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#4 — MARCH 6th, 2013

THIS WEEK: Stop looking, start seeing.




A sleeper hit that's become a classic, Set is a must-play game. It's all-ages, ultra-portable, and can be enjoyed by 1 or 100 players at a time. More importantly, its novel pattern matching mechanic exercises parts of the brain left dormant by my most games. Despite its popularity in “gifted child” programs across the country (it’s won the Mensa award, and I first heard about it from my precocious kid sister, now a Mathematics PhD), it’s not an analytical game at all. Instead, it requires a way of seeing that gives most visual artists a natural edge.

Set was invented in 1974 by a geneticist, Marsha Jean Falco. She had come up with a system of colorful symbols to keep track of gene combinations and heredity in a population of German shepherds she was studying. Her coworkers became fascinated by the speed and complexity of her work in the new notation, and she was inspired to turn it into a game. However, it was only after 16 years (!) of play by the Falco children that she was persuaded to take their family game public.

Left: Set today. Right: the first prototype Falco brought home from the lab.

The mechanic takes a few plays to internalize, but is actually quite simple. 12 cards are placed on the table. The cards each have four attributes: color, number, shape and texture. There are no turns; a player can spot a set and pick it up at any time. Sets are any 3 cards in which each attribute is all alike or all different (examples on the game page). To really get the hang of it, you learn to stop looking for matches; it's a strange feeling, but if you disconnect your analytical mind a bit, sets begin to jump out at you. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into our brains, and there's a joy in letting that innate skill come to the fore.

The only bummer in Set is that sometimes there are no patterns to see; it's possible for the cards on the table to contain zero sets. This can lead to a few awkward silences as the group stares into space. Perhaps inspired by this frustration, Blink arrived to liven things up.

Blink is Set with less friction and more tension. Matches are easier, but you'll need to be quick on the draw.

While clearly inspired by the same mechanic, Blink has a fluid, kinetic feel that Set lacks. Rather than taking sets of 3 from a large pool, players discard from their hand into one of 2 shared piles. It's a 2-player game, and when you and your opponent get up to speed, you start slamming cards down almost as quickly as you can draw them. Blink bills itself as “the world’s fastest game” and that may well be the case— a round is generally over within 2 minutes.

Designers Falco and Staupe have created two very different experiences from the same basic idea. Both games require disconnecting your rational brain and engaging your natural pattern recognition abilities. Set still rules for large groups and provides a tougher challenge, but the pick-up battle of visual cortexes found in Blink is well worth trying.


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Made with love in San Francisco, California.