In my experiences over the past three to four years in this hobby, whether it’s introducing games to new groups, playing lots of new ones myself or consuming so much board game media content that I see more of Tom Vasel than my girlfriend, there’s one thing that I’ve noticed: Social deduction games are very polarizing. This genre is the very definition of divisive, one that you either love or hate. Apparently, some people just aren’t into lying to their friends’ faces or getting into heated arguments where most people’s main point is, “Listen, just believe me, not them!”
As for myself, I love social deduction if it’s done right. One of the most memorable and stressful (in a good way) experiences I’ve ever had in the hobby was from a game of The Resistance. Spyfall and A Fake Artist Goes To New York not only offer a fun avenue to pick your friends’ brains and discover just how clever everyone around the table is, but have also resulted in some of the funniest moments I’ve had in gaming. As much as I love these games, however, I pivot back to the beginning where I said some people are just going to outright hate these games. That game of The Resistance I mentioned? That very same game resulted in one of the players announcing he’ll never play it again because of how everyone was at each other’s throats and how he felt cornered when the game was at the height of its intensity. And Spyfall? As funny and light hearted as I find the game, I have one friend who gets such anxiety when she’s the spy, she literally blurts out “YES, I’M THE SPY” at the slightest hint of suspicion towards her (she has since refused to ever play the game again too).
I completely understand the hang ups with the genre and am at peace with the fact that I just won’t get to play these types of games that often. That’s why it does my heart good to know that there is a social deduction game that works for people who don’t like social deduction. And that game is When I Dream.
To call When I Dream a social deduction game may be a tad misleading. The game, as I’ll explain, is actually as much a word association game as it is a social deduction game. But social deduction is certainly still there, with the tropes of hidden roles and traitors alive and well in its design. So what is When I Dream? Besides the answer to the question, “When is the only time where I’m truly happy?” of course.
When I Dream is a delicious fusion of word association and social deduction. The game is comprised of double sided cards with dream like, Dixit style surreal art, each with a word on top and on the bottom. The cards are placed into a plastic bed with one of the words covered, showing which words on the cards need to be guessed as they’re cycled through.
One player dons a sleeping mask and is known as The Dreamer and they are going to receive clues from the other players to help them guess the words on the card as they come up. The Dreamer gets one guess per card and if they’re right it goes to the correct side and on the incorrect side if it’s wrong. The Dreamer gets points for every card on the correct side. Simple, right? Weelllllllll….
Here’s the twist that makes When I Dream so brilliant and takes it from a super straightforward word association game and turns it into a fiendishly clever social deduction game. Not everyone around the table wants The Dreamer to get the words correct. In fact, some want The Dreamer to get the words flat out wrong. At the beginning of every round, the non-Dreamer players are given a hidden role. They’ll either be a Fairy, a Boogeyman or a Sandman. The fairies are allied with the Dreamer; they also get a point for every card on the correct side of the bed. The Boogeymen are the exact opposite; they get a card for every card on the incorrect side of the bed. Finally, the Sandmen are a mix of both roles and a bit of a neutral party. If the cards in the correct pile are equal to the number of cards in the incorrect pile, the Sandmen get a nifty score bonus to elevate them above the others.
These hidden roles mean the Dreamer is unable to trust anyone at the table. The Dreamer needs to pay close attention to the clues being given to see who is giving clues that seem fairly well linked together and who is giving clues that seem juuuuust a bit off from the others. This is complicated by the fact that, of course, you have no idea what words you’ve correctly guessed throughout the round. Which means if you put your stock in the clues being given by the Boogeyman early on in the round, you’re going to be paying attention to the wrong clues. And in this game, all it takes is one clue for you to guess the incorrect word. If you have the clues “big” and “cat” and “stripes”, you’re going to give a much different answer than if the clues are “big” and “cat” and “mane”. If the person who gives the deciding clue is on your side, awesome! You’ll probably get points. But if the person who gives that deciding clue isn’t…well, get ready for a smug looking face when you lift that face mask off your eyes.
Herein lies the game for the clue givers, as well. As the Fairy, your job is straightforward. Just try and link the word with obvious clues. The Boogeyman has a bit of a tougher job. They want to give clues that are close enough to the word but not close enough for the Dreamer to actually guess the word. Going back to my earlier example, if the word is ‘tiger’, than going “mane” or “spots” or “Africa” are great clues to give. They’re all related to big cats, but not to a tiger, which leaves the Dreamer in a vulnerable position. Not only is there a chance the Dreamer will blurt out “Lion!” or “Cheetah!”, but they have no reason to not trust you on future clues. BUT. If the word is ‘tiger’ and you give the clue ‘elevator’, the Dreamer is gonna start side eyeing you beneath their mask. As the Boogeyman, you can’t let the Dreamer know who you are or they’ll stop listening to your clues for the rest of the round and you might as well go grab a drink. But manage to hide in plain sight, giving clues that don’t give away your true intentions AND get words on the incorrect side, and you’ll be reaping in the points at round’s end.
This tight wire balancing act is the reason why playing the Boogeyman is the most fun role in the game for me. It requires you to be clever and quick thinking and the chaos you can sow with your misdirection is hilarious. Not to keep going back to the tiger clue, but imagine a scenario where someone says “Cat” then “Mane” and you follow it up with “Stripes.” Suddenly, the Dreamer is stuck in a scenario equal to that cliché movie scene where a character is standing with a gun in front of their friend and their evil twin and they need to decide who to shoot, as both of them say, “Listen to me! I’M the real one!” I’ve been in situations where the word was ‘hot air balloon’ and the clues were ‘transportation’, ‘flying’, ‘ocean’, ‘ship’, ‘sky’ and ‘voyage’ and you could literally see the Dreamer’s brain break into two. It’s moments like this that make When I Dream such a beautifully fun game.
There’s a couple of other cool things worth mentioning. After time runs out for the Dreamer, they can then reel off all the words that they’ve guessed, and they’ll get bonus points if they recall all the correct guesses. You can simply list the words in a monotone voice, like you’re brainwashing a Manchurian Candidate with activation words OR you can weave the words into an actual dream like story. Where else can you tell a tale along the lines of “I was dreaming and Keith Richards swooped down on a DRAGON and he had a MASON with him and they were both yelling at a TIGER because it forgot to buy a CLOCK for their CABIN.”? Not only that, but we’ve noticed the Dreamer is consistently able to better remember the words when telling it in story form rather than just listing them, so When I Dream provides a nice bit of psychological study along with your board game. How would THAT be for your next Kickstarter stretch goal?
The last thing I’ll rave about is the production value. I had one person turn their nose up at it and call it overproduced, but I rarely find ‘overproduction’ a bad thing. In this case, it makes a memorable party game that much better. I already mentioned and provided a picture of the bed that the deck of cards sit in, but there is also the board that the bed sets down into. It uses crisp and clear iconography to remind you of how each person scores and where the various cards go when guessed. Plus, the board’s art is colorful and lush, a vibrant type of art style that I absolutely adore in games. Speaking of the art, the art on the actual cards needs no introduction. So many games have “Dixit-style art” on its cards that it is basically its own genre at this point. And I’m totally fine with that.
The surreal, dreamy art that adorns the cards will have everybody rubbernecking around the table so that they can gawk at it. I do find it a little ironic that the art is this amazing and one player around the table is literally blindfolded so they can’t even see it, but that’s okay, everybody else is able to enjoy it.
It’s tough to find things to complain about with When I Dream. Every group I’ve introduced this to has not only loved it, but immediately demanded to play a second game right after the first. At about $40, you can definitely argue that it’s a little expensive as far as party games go, a genre of games which usually range from like $15 to $25. In this case, you can maybe grumble about the overproduction because that is a bit of a price tag. There’s also the fact that the Dreamer puts on a sleeping mask which some people are not okay with, especially if they’re playing with strangers and/or in a public space. They can close their eyes, sure, but even that may make people feel uneasy and I don’t have a solution for that. Maybe just have them turn around from the board? Just something to keep in mind when introducing the game.
I started off the review by mentioning how this game is a great social deduction game for people who hate social deduction, so I’ll end it by standing by that comment. It takes what makes social deduction great (clever use of wits, using detective work to figure out who your friends are) and removes all the mean, stressful bits (lying, arguing, fearing for your safety as tensions rise). But it’s not just that. It’s also an amazing word association game and an awesome game for parties. At a player count of 4-10, it’s also incredibly versatile. I even skeptically tried it at 4 and was delighted to find this is a rare social deduction game that still manages to work very well at its lowest player count. If any of those things sound appealing to you, When I Dream is an absolute must have. It’s the best party game since Codenames (one of my all time favorites) and will hopefully be remembered right along side of it as one of the hobby’s recent classics.