23 Oct The Most Peculiar of Themes: A review of Why First?
Why First? is a particularly interestingly themed game in that it asks the “why” of how games traditionally award a winner. More specifically, the game asks: “Why do we always award the individual in first place?” Whether you need to score as many points as possible or aim for a low score (as in golf), the one crowned victor at the end of the game is the one in first place. But why is that? Why can’t the winner be the one who scored the second- or third-most points? Why does it always have to be the individual in first?
In Why First? players are racing around a track trying to end the round in second place. Each round consists of five turns where players are playing cards facedown in front of one another and then, as these cards are revealed turn by turn, the targeted players move forward or backward on the track based on the value printed on the card(s). In the last turn of the round, players must play their last card on themselves. This also results in moving positively or negatively along the track. Upon finishing the round, players examine which pawn stands in second place. This player is then awarded the number of points equal to the corresponding number on the space occupied by their pawn. This is tallied on a notepad, and players then go directly into the next round. The game is played over five rounds, and the player with the second-most points at the end of the game is the winner!
That’s right. Not only do you have to place second to score in a given round, but you also have to be in second place at the end of the game to win. There are layers to the narrative going on here—and it is absolutely delightful.
Why First? feels different from other small-box games in so many ways. My gaming groups have found it particularly fun to tell everyone at the table who is winning at the end of the first round. Given that only one score has been given out (to the second-place player based on track placement), all the remaining players are tied for second overall with 0 points. This adds another layer of fun given that scoring does not always benefit the player. I have also seen where a player simply cannot stop landing in second, and are out of the race for second place by the end because they have scored too many points throughout the game. Never have I played a game where “good” play is punished the way it can be here. While some might find that this sounds frustrating, given the 20-minute play time, it can be quite hysterical for everyone at the table, including the one continually landing in second.
Additionally, as bizarre as the theme is, it also captures the hearts of non-gamers. Every time I pull a stack of games from off my shelf to play with those who are new to the hobby, the theme of Why First? captures their hearts. It’s funny and yet contemplative. It seems so familiar, and yet so unique. Everyone loves trying to be second! There seems to be less pressure than always trying to finish on top.
Overall, when I first heard about this game, I was a bit skeptical and felt that it was all a gimmick, and maybe at some level it is. That being said, the publisher and designer clearly knew that it would be a bit gimmicky—and played into that at an extreme level. The characters are goofy, the cards are goofy, and the entire notion of needing to be in second place in all matters (even end-game scoring) made everything feel right. In this game, the gimmick was fully embraced, and you find moments where the game is laughing at itself. I find this to be endearing. Why First? knows what it is and truly capitalizes on it.