Written by Scott Bogen of The Board Game Show podcast
Volaire once wrote, “Hamlet is a coarse and barbarous play. One might think the work is a product of a drunken savage’s imagination.” In an age when such a criticism was penned, these words may have swayed opinion against the works of the great playwright, William Shakespeare, who — if you haven’t been paying attention — is dead, though only physically.
Today, on the other hand, one could only be moved to a more positive impression by Voltaire’s words, or at least swayed to a position of piqued curiosity. Upon recovering from the overt and racist overtones of his “review,” my modern sensibilities salivate at the chance at viewing any theater described as having originated in a “drunken savages imagination.” In fact, in playing Paul Cosca’s new game, Bill Shakespeare is Dead, you may find yourself describing your friends in a similar — albeit less abusive — fashion.
Reminiscent of the words of Voltaire written centuries ago, the very box of Bill Shakespeare is Dead describes the game as “a highbrow/lowbrow slightly obscene party game.” If you’re picking up on the theme here, such a description will always get me to the game table quickly, with a healthy selection of boisterous friends in tow, cocktails, beers and salty accoutrements. I can guarantee that the more rambunctious and free spirited your friends, the more exuberant the evenings festivities will be.
The curtain rises, or at least you imagine it to do so, and there you stand alongside your best mate, wiping the froth of Guinness from your lips. You’ve been randomly selected to star as Hamlet in a room now serving as a makeshift theater. At your side is a friend playing Horatio, who has been handed the script that you will share.
You scan the room as the assigned Stage Manager begins reading from the script, setting the scene. Your friends eagerly shift through hands of cards comprised of verbs and nouns, queuing up their best selections. The game is afoot. The stage manager calls out, “I’m going to need a Noun!” Someone yells out, “Stolen Sex Tape.” Another timidly adds, “Boss Who Just Doesn’t Give a Shit…”
“Yes,” says the stage manager. “Boss Who Just Doesn’t Give a Shit.”
HAMLET: “The Boss Who Just Doesn’t Give a Shit bites shrewdly. It’s very cold. What hour is it?”
HORATIO: “I think it lacks of twelve.”
HAMLET: “No, it is struck.”
The stage manager says, “I’m going to need a verb, people!” Someone yells, “Fart!” The stage manager says, “fart it is!”
HORATIO: “Indeed? I fart it not.”
The stage manager frightens everyone in the room with a louder-than-expected sounding of trumpets, and then says, “Noun! I need a noun!” People offer up, “Much-Needed Vacation,” “Taquitos” and “Overbearingly Violent Fetishist.” The stage manager selects the latter. Horatio continues.
HORATIO: “What does this mean, my Overbearingly Violent Fetishist?”
The first round (ACT I of Hamlet) continues on in this manner, and the process repeats.
The included script of Hamlet has five acts, as does the included Romeo & Juliet script. These are not full acts in the traditional sense, but are vastly truncated versions that serve their purpose perfectly.
While this Shakespearean game of theatrical MadLibs may certainly be played as a game with a point awarded for each noun or verb that was selected and used; and the stage manager can select a best actor for extra points; and the stage manager herself receives points for playing that role, my group quickly heeded some words found in the rulebook:
“You can choose to keep score throughout the entire game if winning is that important to you, or you can just choose to have fun. This choice dictates what kind of person you are, so choose carefully.”
We chose to just have fun.
The fast-paced nature of calling out nouns and verbs from your hand of five cards, drawing replacements, and the desire to watch your friends act out the often hilarious dialogue is enough to keep everyone busy. We quickly lost any desire to keep track of scores, and just focused our efforts on making the script as entertaining as possible. In fact, I would argue that keeping score detracts from the spirit of the activity. The last thing anyone wanted to do was interupt the flow of the script with a layer of record keeping.
I don’t think it detracts from this game to say that the similarities to the popular Cards Against Humanity (CAH) are obvious. Choose a funny card from your hand, and fill in the blanks. But the gameplay in Bill Shakespeare is Dead capitalizes on everyone’s natural inclination to let the actors do their job, and this keeps the whole room involved in helping the participants finish their scene.
I would caution the uptight or the stodgy to avoid this game. Also, if you’re uncomfortable with mature-themed cards from time to time, walk away. If you are a fan of COH, or want something different to liven up your next game night Bill Shakespeare is Dead is a decent choice. One of my friends suggested that theater groups would really get a kick out of this game, and I have to agree wholeheartedly. I have some theater experience, and this game really resonated with me.
If you’re someone who has a bit of the theater bug or someone who doesn’t require an assembly line of deep-thinking, serious Euro-style games to grace your tabletop, you will find this game undeniably fun, or at least a diversion from less boisterous fare. For me, it’s the sort of activity that leaves me thinking, “my friends are awesome.”
What I’m saying is Bill Shakespeare is Dead is the only pretext you’ll need to look a friend in the eyes and shout, “The exchange of thy love’s faithful Elephant’s Ass for mine!”
That is all you really need to know.