Where are we? Who is there? What's going on? And how's it all going to end?

The above appears on the side of the newest (as of this writeup) card game, Nanofictionary, released by the creative genius hippies over at Looney Labs in 2002. The quote refers directly to the four kinds of cards (Setting, Character, Problem, and Resolution) you get to use to craft a story to win the adulation of the other players and, thereby, the game.

In keeping with the Looney Labs idiom, Nanofictionary is very portable and fairly simple; the box of 110 cards is small enough to fit in a pocket and all that the game requires to play is a flat surface. The rulebook is the size of a card and has a fairly unintimidating 18 pages, many of which are taken up with examples and storytelling tips.

How to Play, Kinda Briefly

Nanofictionary is a game in three phases which occur sequentially: the Writing Phase, the Storytelling Phase, and the Awards Phase. If you're just looking for a vague idea of how to play, the names are mostly self-explanatory. If you want more details, read on.

  1. The Writing Phase is where you acquire cards to use in your masterpiece of narration. There are two types of cards: Plot Device cards and Action cards. Plot Device cards are mentioned above; they are either Settings, Characters, Problems, or Resolutions, and when you play one, it sits in front of you until the Storytelling Phase, when you must use it in your story. Or someone could, perhaps, steal it using the Action card "Plagiarism" and use it in their own story.

    On each turn during the Writing Phase, all you do is draw a card and then either play a card or discard any number of cards and draw back up to five. The cards and the story, which should be bubbling furiously in your head throughout this phase, are the interesting part. Everyone takes their turns simultaneously, which helps to eliminate any unnecessary waiting for other people to finish.

  2. The Storytelling Phase is where your card-collecting efforts come to fruition. You have a setting, a character, a problem and a resolution, or maybe two or three of any of the above, sitting in front of you and waiting for you to breathe life into them. Tell your story.

    The Storytelling Phase begins when everyone has collected at least one of each type of Plot Device and declared that their story is ready. You'll get points for finishing your story preparation quickly, but you'll also get points for using a lot of cards or, most importantly, telling a really awesome story.

  3. The Awards Phase is the moment of truth. Will you win the respect and envy of your fellow storytellers or be given a consolation prize and sent on your way?

    You have one Grand Prize and one Runner Up prize, worth three points and one point respectively, to give the other players. Awards are given anonymously so there's no danger of retaliation or other such uncoolness.

Is It Any Good?

Nanofictionary is fun. Every part of it just works. Gathering cards to write your stories is not really the main part of the game per se, but since you have your mind working furiously on story ideas the whole time (or you should, at least), there's never a dull moment. When someone steals one of your plot devices and replaces it with one of their own, or you get the opportunity to score some extra points by adding another problem or setting, you may have to come up with something ridiculous to accomodate everything. But the game - or more precisely, the other players - will reward entertaining storytelling, so you have to make it all fit.

As a result, I find that this game is much more mentally demanding than most other card games, and even than a lot of heavily strategy-oriented games I've played. So in my experience, you should only expect to want to play it for maybe an hour or an hour and a half at a time. When you consider that in that much time, you will have created probably somewhere on the order of four to eight complete (albeit perhaps rather short) works of fiction in a row, this claim might make more sense. Or maybe I'm just a wuss. Note that if you have enough players, you can cycle the tired ones out and they can be judges for the others, simply giving points to the good storytellers without having to tell stories themselves.

The game is not without its potential faults. The first is that the stories are judged by the other players. This, of course, depends on the people with whom you're playing; you'll have to trust them to make their judgments based on storytelling merit and not on, say, looks.

Also, the plot devices are a bit limited in scope. Many of them tend to be vaguely science fictiony, so if you're not used to writing stories with an element of the fantastic in them, you may have a bit of difficulty. Even if you are a fan of sci-fi, you may find that you're sick of stories with a snake with a great personality (this is a Nanofictionary character card) in them. I can see the plot devices here going a long way, but if you play a lot, some might get a little old. The potential expiration date of the cards, however, will still leave you enough time to justify the $17 that Looney Labs is charging for Nanofictionary. I heartily recommend it.

Cards and Lore and Stuff

The backs of the Nanofictionary cards are purple envelopes with a red wax seal on them; the envelopes used to be beige but a printing problem led the Looney Labs people to change the color to purple. The purple is much more appropriate to the tone of the game.

The pictures on the fronts of the cards were drawn by a member of Looney Labs instead of an outside artist. They're monochromatic pen-and-ink drawings, simple and occasionally childish but effective; witness the "alien disguised as a human" character, with unsettlingly large eyes and saying "yes... it's the bee's pajamas." Or the "homeless person with a compelling sign" character, whose sign in the artwork reads "Pleez... 10¢ to keep THEM away... God bless." The crude homage to Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" on the "diner, shortly after 4:00am" setting card is cute as well.

As you might expect, this game lends itself well to expansion, and Looney Labs has been known to produce occasional "bonus" story cards to use as extra goodies. They also sell NanoBlanks, "empty" story cards that allow you to create your own characters, settings, problems and resolutions for use in the game.

Many of the cards have a definite Looney Labs flavor, and there are a few sly inside jokes that I recognize and probably several that I don't.

The word Nanofiction predates Nanofictionary; it is a very precise term invented by Steve Moss and describing a work of fiction exactly 55 words in length. There is a work of Nanofiction on the side of the Nanofictionary box, which I will reprint here for your amusement and enlightenment, and another in the Nanofictionary instruction manual, which I will not print here so that you'll have to buy the game from the good folks at Looney Labs in order to read it. Both make use of cards (the names of which I will pipelink from the story I copy here) from Nanofictionary, and would be legitimate (if somewhat short) stories to tell in the game.

The Ice Cream Disaster

In the Ice Cream Parlour on the Moon, there was a terrible problem: the serving robot had malfunctioned! He was flinging ice cream everywhere! So they called for a repairman, and in came the dude who always says "Dude!" The Dude took one look and said "Dude! It's easy! All you need is Duct Tape!"

If you try Nanofictionary and like it, you might also want to try Once Upon a Time, which is like Nanofictionary, only different.

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