Depending on whom you ask, I either cannot remember anything or I have a mind like a steel trap. My lovely wife would argue for option one, offering up as evidence my inability to remember family events and the location of common household items. I would counter by reciting the starting defense for the 1977 AFC Championship Denver Broncos (Carter, Chavous, Alzado, Swenson, Gradishar, T Jackson, Rizzo, B Jackson, Foley, Wright, Thompson), childhood addresses and phone numbers, and the only US president who served two, non-consecutive terms (Grover Cleveland).
Sure, keeping those datapoints in long-term storage isn’t all that useful most of the time, but they have led to my history of domination in Trivial Pursuit (I’ve only lost once in the countless games I’ve played since the game debuted in the 1980s). So when Nate Anderson showed up at my house a couple of weeks ago with a new trivia game called America, I was intrigued.
A redesign and re-imagining of the core concepts from Terra and Fauna, games from noted German designer Friedemann Friese, America is a trivia game, but it’s one that folks who don’t head over to the local pub for Thursday night trivia can do well at, if not win. And that’s by design. Yes, the game rewards exact answers, but as the box says, it’s “a trivia party game where close counts.” If you’re close enough with your answers, you can still score points. And if you’re close enough often enough, you can win.
The board has a map of the United States, a dateline beginning in 1492, and another series of numbers stretching from zero to infinity, each of which correlates to an item from the clue cards. A number line runs around the perimeter of the board for keeping score. Up to six people can play using sets of six colored wooden cubes. One is used to keep track of the score, while the other five can be used to place bets on correct answers. Sounds simple, right?
The beauty of the game is how easy it is to start playing. Unlike some of the board games I’ve played with Nate and my fellow Chicago-based colleague Aaron Zimmerman, America takes a minimum of explanation and preparation. After everyone puts a marker on the zero square on the score track, each player has to try to answer three questions from the first card in the box. Cards cover pop culture, inventions, geography, US history, sports, and more; for each card, players must come up with year, number, and state answers.
The Key Largo card, for example, looks for the year Bertie Higgin’s terrible song “Key Largo” was released (1981), the state where Key Largo is located (Florida), and the population of the city (10,433). For the DC Comics card, players have to cough up the year Lex Luthor becomes president (2001), the state in which DC Comics is headquartered (California), and the number of original members of the Justice League of America (seven).
The beauty of America is that you don’t need to be precise to score. While you’ll get seven points for being correct, you can also get three points for being adjacent. For our Key Largo clue, the player who puts his or her marker on Florida will score seven points, but anyone placing a marker on Georgia or Alabama will score three. Same thing for the year—those putting markers down on the 1975 or 1985 square will score three points, compared to the player who knows the exact date and gets seven points for grabbing 1981.
In one of the games I played with Aaron and Nate, a GPS clue came up. The location was an actual GPS coordinate, which I immediately recognized as being in Hawaii. When my turn came up, I placed a marker on the island state with a certain smugness. Nate, who was next, recognized my mad geographical skills and placed a marker on Alaska. Aaron was out of luck, as only Alaska and Hawaii are adjacent to one another on America’s map.
If you don’t know the answer and think no one else does either, America still offers you a way to score. For each category, there are “no exact” and “no exact or adjacent” squares. If you put a marker down on “no exact” and no one gets it right, you get three points. “No exact or adjacent” gets you seven.
Each round continues until all players pass, either because they are out of markers or do not want to risk markers without the possibility of a payoff. The card is then removed from the box, the answers scrutinized, and the scores tallied.
So what’s keeping you from spewing markers all over the board in an attempt to score? Each time you’re wrong, your marker gets sent to timeout. If you bet all five of your markers and you’re wrong each time, they’re taken off the board. My teenage daughter tried this strategy to get out of a family game of America. (By the way, game nights are so much fun when your spouse hates board games and your teenaged daughter would rather be doing anything other than playing board games.) Unfortunately for her, at the end of each turn, one of her markers was released from its purgatory next to the board, so she had to keep playing until the game was done. (You always draw back up to at least three, so you’re never completely screwed).
Thankfully for her—and disappointingly for me during my games with Nate and Aaron—America is a quick play. Six turns and you’re done. That makes it a nice appetizer before a main course of Terraforming Mars or Scythe. And even though it’s a trivia game, the game’s spatial play and emphasis on blocking and timing keep it feeling like a board game with tactical considerations.
If you’re trivia-obsessed like me and looking for a hardcore obscure knowledge throwdown, America may leave you hungry for more. But if you like matching wits with a few friends over a couple of beers, this trivia game may just hit the spot.
Listing image by Bezier Games, Inc.