One of the reasons we play games is to bond, a shortcut to understanding one another and building trust. See, for instance, any number of corporate team-building exercises — the egg drop, scavenger hunts and, no one’s favorite, the trust fall.
But forget all of those.
The absolute best game — OK, fine, my long-standing go-to — for quickly getting to know someone or reconnecting with friends is “Spaceteam,” the Henry Smith-designed mobile sensation that was initially concocted to be played locally, meaning to be played with players in the same room. It’s a modern spin on the board game, in that it was crafted for stay-at-home nights and face-to-face collaboration. The twist is that it utilizes — requires — modern tools, in this case our smartphone.
Its genius is that it requires no game know-how or skills beyond possessing how to yell nonsense at one another, a trait all of us are pretty much born with and one that doesn’t seem to go away with age (insert a reference to your family, your work or our politicians here). Launch “Spaceteam,” and you’ll be yelling “Soak Ferrous Holospectrum!” or “Engage Tripump” at friends or loved ones in moments.
For years the game wasn’t available online. Really, the only way to play was to get your friends together in one room. That’s changing now.
“Spaceteam” has been integrated with the relatively new app Bunch, which aims to more seamlessly provide voice or video chat with mobile games to easily play online. While Bunch wants to connect players with their favorite platforms, be it “Fortnite” or “Roblox,” it works best with titles that are directly integrated with the app, for which “Spaceteam” is one. On Apple’s iOS platforms, Bunch allows for relatively smooth synchronization with the game. You can even launch Bunch via the Spaceteam app and be close to playing.
In “Spaceteam,” every player’s phone shows a different piece of a ship’s controls, and we’re given orders that have to be directed at others to allow our ship to fly. While it may take some folks a couple seconds before they’re comfortable yelling at one another, I’m confident bonds are strengthened when we all feel safe to holler something like “Grease Prorod!” at each other.
“I wanted it to feel more like a board game, a party game or a social gathering,” says Smith, speaking from his Montreal home. “I’m a board game fan and I like those dynamics of being able to see people and talk to them. That’s kind of how I think about my games. The game itself happens outside the screen. Computers are just tools that facilitate the act of play.”
I instantly fell in love with “Spaceteam” when it was released. It immediately appeals to our imagination by turning our touch-screen into the control panel of a ship — the goal is to keep the ship afloat as long as possible. It turns our friends into shipmates, and whatever room we’re in becomes the playing field. It reminded me of days as a kid, when I would try to lie awake in the basement by simply staring at a computer screen saver of moving starfields, which enabled me to pretend our house was floating through space. “Spacetime” likewise uses digital tools, but the play is up to us.
And those who have been to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge either at Disneyland or Walt Disney World can see the cultural influence of Smith’s work. The bones and essence of “Spaceteam” are visible in a high-tech simulator game such as Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, where six guests at a time work together to avoid crashing by pushing random buttons and probably shouting at one another. Since we won’t be gathering in theme park anytime soon, “Spaceteam” is a way to instantly improvise that we’re somewhere else.
Yet for those who are quarantined together, “Spaceteam” still works best if you can play it in the same room with friends or family. But as people struggle these days to find levity — or even play a favorite board game over video chat or Zoom (it’s not as easy it sounds) — “Spaceteam” and its shouts of techno-nonsense may be just the sort of old-fashioned merriment some of us need.
Some fine print: Right now, the iOS version of “Spaceteam” via Bunch does not include video, but that functionality, say representatives at Bunch, should be operational in a couple weeks. Android users can currently play with video chat using Bunch but will need to select their private “Spaceteam” room rather than have Bunch immediately direct them to it. In the coming weeks, once video is fully integrated across iOS and Android platforms, “Spaceteam” can be played online in much of the way it was initially intended.
It may even add some new wrinkles, in that players will be required to understand one’s facial language rather than full body language.
“It’s a little bit harder to read people’s body language to determine when it’s a good time to speak or stay quiet, which is one aspect of ‘Spaceteam,’” Smith says in a video interview. “If you want to do really well, you cannot all talk all at once. There’s a bit of a lag on video so you can’t always tell when it’s time to speak. It’s chaotic.”
And for “Spaceteam,” that’s generally a quality attribute. The game remains free since Smith has supported himself by licensing it. A card game version is available, and a virtual reality edition is on the horizon.