When a game teaches you freestyle rap: the story of Vers
We’ve asked the question “Do Black People Play Board Games?” before. Here’s one example of what can happen when a black person makes one. (It’s technically a card game, but whatever.)
Freestyle rap is an art form. Skillful improvisation takes creativity, courage, and a ton of practice in any medium, and rap is no different. Like any performance art, part of its charm comes from swaying a crowd, inspiring laughter, awe, or outrage. Freestyling is also really cheap: it doesn’t require sets, props, or fancy stages. Naturally, these are the conditions for a great party game…but it’d be awkward at most parties to ask people to sit and cypher (freestyling in a group). This is where Vers comes in.
Freestyle at the board game table
Jerry Spatch of Spatch Games is a freestyle rapper based in Boston. His latest game, Vers, is entering the last hours of its Kickstarter. The rules are simple: each player holds five category cards, cards which contain simple words like “enchiladas” or “island.” One player draws a base rhyme card which has three rhyming words on it. Players combine their category card with the base rhyme card and create the best freestyle rap they can. Sure, the resulting rap may end up awkward, but the goal is to share a fun experience with friends. And tons of people seem interested in sharing that experience.
As of this writing, Spatch is almost 100% over his funding goal of $10,000. This isn’t coming from single donors with large amounts of money, though: 382 backers threw in $25 a piece to pre-order their copy of the game. Though I can’t imagine they all are, I imagine there are a number of first-time backers in that pool. And I’m also willing to bet a number of them are people of color, though I’ve got no numbers to prove it. Vers creates an experience unlike any other I’ve seen in a board game shop, and that gets me really excited.
Cards for humanity
Games like Pictionary, Taboo, and Charades used to be staples of the party game arsenal, all requiring some form of improv. Apples to Apples changed much of that: players pair a noun card from their hands with an adjective from the deck, and a rotating judge chooses the pairing they like most. Cards Against Humanity took that formula and made it X-rated, selling millions of copies and becoming the default party game for people who like dick jokes. All of these games channel the random, chaotic humor that comes from groups of friends, giving a little nudge to help laughs along. That said, I don’t remember seeing any of these games at parties with many black folks.
Cards Against Humanity in particular always sat poorly with me. Though playing the “Hitler” or “Helen Keller” card in AtA generally created an off-color win, most matches came down to wit or generally accessible humor. CAH, on the other hand, felt like a race to the most offensive possibility. In particular, I tended to re-evaluate my friends who played the “big black d**k” card as their suggested pairing/punchline. Capitalizing on the popularity, the game’s “Second Expansion” included “a bigger, blacker d**k” as a playable card. Another expansion was called the “Bigger, Blacker Box.” A picture of the creators didn’t surprise me, and it probably won’t surprise you, either.
Vers excites me because it bring accessibility to rap, opening friends to share new experiences. It also excites me because it potentially creates welcoming spaces for people of color. It also excites me because it spotlights historically black culture and could be in board game stores around the country. It ALSO excites me because it could inspire more games that highlight cultures of color.
Vers (and other games like it) won’t be a silver bullet for diversity or inclusion in the gaming space. Much like the time someone yelled, “Josh, you’re black, you can dance!” at a wedding with a nearly-empty dance floor, Vers won’t fix issues of exclusion or discomfort in gaming spaces just by existing. In fact, playing the game in mixed company could invite those kinds of so-called microaggressions. What Vers does though, is help bring freestyle rap culture to those who may not have experienced or understood it before, giving them a chance to participate while making space for freestylers to show off their art at the table.
Jerry Spatch says this on his Kickstarter page:
“I was tired of people in university saying I shouldn’t rap because it was unprofessional. Everywhere I went, when people heard about rap they’d think of a bunch of things that it wasn’t. So I made the game and it’s fun and silly and everyone can play it.”
Spatch took his love of freestyle rap and combined it with his drive for entrepreneurship (he’s studying it at Northeastern University) to make an exciting new game. If you watched the Kickstarter video, you might have noticed most of the raps were pretty corny. But it got a group of friends laughing together and sharing a new experience, which means everyone wins.
Vers is entering its final hours on Kickstarter, and is $25+shipping for a copy. There’s also a print-and-play version of the game available on the Spatch Games website. Also, you can watch a YouTube video of the folks at Beer and Board Games (which may be NSFW) playing the game.
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Discussing "The Cat in the Hijab" after the Portland MAX stabbings.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligame. Lover of story-centric games of all kinds, arcade games, and mobile titles. Mac and Cheese connoisseur.
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