Caper is the latest release from Atlanta based publishing company, Keymaster Games. It represents the company’s first printed game made without crowdfunding. Keymaster partnered with Spanish publishing house Mont Taber, licensing the mechanic’s of Unai Rubio’s game It’s Mine, for distribution in the United States. The game’s premise is two white collar thieves who keep stepping on each other’s toes. This may certainly be enough to hook your attention, to get you asking more about the game, but its theme is the tip of the iceberg for what this game has to offer, not only in the genre of two player games but for publishers looking to define what it means to be indie in the world of mass market and how to make games last a lifetime.
Caper is a two-player card drafting game. In the box, you will find a rules variant that allows you to play with three to four players, but that’s not the primary intention of the game. Players are dealt a hand of cards over six rounds, of which, they must choose a card to keep and cards to pass. Each round alternates between drafting thief and gear cards. While playing, you may imagine yourself a master thief, sending out collaborators in your monumental heist to various locations around one of three cities, and equipping them with the gear they need to do the best job they can of robbing whatever joint you assign them to. The down side? Your opponent is doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. So while connecting thieves with certain gear builds end game scoring, it must also balance with a secondary goal of area control at the three locations on the board. Letting one slip too far away from you will almost certainly spell victory for your opponent. Unai uses three words to describe his game’s goals; “quick, dynamic and replay-able.”
When you receive a license to reprint a game, as Keymaster Games did with It’s Mine, it is easy to simply repackage and push it out the door. This often helps increase catalog size quickly and without too much overhead cost. While Keymaster cofounders Mattox Shuler and Kyle Key were interested in games that could be licensed because of this fact, the deal they worked out with Mont Taber was for mechanics alone. Kyle and Mattox, committed to maintaining the integrity and branding behind their releases revisited the vision of the game with its creator. While Unai had to talk them off some ledges, like turning It’s Mine into a pirate themed game, he said with certainty that he was “really looking forward to seeing the Keymaster version…excited about how these guys [reimagined] all the artwork and design.” Their care shines through from the moment you pull the game off the shelf.
At its core, Caper, is a pattern building game. A game that uses symbols based around shape and color to encourage players to build connections between the thief and gear cards. On paper this sounds simple. Some might think this description recalls recognition exercises you practiced in elementary school, but in kindergarten, the lines and connections between like shapes and colors may have been pre-drawn. In Caper, you will find none. The player is left to find and build those connections themselves. Mattox describes the process of building these icons as “honing in on the UI (user interface).” These symbols are, in fact, a way that the game differs from the predecessor, It’s Mine. Some of the cards, like gear cards, were action cards with text, not symbols that players must find a home for.
This symbology is an effort to universalize game language by removing text based information and relying on an institutional memory that exists regardless of the language you speak. Granted, to understand this language, you may have to largely read about the symbols and their meaning in a catalog included with the game. But I would encourage any new players to make guesses about symbol meaning before seeking out the listed definition in the reference. Many games contain symbols in one form or another. Any time text and reading is reduced in gaming, not only is the game more focused on their wider audience, but we reduce overall gameplay length for timely comprehension issues that will always vary from player to player. Where Caper excels in this effort, is in simplifying the symbol language to a dialect any player can learn and apply.
Before you are confronted with the game’s distinct language Josh Emrich’s artwork will certainly having you picking the box off the shelf. You may be familiar with Josh’s style if you have played Keymaster’s earlier game, Campy Creatures or are from California and have the fortune of sharing some Bottle Logic Brewing beers from time to time. His work has a hipster appeal blending a 50s aesthetic with a woodcut graphic design style. His color choice is bold and unforgiving. In Caper, this translates to stylishly quirky characters, filled with flaws, and most importantly, relatable. There are in excess of 71 unique images created in Caper, a stunning amount for a game of this size.
Mattox describes Josh’s artwork for Caper as giving the game “Wes Anderson vibes,” understandable, given Wes Anderson is a director known for heartfelt characters that remind us of the inner turmoil we face and never tell others about; a crazy disfunction. Designing characters that are absurd, yet relatable, gives the observer, whether movie watcher or game player, comfort. There is stability in the ridiculousness and as a gamer, you will return to Caper over and over when you need that chaotic stability. This approach to game art and character development is a form of world building, providing us with a sense of a life outside of our own. Not only do we want to revisit these characters at the Louvre, we want to know who else lives in this “imaginarium” and what jobs or roles they have. Caper positions Keymaster perfectly for a gaming series that will have fans of the game lined up for whatever comes next.
Caper is game making idealized. It confronts the ideas that games should be void of language; that they should be completely playable out of the box; that their component quality can elevate the perceived value of a game as an object; that games should focus on and challenge the relationship between their players. It is okay to challenge these ideals, drawing different conclusions about what the ideal game looks like. I’m willing to bet Mattox and Kyle, like many game creators staking their future on the longevity of this industry, are betting on designers to challenge these very ideals over and over again.
It is easy to get swallowed up in the world of tabletop game releases these days. The market continues to grow at an astounding rate. Unai describes “the board gaming industry is growing like crazy, and board games are becoming these disposable products that have a short lifespan in the spotlight.” So, he would like to shout out the person who put It’s Mine in the hands of a Dice Tower content creator who gave it the Seal of Excellence. “Drinks on [him]!” he says. To the same person, you can have another one on me. I love finding Caper on my board gaming shelf these days. It fits very nicely next to my Campy Creatures, and there’s an empty space right next to it for Keymaster’s next title, Space Park, releasing in limited quantities at GenCon. While Space Park is not set in the world of Caper, I know the publisher has dreams for the world’s future. Maybe it includes Unai’s next game, which is currently “top secret” or maybe another designer will take up the baton. Either way, I’ll be ready for it.
All images provided by Keymaster Games