“Sadness: Into The Rays” is an indie board game, with an intended print run of 10. I'm lucky enough to have a copy, and I'd love to show you some pictures of it – but I can't. Right there in the manual, on page three, it says this - “The designer asks that you do not share any images from this game. Your personal copy is yours, and yours alone. You may talk about Sadness, and relate your experiences with Sadness. But please do not share any images of Sadness with anyone else.”
Needless to say, Sadness: Into The Rays is a solitaire game. I review it here today.
SADNESS: INTO THE RAYS
When is a game a game? It's not something that comes up often when talking about tabletop gaming. It's something we talk about a lot with computer games. Many computer games, as they explore more narrative experiences, start to detach from the concepts of play. But tabletop games rarely do that. They rarely offer up experiences that are purely experiential. Sadness is different.
Sadness: ITR arrives inside a plastic baggie. The contents are a rulebook, a paper “map”, a few counters, some cards and a single die. There is no colour in the print. It is monochrome, rough and ready, like a fanzine printing. There were, inside my copy at least, some flower petals. There is another little booklet inside that I'm not allowed to tell you about. I think I can say that it offers some bizarre, surreal variants to the experience of the game.
Is it a game? Yes, I believe it is. As much as any experience is.
Let's start with the map. It's a map of a town, that much is clear. There are streets and houses, all of them named and numbered. There are spaces for movement, and one of the counters is a small cardboard square that has “YOURSELF” written on it.
At the top of the map, there is a section called “THE RAYS”. I'm not sure what it represents, but there are movement spaces there too, and illustrations of birds and animals, flowers and trees. Clouds. It's some kind of “heavenly” space, perhaps. There are spaces for named sections there, too. But the rules tell you that you should fill these spaces in yourself (directly from the rulebook, this): “Name The Rays in a manner that feels correct for you as an individual. Use pen, not pencil, and write from the heart.”
I've named my Rays, but I don't think it's important to tell you the names I chose.
The games is broken up into three phases.
THE THINGS YOU TAKE AWAY
TRAVEL is movement, and a die roll will tell you how far you can move. You can move freely through the streets of the town, but buildings need to be waited at, and can only be entered in the VISITS phase. There's no way to go to The Rays during the TRAVEL phase. That's the interesting thing. It's on the map, but you can't go there.
In VISITS, you consult the rulebook for the buildings you're waiting at. Each building has a paragraph describing who lives there, in some detail. Strangely, there is both backstory for the people living or working in the buildings – and information on how they live and how they die. There are a few charts for each building called “Visit Grids” and you choose which grid to encounter, and make a die roll. You cross reference the result and find out what happens. I'll give you an example.
I visited the Lavender Blue Cafe. Inside there worked a woman called Daphne Morgan. She was 32 years old, single, and Lavender Blue was owned by her mother. Her mother had recently passed away. Daphne loves to read. She has two cats – one is called Pepper and the other is called Pip. It's weird how much of this I remember. I'm not checking the book as I write this. Daphne was writing letters to a man from Your Town (this is mentioned a lot in Sadness - “Your Town” - you're a visitor, you see...) and she felt like she was falling in love with him.
One of the Lavender Blue Grids allowed me to have a coffee. But another one allowed me to “Ask Daphne How She Feels Today”. I chose that one and made a roll. The result was a 5, and the grid told me that Daphne told me she was “feeling quite alright.”
Once you make a visit, make a choice, and make a roll – you enter the THINGS YOU TAKE AWAY phase – where you can either DRAW or REDRAW a card. Here's the clincher. The cards are blank. If you draw a card, it's blank. And there are only ten cards in the game. But the rules tell you that you can write upon the card in pencil and “using knowledge you have gained during your visit, apply story, instruction and a modifier.” You can write some information about Daphne on the card, in as much detail as you want, and then apply a die roll modifier. Why do you want to apply a modifier? Well, the die only rolls up to a 6. And the grids all have 18 results. When you REDRAW a card, you can erase a card you already have from previous plays of the game and create a new one.
Only ten cards, remember. You can only fill out information and create modifiers for ten people that you visit, then it's all a do-over. The information that you learn? You're almost creating that by yourself.
On those visits – not all of the buildings are occupied. Some of them are empty. And the rulebook tells you that you should move people into them. This means you create your own stories, writing them into the rulebook, and building your own grids. It even suggests that you move yourself in, and try to “visit yourself regularly.”
I have no idea how or when you're supposed to move up to The Rays. There's nothing in TRAVEL for it, and nothing in VISITS. But there is a section in the rulebook called “Into The Rays” and it tells you to “...move into The Rays when the time is right. There are no grids, cards, or die rolls here. But moving Into The Rays is a form of visitation, and you should take time to consider your visit and understand the things you take away.”
Sadness is a deeply odd, and deeply emotional game. It's a world you build by yourself, and you use simple mechanics to explore the world, creating most of your own rules as you go. When you move Into The Rays, the experience is like a form of meditation. You stop and think about who you're visiting, and why. You don't draw any cards or write any stories on them, but you think about what you learn from each of the Rays you named or created.
That booklet I can't tell you about? The one with the variants? It moves Sadness further into the real world, incorporating elements of your approach to the game into your approach to life.
Sadness feels like a place. Like something you've imagined. It's a kind of make-believe. It's certainly play. But it's also a process of discovery. But then, isn't that what much of play is?
Back to the mainstream, with a review of something more conventional. And then, soon after, the indie sector again – and my review of the incredible Cave Evil.