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Game Review: Black Stories

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“A stark naked man was found dead at the foot of a mountain – with a matchstick in his hand.” Why?

Most people have probably heard this riddle, which is of a variety known as lateral thinking puzzles, conceptual riddles, riddle stories, mystery stories, and any combination thereof. In this game from Kikigagne?, Holger Bösch presents the “tricky, morbid, macabre” subgenre of these mystery stories, with 50 riddles to beguile players about deadly situations.

Black Stories comes as a set of cards with a riddle on one side and the answer on the other. Each side also has fantastic grim illustrations in only black and red ink on white background, creating a mysterious and macabre mood even from glancing at them. Channeling a bit of Charles Addams, the cartoons seem innocent but are given bleak context that sends shivers up spines. For example, on the answer side of “The Naked Man” card, there is a red-and-white balloon with four men looking over the edge of the basket. While perhaps even cute on its own, reading the card shows that these men know that their lives are in danger. Other images show bottles of pills, handguns, ships at sea, or even a hand fiddling with a car radio.

The game is played with one player as the Riddle Master, who reads the riddle aloud. In the style of children’s game Twenty Questions, players ask “Yes” or “No” questions, gradually hunting out the answer. The rules suggest that the Riddle Master allow only yes/no questions but should explain any issues of false assumptions or potentially leading down the wrong track. These are only suggestions for “lenient Riddle Masters,” and Bösch writes that he would “rather pester [the Riddle Master] for hours on end than ask for a clue.” The longer the game, the sweeter the victory when the puzzle is solved.

Replayability is an issue with Black Stories. Once someone has heard the riddle, the answer comes out of memorization rather than puzzling through the possibilities, ruining the fun. While a player could recuse him or herself, this leaves a player out for the round for guessing enjoyment other than the dramatic irony of watching the guessers work their way to the solution. I had heard the naked man riddle years before (though it was a straw rather than a matchstick), which made for a two-second round in our playtesting. Once the whole pack has been used, it may as well be passed on to another friend-group.

A clever black story brings together a train of logic that shows how the tragedy unfolds. Other stories, however, could take hours to solve. Some points are oddly specific such as background from years before or involving characters who do not make an appearance in the riddle. A good guesser could find the solution, but it would take some creative thinking and many probing questions. The ability to ask questions makes the game more enjoyable than other riddle games where the players are left in the cold to determine some solution to “Thirty white horses on a red hill, First they champ, Then they stamp, Then they stand still” – which has nothing to do with horses and is annoying at best.

Black Stories is for two to fifteen players ages 14 years and up. For those who love riddles and guessing games, Black Stories is a must-have. There are few feelings sweeter than unraveling a mystery. However, it is certainly not a game for those who frustrate easily.

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About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.