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Black Stories Review – Mastery of the Macabre

Okay, so bear with me – this is a bit of an odd one.

First, let me tell you about how we came across Black Stories. Recently, myself and my partner had a couple of friends to stay. We don’t see them very often, they live around two hours north of us, and they are both studying to become academics.

Those friends know we are gamers – and they wanted to bring us something. One thing about being friends with gamers, they said, was that they never know what games to get us.

So, with that in mind, and with one of them being from Dresden in East Germany, they decided to get us a German game. That game has a phenomenal number of expansions in German. In English however, there is only one box, and that is the base game. That game is Black Stories.

On that note, dear reader, let me say something –

A dead man is lying in a sauna; next to him, a thermos flask.

And now, we are playing the game. Welcome to Black Stories.

What are Black Stories? How do they play?

Imagine 20 Questions kicked up a notch or two. Black Stories are a series of gamified lateral thinking problems designed by Holger Bösch and with artwork by Bernhard Skopnik. It is a deduction game, in which one player will have a card. That card will have a short paragraph on one side that they read to the group of players. That paragraph may be like the example above –

A dead man is lying in a sauna; next to him, a thermos flask.

On the back of the card is an explanation of what happened. It is up to the players to guess the particulars of the stories with just a few rules.

  1. The riddle reader can only answer yes/no questions.
  2. The riddle reader can point out if an assumption is made.

That’s more or less it. There is no limit to the number of questions you can ask. Instead, it is a game of patience and lateral thinking.

What this means is that Black Stories isn’t so much a game as a collective group puzzle. It can be described as an “after dinner” game, and allows for a relaxed atmosphere. It is a chilled game. The twist though? Almost all of them are dark in some way or other.

The BGG page boasts that the box contains:

50 black stories, 31 crimes, 49 corpses, 11 murders, 12 suicides and one deadly meal.

Points can be kept based on who guessed what, but it honestly isn’t needed.

Black Stories is a card game for 2+ players, and it can take however long you want. The English pack is contains 50 scenarios. You may want to do 3 to 6 at a time, meaning there is limited playability. It costs just under £10, making each puzzle about 20p.

How Do Black Stories Work?

Since Black Stories is about as loose a structure as gaming gets, I thought I would run through part of a potential scenario with you. Before we begin however, this isn’t an example from the box but rather from the app, and the reason for that is because it gives a feel for the experience without giving away any of the actual base game.

This means, and I’m sorry for this, you won’t find out the story behind the man in the sauna in this article. Instead, this one is called Brother’s Bond.

Donald and Jack died because they were too close together.

An Example of the Game

So, in the above, the players will ask yes/no questions about the story and situation. They might want to start by asking whether them being close is physical or metaphorical. They may want to ask if the brothers were together when they died. Alternatively, they may immediately start asking about how the brothers died. Were they murdered? Was it an accident?

The answers would be –

  • Yes, they were physically together.
  • No, they were not murdered.
  • Yes, it was an accident.

Once you have worked out if it was an accident you can ask about whether they were in a vehicle.

  • No, they weren’t in a vehicle.

Maybe something caused them to drown.

  • No. They didn’t drown.

Maybe something caused them to fall.

  • Yes, they fell.

Okay, now we are getting somewhere. Maybe they were pushed, only we know they weren’t because it was an accident. Maybe they fell off a building.

  • No. They did not fall of a building.

Okay. Maybe it was higher, maybe it was lower. Maybe it was a plane.

  • Yes, they fell out of a plane.

If they fell out of a plane – was the plane mechanically unsafe?

  • No.

In which case, if we know they weren’t pushed and it wasn’t the plane, they must have fallen off their own accord. Were they skydiving?

  • Yes, they were skydiving.

At that moment it clicks. They were too close together when skydiving so when they opened up their parachutes the ropes got tangled. The parachutes couldn’t open and they fell to their death.

  • Yes. That is the story.

At which point, the person giving the riddle (actually known in the Riddle Master in the rules, and those asking the question are the Riddle Folk – something which makes me chuckle every time) will read out the solution:

Donald and Jack were skydiving instructors. During one of their jumps, they flew too close together which caused their parachutes to tangle. As a result, they fell to the ground.

What is it like playing Black Stories?

So, now we come to that ol’ chestnut – and how we started this article. Black Stories is technically a game; however, it is a hard game to review. At time of writing, we have done around 30 of the 50 stories. One was guessed more or less instantly, one was guessed after around an hour of conversation, and the rest have taken between 10 and 25 minutes to complete. Each one is macabre, and each one has a dark twist.

Now, on one side of things it is possible to be relatively harsh about Black Stories. It isn’t really a competitive game, for starters, meaning it isn’t necessarily right for competitive gamers. It is ridiculously simple, and some of the stories are naff. The app isn’t as good as the printed game, in my opinion, and a couple of the printed ones haven’t been particularly fun. Finally, it is possible to look at the replayability and wonder about that. There are only 50 of the macabre Black Stories in the box (although there is an app for more). When you look at it that way, then yeah, it makes you wonder if the game is worth it.

THAT BEING SAID, and this is a big “that being said”, Black Stories has become something that most games can’t become. It is a game that has escaped the confines of the game.

Let me explain. Most games, you play them at the table and then you talk about the experience of playing them. You play Gloomhaven, you talk about Gloomhaven. That’s how it works, right?

With Black Stories, due to the format of the game, I’ve found myself in a weird scenario. First time we played it, we played it with 4 people. Then, myself and Beth played it just as the two of us. Then I went to work, talked about it with my friend, and we ended up playing it at work in general conversation. We then went to a colleague’s desk and introduced him to the concept. That evening I chatted to my Dad over WhatsApp, and we played it via WhatsApp, I then called him and we played it some more. After that, Beth and I played it again. Last night we went around my parent’s house and, without the box, played the game using just our memory of the cases.

We’ve now done the majority of the scenarios, but because they are so accessible and so interesting from a puzzle perspective, it’s fascinating to just play it with other people. Yes, I have only done a handful of them once from a guessing/questioning/Riddle Folk perspective – but I have done each one of them at least three times now from a Riddle Master perspective. It’s incredible.

So, is it a game? Well, probably not. Is is a way of gamifying different puzzles and lateral thinking tests? Absolutely.

Now, before I move on I do have to say that as a gamer, as a geek, and as someone who analyses board games for fun, a game like Black Stories  is just the kind of thing I enjoy. I love overthinking games and pulling apart puzzles; however, it is important to note that these can be frustrating. It works better with a group than one-on-one, and you have to really love mysteries to get the most out of Black Stories. That being said, if you can dive head first, love the puzzle for that short period of time, then it should be a treat.

So, yeah. Some players may not like it. It is fairly mixed, and some of the stories aren’t as strong as others; however, this is a game that can surpass being a game, and if you like that then it should be great fun.

Then, once you’ve finished the box, just pass it onto the next players to enjoy. Simple.

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Macabre

Despite not really being a game, we can pick apart the good, bad, and neutral points:

The Good:

  • Black Stories are fun lateral thinking puzzles.
  • Black Stories are a relaxed style of game. You can relax whilst trying to solve them.
  • Black Stories are as close to feeling like a detective that I have got playing a game, and that is with games like Deception and Chronicles of Crime.
  • The best thing, hands down, about Black Stories however is how the game can surpass being a game. We’ve had great fun in person, at work, and over the phone. It is a game that doesn’t need the components to be good because of the fact it is a thought concept.

The Neutral:

  • Black Stories isn’t really a game. It is more of a puzzle. This means there isn’t really a scoring structure.

The Bad:

  • There is some inconsistency in the quality of the stories. This results in the occasional story where people sit back afterwards and profess how daft it is.
  • There is no replayability as the Riddle Folk.
  • If you go in wanting a competitive anything then you are going to have a bad time.

Conclusion: Black Stories Review

Black Stories is an odd game to review – and that is because it isn’t really a game. Instead it is more an idea or concept, a puzzle that is playable and collectively enjoyed. Each puzzle can only be played once with the same group, but you know what – I would recommend it. It’s not too expensive, and if you look on it as 50 fire-and-forget mini-games then it’s not bad value for money. Since you don’t need the cards, you can pass it on afterwards and still enjoy the puzzles the game wrought.

So, yes, enjoyable.

There we have it – one long review for a game that is insanely simple. In fact, there are probably more words in this review than there are in the game. It is enjoyable though, and that is the conclusion.

So, what do you think? Do you enjoy the concept of Black Stories? Would you like to give them a go? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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