spend 1 round away from your home habitat - any round - you must spend the next round in your home habitat. Only birds can go to the sky. This is pretty much the end of the rules.
Beyond that, the complexity of the game is getting familiar with the different animals, their win conditions, and their special abilities, as well as their rank. The lion is at the top and can eat any other player, but must eat every round or he starves. Below the lion is the crocodile, and next down the pyramid is the eagle who can go to the sky, and the hyena who wins if the lion dies and can go 2 rounds without eating.
Any of those 4 predators can successfully attack any of the 9 prey animals, with some exceptions. For instance there is a snake who can never die: any animal who attacks the snake will die. There is also a chameleon, who can disguise himself as another animal if someone should peek at him, and the crow, who makes a wager before the game begins (names an animal that will meet its win condition) and wins if the guess is right.
During a round, any animal can attack another animal in the same room. Attacks are carried out by placing a pink Post-It on the player you wish to attack. The ref then consults a clipboard and announces: either the attacked player is dead, or nothing happens, or the attacking player is dead in the case of the snake. In all instances, everyone in the room has just gained some information, although one of them will likely be dead. Dead players gather in the dining room and snack. I had prepared no food for this party and Laurel did an unbelievable job finding things in the fridge, the freezer, and the pantry to prepare and plate and all of it got gobbled up immediately.
Explaining the rules, giving out roles, and beginning the practice round took about an hour to an hour and a half. Then the game began in earnest about 2 hours after the initially advertised start time. Greg was head ref, accompanied by my mom Risa; Mike Boothby, Survivor challenge designer and illustrator; Dash, my cousin and Wise Guys game runner; and Elissa Grossman, puzzle hunter and doyenne of the LA Crossword Puzzle tournament.
Since we were all learning how to produce the game in addition to learning how to play it, there were several improvements over how to deal with the lengthy and cumbersome process of having each player learn his identity in secret and then guess 1-2 other players. The best method that we arrived at was to have the refs assign each player an animal randomly, and then each ref had a complete list of who was what. Then the refs spread out and the players could go to any ref to learn their identity. After that, the refs conferred briefly to learn what animal the chameleon was disguised as, and then the players fanned out one more time to perform their peek with any ref. This cut the process down to only about 10 minutes.
I was the crocodile bird in the first game (not counting the practice round, in which I was a mallard). As the crocodile bird, AKA the Egyptian plover, I win if the crocodile wins. It's a relationship like the mouse and the lion; as such a weak animal I get compensated with a bonus peek, and I happened to luckily guess the crocodile (whom I need to support to win) and the lion (alpha predator) and on top of that I can go to the sky which is a pretty good place to go except for the darn eagle. “Good job,” said Greg, head ref.
Unfortunately the crocodile got eaten by the lion in the first 5 seconds of the game due to an unlucky choice of them both going to the River. Which meant that I could no longer win but I made it my sub-goal to live to the end which I did, largely by hiding out in the sky. While there I offered a little help to my Dad, the Crow. Dad had guessed that the Lion would win, which was sensible, and since I knew the identity of the lion, I shared it with him. No reason not to. He’s my dad after all.
After the game ended, we gathered in the living room and told some stories about what had happened and determined the winners: Lion, Mouse, Rabbit, Crow. Then some of the refs changed: Greg became a player and Chris became head ref. Mike remained a ref, Dash became a player, and my parents played less structured games with my son who woke up from his nap, which meant that my wife Laurel could play the second game.
Funny thing about couples: of the dating and married couples who attended, MOST chose to use their peek to peek at one another. One example was Billy AKA Billy the Red, a stouthearted Play Folk regular and Anna who has also attended our games in the past. Anna peeked at Billy, saying “I wanted to play with Billy, but I had to know I could trust him.” By contrast, I used my peeks to look at the players whom I considered dangerous, and teamed up with others both before and after I knew what their animals were. I had a pre-game deal with Willa – Play Folk co-founder - to play nice together, but once we found that she and I were prey and Greg – my business partner - was the Eagle, we cut him out of our alliance.
Shortly before the first round began I pulled Laurel aside and asked her to tell me her role. Her eyes narrowed. “You think I’m going to tell you just because I’m your wife? Okay. I’m the Snake but don’t tell anyone.” I was good to my word: I even lied to Willa, telling her that Laurel was the Crow, a relatively harmless lie, especially because Willa wasn’t likely to attack anyone. She was the Rabbit, which is kind of great because Willa is obsessed with Rabbits and was taking photos during the first game with our son’s toy rabbit, inserting him into the activities.
My son slept through all this. A three-plus hour nap, he took. That boy can sleep like anything.
That doesn’t include the bell, which we rang for the second game. My grandfather was on an air craft carrier in WWII. This is the bell that rang on the ship to tell the GIs food was served, and when the ship was decommissioned at the end of the war my grandfather took the bell home and affixed it in the kitchen of his home at 8311 Buckingham Drive where it was used to signify dinner was served. It was much too loud for a house, and when he died my parents were happy to get rid of it and then disappointed when I collected it. It hangs on my pool deck – the River – and Chris the head ref rang it to signal the beginning of each round. All the refs did a great job and Chris and Greg was especially capable in the head ref position. Though neither survived the time they played the game, only Chris was a dead ringer.
In the second game I was the otter, which is a harder character to win with. Your best bet is to huddle with the 3 other weakest prey animals (Rabbit, Deer, and Mallard) because if all the surviving members of this quartet are in the same habitat, they are invincible: any attack against them will fail, even from the lion. This is a very tricky rule and one I'd had plenty of advanced time to learn and understand.
So it was great that I had a pre-game alliance with the Rabbit, but we spent our first round in the Forest with the Mouse and the Lion… ulp. The Lion graciously ate the Rabbit instead of me, so Willa’s game was exceedingly short which was probably disappointing. Maclen attended Play Folk but did not participate in the game, so his perfect attendance is intact but with an asterisk. The Lion did not eat me, out of courtesy for my birthday and with the hope of eating me in a future round. So that actually made my chances better because now I only have to make a deal with the Deer and the Mallard but the problem is the Eagle (Greg!) also died in the first round so the Mallard figured she'd live out the whole game by just going to the sky the remaining 3 rounds. I really couldn't argue with her reasoning, but it screwed my game.
In this game, Trip was the Chameleon and he was masquerading as the Snake, but I was one of the few people who knew the true identity of the snake. So, hoping to increase my own chances of surviving, I told the Crocodile (Jackie Riddle, the Lion’s wife) to go attack Trip since he wasn’t really the snake. This kept the Crocodile away from the river, where I had to go: the River is the Otter’s home habitat and I’d spent round 1 in the Forest.
That all went according to plan. Then I tipped off the Lion that the Crocodile was going to have to return to the River in Round 3 so he could eat her. This was smart. What wasn’t smart was that I survived Round 2 in the Field so I had to go to the River in this round also. And while the Lion (Doug, Jackie’s husband) had given me a pass in Round 1, this time I wasn’t so lucky. Specifically, Laurel influenced the outcome: the Snake is invulnerable so its win condition is pretty difficult. If 9 players or more are dead, the Snake wins. So Laurel made a case to the Lion advoctating for maximum carnage and when a guy like Doug draws a role like the Lion he doesn’t need much convincing. (Billy, the first round Lion, is also a formidable game player. I wonder how the game would have been if less witty players had been the Lion. It’s a powerful role but very susceptible to starving: if even 1 round passes and the Lion doesn’t eat, he dies.) So Doug ate Jackie (much to her chagrin), then Dash (the Egyptian Plover), and then me! Can you imagine? What a glutton.
What this game ends up doing, through great contrivance, is what parties do naturally: they cause sub-sets of the guests, more or less randomly, to gather with each other at various parts of the house and make conversation. Sometimes there is tension, as when Trip and Laurel were the only two people in the Field in Round 1, eyeing each other suspiciously, each wondering if the other thought them to be the Snake.
Since we’d made the rule that there was no physically evading an attack, the pink Post-Its were largely a formality but they gave a sense of razzle-dazzle to the game. For instance, in the round when I died, Doug was leaning lazily against the outside of the house and as soon as the bell rang to signal the beginning of the round, he leapt into action and stuck a sticky note on his wife Jackie, the Crocodile. We didn’t even know he had a Post-It on him! And then after he ate Dash, I didn’t even see it coming: I turned my head and then suddenly THWAP! He stuck a Post-It on me. The nerve!
Another great scenario was one round in the Field when Billy (Lion) was poised, holding a Post-It one inch from the body of Dave (Hyena) who was holding a Post-It up to Bruce (Crow) who was also holding a Post-It up to Dave, because he wanted the Lion to win. The ref had them rock-paper-scissors for who got to attack first. Quite fair.
In the end, two players, Marc and Anna, won both games, which is really impressive. They were prey in both games: Marc won as the Mouse (assisting the Lion) and the Deer. Anna won as the Deer and the Mallard.
This game was so popular I think we will have to run it again. I hope you’ll be there.