Ever have one of those dreams that starts out perfect? You’re on a beach, lying under a palm tree—and there’s a hot lifeguard there, too! Only, the lifeguard’s wearing a pink tutu, and you’re running from something. Turn around—the lifeguard’s turned into a giant cat. You’re bleeding. You’re in a hospital. A spy turns up, face all scarred up, and takes you underwater. When you wake up, you know you shouldn’t have had that chili, and it’s all you can do to catch forty winks before the alarm goes off.
Trying to get a good night’s sleep is the premise of the original and entertaining Counting Zzzzs, a new card game from Blood & Cardstock Games. But to get any rest you need REM sleep—and that means dreams. Two to four players take turns placing “dream elements” down in front of them: people, places, things, and verbs. Two of the same kind of elements can’t be placed side-by-side, but must share a theme, such as nightmare or fantasy. Then, because a collective subconscious is at work, they play elements into another player’s dream, or play actions that affect the game by forcing themes, waking people up, and generally bending rules.
Some elements have positive values on them—dreaming of chocolate makes your sleep much better. Others, like Hell, have a negative value on them. Once enough dream elements are introduced the player wakes up and values are added up. At forty points the game is over. Otherwise, there are still a few hours before morning (signaled by the deck running out)—go back to sleep.
The cards are well designed; it’s easy to see what dreams another person has out across the table, what their nature is, etc. The elements themselves range from the common to the bizarre. The art is quite good, and bring the elements to life—particularly good are “contextual” cards which can be good or bad depending on the rest of the dream. The pictures always have a top and a bottom, like mirror images, to match the positive and negative values, and meet in the center. The concepts, too, are often clever—I personally like “White Horse/Pale Horse,” with a knight on a white steed on one side, and death on his pale horse on the other.
While the elements themselves can amuse, the real joy of the game is in their interaction. Because themes must match while element types don’t, there is often a (dream-like) narrative to the row of element cards. The best games are ones in which everyone tries to describe the progression of their dream. (The rules even say you’re expected to narrate the dream.) If people aren’t willing to get into the spirit of the game, Counting Zzzzs isn’t nearly as much fun. When they are, though, it can be a riot.
It helps that Counting Zzzzs is incredibly accessible. There are few games that I can have just as much fun playing with my mom as with my fellow geeks. It’s easy to teach, easy to play, and some obvious effort went into simplifying and focusing the experience.
As such, I only have a few minor qualms with the game. The first is the instructions manual. In a few places, the text is not quite as clear as it might have been—for example, it says you cannot start a dream for another player. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize this means you can only put a dream element into another player’s dream if they already have elements in front of them, but it would have been easier to just say so.
The same goes for action cards that force a theme—the rules say you can’t start an opponent’s dream for them, since you can’t make them fall asleep. Does that mean I can’t play “Shouldn’t Have Had That Chili,” which forces the next dream to be surreal, on an opponent without dream elements? No, I can’t, but the rules should say so clearly. Luckily there are only one or two such issues, and they are small ones. Overall, learning the game from the rules is very simple—just be sure to read them carefully.
Also, for some odd reason, the box calls the game Counting Zzzzs, and has an example card back with that name; meanwhile, the cards themselves say Counting Sheep. However, this in no way affects the gameplay, and I mention it only because it seems a strange slip in a game where so much effort has been put into the details.
Counting Zzzzs is an enjoyable, original card game. Anyone can play it, even friends who you wouldn’t normally think of as gamers of any kind. All it takes is some imagination and some humor to make Counting Zzzzs one of the most enjoyable hours you can have—while sleeping, of course.