Board games are always looking for different ways to venture out, and one of the most interesting on the horizon: Amazon Alexa. Think of the possibility: A narrator that can drive your adventure-based games, remember key details over a lengthy co-op campaign for something like Gloomhaven. Hell, even just a trivia bot that tracks everything while being constantly updated with fresh questions and new formats is neat.
Unfortunately, the experience of playing an Alexa-powered game is several steps ahead of the experience.
When in Rome is a trivia game where, after enabling the skill through the Amazon app on your phone, Alexa asks players a series of questions about various cities. Players are split into two teams, with each team choosing a starting city and then flying across the map answering “easy” or “hard” multiple choice questions about that city.
Players are given a series of points for each question, with extra questions asked in between rounds. Every time you travel to a new city, you’ll hear the voice of a local. The difficulty of the questions will vary – in response to me asking for a “hard” question, the local for Tokyo asked me what major event was happening in Tokyo in 2020.
There’s two other major components that come with the game: A deck of cards for each team, which can act as a series of power-ups (fly immediately to a particular city, have Alexa ask another question) and a series of souvenirs. They’re random, ordinary objects: A button, a thimble, an old key and a cheap ring. But they’re also the fastest mechanic for ending the game – as soon as three souvenirs have been collected, the game ends.
When in Rome, then, is really a race against the clock.
But there’s two main points where Geography: The Alexa Game really falls apart. Firstly, Alexa-powered board games live or die by the voice recognition. And while Alexa has gotten very good at understanding general phrases and questions, my group had several moments where Alexa struggled to understand what we were saying.
For instance, say Alexa asks you a question about the Harbour Bridge and the answer is The Opera House. You can’t naturally repeat the answer back to Alexa – you have to say “C” or “answer C” before Alexa recognises what you want to say.
In some instances, Alexa will give you a longer amount of time before you answer. Like every other Alexa prompt, you wake it up by saying “Alexa” – although in our playthrough, this actually crashed the game entirely. Fortunately, When in Rome was smart enough to have an autosave of sorts: Saying “resume When in Rome” was enough to get the game back on track.
Having it drop out three times in the course of one session isn’t great, though.
Another weird quirk are the questions. As a sort of tie-breaker to decide who would move first, Alexa asked both teams: What percentage of people in Mumbai live in slums?
Excuse me, Alexa?
The answer, as it turned out, was 42 percent. And after giving one of the teams some light ribbing for guessing 50 per cent – always bet in the middle – Alexa reminded us of Mumbai’s derogatory nickname, “Slumbai”.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of experience we thought we’d signed up for.
Another odd tie-breaker question: What percentage of the population of Nairobi could read and write? 98 per cent, roughly equivalent to the literacy rate of any major American city.
Putting the voice recognition annoyance aside, When in Rome has issues with the design. The upgrade cards are a tad superfluous – the whole objective is to earn as many points as possible, so taking a card that might only send you automatically to a certain city is never going to take precedence over more points. (The game only reveals the locations of the seven-point souvenirs one at a time, and upgrade cards are doled out at random, so it’s not like you can strategically hold onto them.)
The nature of getting prompts through Alexa gives the whole affair a bit of a stop-start nature, too. After a while, my regular board game group were well and truly tired of stopping Alexa halfway through a question just so they could give an answer.
It does make me wonder, however, what people could do with Alexa down the road. Playing When in Rome made me think what a co-operative Carmen Sandiego game could be like: you travel around the world, players collect different clues and have to combine them as a group, with Amazon using its various tech to constantly change up the gameplay and difficulty.
That would also help alleviate some of When in Rome‘s downtime. Board games can be a grind sometimes when you’re waiting for the person across from you to make their turn. It’s no more fun listening to them struggle to communicate with Alexa. So while I like the idea of playing an Alexa-powered board game, I wouldn’t recommend it as an experience. Not yet, anyway.
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