Full disclosure: A review copy of Stay Cool was provided by Scorpion Masqué.
I skipped ahead for no reason and decided to bust out this review a bit early. I do that sometimes; I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to scheduling, editing, and basically every other “-ing” that matters for consistency when running a site. It’s … definitely something. Either way, that’s not really relevant to y’all since I’m still releasing this review on the launch day I planned like, a month and a half ago. Hooray, scheduling! Let’s talk about Stay Cool, though! It’s the latest from Scorpion Masqué, publishers of the fantastic Decrypto (among other titles). Will this game become the party game to beat, this year?
In Stay Cool, you have a simple goal. Answer some questions. Sure, there’s a timer, but there’s nothing to worry about, right? The questions are straightforward, you know what you’re getting into, you have to answer some with dice, normal stuff. Except for that last thing. Wait, two people are asking you questions simultaneously? And you have to balance that? Well, thankfully that’s all there is. Though you probably forgot about the timer, right? You’re about to be under a lot of pressure; will you be able to rise to the challenge? Or will you crack?
Pretty much none. Have the players sit in a circle, and choose a player to go first. That player gets the dice:
The player to their right gets the Blue (Verbal) Question Cards:
The player to that player’s right gets the Red (Written) Question Cards:
And the player to that player’s right (or the Blue Question Card player, if playing with only 3) gets the sand timer and the sand timer card. You may need the box lid; keep that nearby, but you’re ready to start!
The game is played over three rounds. As the game itself claims, it’s dead simple. You just answer some questions while being timed. The Blue questions are always answered verbally, and the Red questions usually involve the dice or some manual dexterity element. Blue asks first, then Red. You may answer either question in any order you choose, and questions are asked from top to bottom. Few caveats:
- There are answers written on the cards, but any answer may be accepted by the interrogator. If they accept a technically wrong answer, well, that’s good for you!
- The interrogators should not speak at the same time. It’s just … loud. Try not to talk over anyone or talk while the player is answering a question.
- If the question is answered incorrectly, the interrogator simply asks the question again. Note that they may also ask the question again whenever they’d like. They should ask the next question as soon as you’ve given the correct answer, though.
- You are allowed one “Pass” each round. That causes the timer to shift forward to the next number (without being flipped). More on the timer in a second.
Well, you have to consider the timer. You have two minutes. Every 30 seconds, the Timekeeper will flip the timer onto the next number. If they forget, that’s their bad, not yours! When time runs out on the 4, you’re done. Once that happens, score! Check the number next to the bottom-most question you got right on each card. Multiply those numbers (4 x 3 = 12, for instance), and that’s your score for the round.
Play continues until every player has taken a turn answering questions, and then you move on to Round 2! Round 2 is much the same as Round 1, but this time, the player answering questions must keep track of their time and flip the timer as needed. The Timekeeper’s job is now to make sure the timer doesn’t run out. If it runs out at any point, they may call time, and that player’s turn ends prematurely. Be careful!
If that were as bad as it got, you’d probably be okay. But Round 3 is the most challenging of all! Players no longer keep track of their own time; the Timekeeper gets it back. But now, the Timekeeper keeps the timer obscured, so that the player can’t see it. At any point, the player may say, “Flip!” to flip the timer over onto the next number. Like Round 2, if the timer runs out, though, their turn is over!
Add your score from all three rounds, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
So this is a game that has basically zero differences in gameplay as player counts increase; the game just takes progressively longer because each round has more turns with more players. The game itself doesn’t play differently, though. I may recommend the game at 3 – 4, since that means there’s no downtime for players where they’re not doing something, but honestly, it can be kind of nice after a stressful round to get a break of some kind. Up to you. I just like always kind of being in the experience of playing the game, and at 5+ you’re going to have a few rounds where you’re just watching. Thankfully, watching someone else have a Very Stressful Time is still pretty funny, so it works out. That said, still preferred at 3 – 4 players.
- I try to do the dice questions first. They’re technically the most valuable, since they get you one point per question. They’re also usually more challenging, since you have to manipulate the dice before you can actually answer (you can’t just answer verbally like you can with the Blue Cards).
- Remember where the letters you want are. It’s likely worth looking at the dice before you start the round. Here’s a freebie: all the vowels are on the white dice. I’m also reasonably sure there’s no W on any of the dice (conflicts with M), so that might eliminate some words. Don’t quote me on that one, though. I just know there’s at least one letter missing.
- I recommend tuning one of the interrogators out for a bit. They can get kind of loud and distracting; focusing on what one of them is asking you can allow you to make good progress on theirs before going back to the other one. It’s that selective hearing that my parents always gave me so much grief over. It’s finally paying off in this game!
- There tend to be some pretty easy blue questions (verbals). Try to get the low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of blue questions where the answer can literally be anything. It might ask what your favorite color is or which player is the most generous. No justification required; just blurt something out and move on! Don’t get stuck on those; I’ve seen it happen and my heart breaks for those people, especially once they realize.
- Make absolutely sure you answer at least one question from both cards. If you don’t, it’s a 0. And 0 times any number you can score in this game is still 0. That’s a bummer. You usually see it happen at least once in Round 2 and Round 3; players get surprised by the timer and forget to lock something down. 1 * 1 isn’t much better, but it’s still a point on the board.
- Watch the time! You need to keep track of time if you want to pull this one off. If you’re forgetting to keep track, you’re going to lose points you could have otherwise gained.
- Try your best to keep track of the time in Round 3; it’s going to be almost impossible to do well, but do your best. I’ve tried everything from tapping out a one-second interval to trying to get an intuitive sense of how long 30 seconds is. You probably can do it, but, it seems like a weird skill to pick up solely for being good at this game and the Postman Challenge in Majora’s Mask. Just be careful about when you flip! If you flip too early, you’re just getting that time back (like in Magic Maze), so make sure at least 15 seconds have passed, if you can.
- Passing isn’t the worst thing you can do. It’s not great, since it’s guaranteed to lose you 30 seconds, but if you’re stuck you’re wasting all that time anyways. It’s a good way to get out of what I call a “fixation”, where your brain won’t let go of a wrong answer.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Hilarious. I never thought a party game about stress would land, but this one clearly does. It’s a hoot. Even players, once they calm down and stop swearing at me for inflicting this game on them, usually laugh about it. Maybe not the best game for my office board game lunch, though. Testimonials from that include, “I come to this lunch to relax, and now I’m stressed. And I have to go to meetings after this.” High praise for watching your friends get stressed trying to answer simpleish questions, though! It’s got similar energy to Anomia, one of my all-time favorite party games.
- Very simple to learn. You already know how to play; you just answer some questions. How hard could that be?
- Lots of anti-frustration features in the rules. They note that the white dice are all vowels, that interrogators shouldn’t speak over each other or other players, and that they may accept answers that aren’t printed on the cards. I think those are all good things to let players know so that the game isn’t stymied by easily-avoided pitfalls.
- This game gets challenging. In a good way. I think it’s a fun bit of high-stakes Q&A, though I’d love to see a version where the Blue Cards are all just very personal. I think that could be humorous. Maybe an idea for an expansion?
- I have a lot of fun introducing this game in parts. I usually wait until they’ve played Round 1, then I pretend like I’m letting them manage their own time as a gift. Once they’re mad at me, I usually tell them that I realize that managing their own time is stressing them out, so I’m going to go back to managing it. And, out of kindness, I’m going to hide the timer so that they don’t stress about it. For some reason, they don’t appreciate this gesture of goodwill. My friends are so ungrateful sometimes.
- Pretty portable. It’s mostly just the cards and dice. Worst case, you can use a phone timer, if you want. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a chess timer app, though.
- I like the way the scoring system rewards progression on both fronts. Haven’t seen much multiplicative scoring used this way; I think it’s pretty great! It does a nice job of giving you more points per progression as you move upwards, as well, which is good (later questions are usually worth X points, where X is the current number of points you’ve earned from the other card).
- Seems like a pretty nice game to expand. Like I said, you can vary the Blue Question Cards pretty easily. I know the red ones take a lot of work since there needs to be some analysis of what words can be made from the cards and then translation work. It’s a lot of work to expand the game, but I think it might be a good move if the cards start getting stale.
- There are going to be people who are going to enjoy watching this game a lot more than playing it. I generally subscribe to the same rule as drinking games for this one. You’re more than welcome to watch the game, but if you choose to watch you also have to play (though for drinking games, I offer water). It seems more … fair to have players who want to spectate only spectate as a condition of their participation.
- It’s kind of a skill you can get better at. I offer one caveat to my previous statement; I usually sit out the first game, as a player with a decent amount of experience. I think that’s more fun for new players.
- Functionally, after four players the fifth, sixth, and seventh players don’t have a lot to do when they’re not playing. I get that it goes from 3 – 7, but I’d honestly rather have a second copy of the game and just play two games of it. It’s not as bad as, say, Tuki, because it’s still fun to watch when you’re not playing, but I do like participating.
- In general, I find some sand timers finicky. I’ve had a number of occasions where just turning this timer over doesn’t start the time; you have to tap it to unclog the sand. That’s fine, but it certainly isn’t great.
- There are a couple questions that strike me as odd / not great. I particularly don’t like things like “what’s the worst thing about the player to your left” or some that rely on colloquialisms or idioms. The former case just might be a bit aggressive. In the latter case, I think that makes the game really hard for some players, and not in a “humorously stressful” way, more in a “this game is inaccessible” way. I’d say substitute a question from the next card if that ever comes up as an easy way to address that.
- It’s hard to play this game while other games are going on. The last time I played this one, I had to chastise some other players in a different game who were shouting wrong answers at the player. It’s not super cool to do that in this specific game.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Stay Cool is a blast! I just … really enjoy it. Do I want to play it all the time? No. It’s stressful. But I usually have a good sense of the right groups for it, and whenever we play it, I have a blast. The other players? Who knows; I’m not as concerned about them. I kid; they’re usually laughing at the end of the round. I wouldn’t recommend this game for your extremely anxious friends, but if your friends are fine with some self-inflicted, low-stakes, and ephemeral stress, this will definitely cause that. And it’s fun! It’s a smart little game, in that way. It relies very heavily on the good science that people can’t multitask well, and gradually builds up and then devastates your confidence. That’s my favorite part about multitasking research (yes, I have a “favorite part” of media multitasking research, thank you): everyone thinks they’re much better at multitasking than they are. This game’s a really good way to learn that cruel truth. I wouldn’t call it a puzzle game in the same way that Anomia really isn’t a puzzle game; they’re party games through and through. They’re just party games that will cause you some mild consternation because they’re hard. And that’s good! I had a blast learning this at PAXU and instantly thought of a friend I wanted to teach this to. And I think that’s what’s nice about Stay Cool; it makes you think of a person you want to play it with. You want to see how they’ll be able to do! I haven’t had many gaming experiences that have been that specific, but I found it really valuable. And if you like party games, multitasking challenges, or taking a couple years off your life due to stress, you may like Stay Cool, as well!