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Vintage Board Games: Whosit?

Nostalgia is a wonderful and dangerous thing. Much of my childhood was spent sitting on the shag carpet floor of our spare room, listening to my mother's old Smothers Brothers records and begging my older siblings to play board games with me. When even one of them finally acquiesced, I was the happiest six-year-old on the block.

I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.

Specifically, I’ve been chasing it through local estate sales, searching for Live at the Purple Onion on vinyl and for a copy of any one of the many board games my parents stored so high in the closet I had to stand on my mother’s sewing machine to reach.

Game publishers attempt to capitalize on the desire to recapture one's youth by producing "classic" editions of their popular board games. Some may think this would eliminate the need for estate sale treasure hunting, but you and I both know that's not the case. Monopoly's "classic" edition features the original gameplay, but uses updated tokens—the iron has been replaced by a cat, and soon the thimble will have a successor as well. And even legitimate throwbacks to the original lack sincerity. The anniversary edition of Candyland may have all the images you remember from your childhood, but it's missing the patina that comes with from a life well-played. It's too bright. Too shiny. Too new. 

Besides, some vintage games are unlikely to be resurrected. They served their purpose decades ago, and have since fallen out of favor. Perhaps it was based on TV show that has since been cancelled, or it's based in technology that's now obsolete. But those games are more likely to be found on a shelf at an antique mall or tag sale rather than a big box store.

This week I caught the tip of that Nostalgia Dragon’s tail by finally bringing home a well-preserved copy of one of my very favorite and very out of print games: Whosit?

Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?

The game long ago captured my attention, and I expected an appropriate level of enthusiasm from those around me. And while I was disappointed by the response of most every adult—none of whom recognized it from their own childhood—when I showed it to my daughter, she gasped. And while I’m sure it was simply because her mother brought home a new game to play together, I like to think deep down it was in appreciation of what was clearly a well-preserved snapshot of another era. She could see my own reverence for the game flashing in my eyes, and was at once in awe and enthusiastic at the potential for a wonderful family bonding experience reminiscent of her mother's own childhood experience.

It was a pretty big gasp.

Whosit? was made by Parker Brothers in 1976. There was only one edition of the game made, and there’s little information available, it seems, on the game’s ultimate demise—Parker Brothers has long since been bought out by Hasbro, making information scarce. But since Milton Bradley's Guess Who was introduced just a few short years later in 1979, shortly before it, too, was bought by Hasbro, one could reasonably conclude the publisher felt the market couldn't handle so many games of secret identity. 

And while Guess Who has had inarguably more staying power, Whosit? was arguably the superior game for a number of reasons.

Instead of illustrations of exaggerated faces with pursed lips, to be identified only for their facial features and not the content of their character, Whosit? featured 4-color photographs and a varied cast. The red, yellow, and blue backgrounds, and balloon-like font epitomized 1970s style in a way even I, a child in the early 1980s, could recognize. Three decades later, they remain as endearingly dated as the day they were printed.

I dreamed of one day having my picture taken in front of those saturated backdrops. 

I still do.

A child could spend countless hours looking at the game, admiring these people, all with careers, hobbies, habits, but no names. I did just that, making alternating decisions about which character I wanted to be, both in the game and personally.

Which brings me to my next point:

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this cast. Unlike the game’s more popular successor, there are an equal number of men and women in play, and an equal number of white and non-white characters. And while in a perfect world the variety would be greater, most games—both then and now—tended to have an all white cast or only token representation. (I’m looking at you, Clue.

Whosit? has a level of diversity you’re not going to see in many other games of this era.

There are certainly some issues that exist in this regard. The game refers to the Asian characters as “Oriental,” for instance, which became a talking point before our 2017 inaugural game. Regardless, the representation is remarkable when compared to other games.

The rules of the game, which can be played by up to six people, are simple. Each player chooses a character card at random. The pertinent characteristics of each person are listed on their card, eliminating the possibility of ambiguity.

Each player will be dealt a hand of question cards. You, on your turn, can choose from those cards, select an opponent, and ask them a question, which they must answer "yes," or "no." And with all character traits clearly printed on the card, your opponents will not give you misinformation.

Not intentionally, at least.

Each player is expected to answer truthfully. That is, unless they have been assigned any of the four corner characters—then all bets are off. Two characters—the gangster and the spy—will always lie. The censor always answers no, and the director can answer yes or no as he pleases.

Once your opponent has answered the question, you may choose to end your turn, or to guess the identity of all players. After the guess has been made, all players individually place a chip into a box. (For this part of the game, all players must answer truthfully) One side is marked “yes,” the other side, “no.” If a player was correctly identified, he or she will put a chip in the “yes” box. If not, the chip will go into the “no” side. If anyone answered “no,” the game continues. Only the guesser sees how many yes and no answers there are.

One key to resurrecting old board games is to adjust your expectations. What was once a magical experience at 6-years-old may lose its spark several decades later. I wanted Whosit? for its aesthetic alone, but was pleased by how easily playable it remained. Though it is a simple game, it is challenging enough that gamers of any age can both play and win. My child won handily on more than one occasion, through deductive reasoning, better recall ability than her mother, and, perhaps, a little bit of luck. 

As publishers continue to tinker with even the most tried and true games, discontinuing playable tokens and retiring longstanding characters, they move farther away from what many of us remember playing as children. Estate sales are a great resource for those wanting to preserve those memories and share them with newer generations.

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