In the confines of my mind, I self-identify as the Michael Jordan of blending in. Ever since I was running around in little booties I’ve been enamored with fantasy and science fiction worlds, recreating epic exploits of cardboard and plastic myth. In high school I was the guy who’d whisper to his friends about our last D&D session, quickly shutting up when a jock or other society designated “normal” person walked by. I’m sitting at work right now and my co-workers don’t even know that just last night thousands perished in the ancient Mediterranean as my Roman legions crashed upon Egyptian shores.
All that learned skill of fitting in and acting like I belong? Well, Big Potato games has finally found a way for me to channel that talent. My spirit animal is the chameleon and I didn’t even know it. Michael Jordan ain’t got nothin’ on me.
The Chameleon is the re-release of designer Rikki Tahta’s standout title Gooseberry. It’s functionally identical with a few new updates and lovely component upgrades. The setup is simple and you can teach this game to even your dog in just a few minutes; although it’s probably not exciting enough to warrant your cat’s attention.
A topic card is randomly placed in the middle of the table. This can be something like Mythical Creatures or Food if you’re lucky (everyone loves food). On the card is a grid with different words in each coordinate-Corn at A1, Salad at D2, Hot Dog at C1, you get the idea. Then each player is given a reference card and two dice are rolled. The dice values correspond to one of those grid coordinates by translating their value on the reference card each player is holding. So based on a roll of some dice, we all now know that the key word is Tacos. I love me some tacos.
But you’re over to the side and you’re starting to sweat. Not because you suffer from hyperhidrosis but because you’re the chameleon. Instead of a reference sheet translating that dice roll to a coordinate, you have a queue card that says “You are the Chameleon!” How cute and brazenly antagonistic for the game to be mocking you already.
You don’t want anyone to know you’re a shape changing lizard; think of the children. So instead of looking confused you fight back the beads of perspiration and pretend like you’re looking up the code word in the middle of the table. Maybe you rotate your faux reference card 180 degrees and make like you couldn’t read the coordinate list upside down. Yeah, now we’re talking. They won’t know what kind of creepy little squamata bit ’em.
Then you take a couple of minutes and everyone’s trying to think of a clue associated with that key word of Tacos. They want to come up with another word that lets the other humans know they’re not, in fact, a reptile. The trick is it can’t be too obvious or the chameleon will hone in on the actual answer and steal the win. So people muddle around for a few seconds spinning their cognitive gears.
But yeah, you’re still sweating. You’re looking at all these words–Pizza, Hamburger, etc.–and you’re trying to come up with a reasonable lie. Maybe you arrive at something generic like unhealthy or meat. Maybe you take a bigger risk and go lettuce or foreign. Either way, you’re in trouble and you’re trying desperately to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Then we start going around clockwise from the first player. If you’re the first player then you’re really in trouble. The Chameleon in this situation is as vulnerable as a baby bird without a nest. But you’re lucky in this regard as you’re third in the firing squad. Jenny says cheese, Aaron says party (I believe he was thinking a synonym for fiesta, but who knows with Aaron), and then you decide to change your answer and mimic Jenny’s.
After everyone’s done sharing their clue, 12 Angry Men rolls and you all start arguing. Discussion takes several interesting turns as people are accused and answers are debated over a few minutes. Jim doesn’t think you honestly thought of the same clue as Jenny and keeps poking you in the ear for the length of it. Finally a vote is called and those reeky varlots all point at you. “You are the Chameleon!” Thanks for nothing Rikki.
You’re given one last chance at redemption by guessing the actual word. It all comes down to how precariously balanced the group’s clues were and where that debate went. There’s legit strategy and contemplation amid the noise. For a 10 minute game, this delivers quite a nip to the badonka-a donk.
The Chameleon is not wholly original. It comes across as a refinement of the beloved Spyfall and Codenames. The combination is pretty sleek and feels appropriately refined. This is a smooth game and it improves on the large flaw of Spyfall in that participants are not required to memorize a set of possible locations. Instead, the keywords change every game and the entire group must reference the shared sheet at the middle of the table. This is huge.
Play follows a natural arc of newcomers typically offering obvious clues. Then you gain some game and things become more subtle, probably too subtle. No, I didn’t realize Sternberger was the last name of the person who invented the cheeseburger (seriously, who does?)
Eventually, the meta-game evens out and depth truly emerges. Choices become more difficult and strategy is teased out cleverly. The fact that the game is so damn quick allows for a proper vetting with continuous play. It’s really an ideal combo.
The main downside is that you really want a decently sized group for this one. It technically works at three or four players, but it sings like a poetic rap-tile if you can muster 5-8 willing souls. There’s more breathing room for the mimic and information is more layered.
In its proper habitat, The Chameleon is a hit. It presents a tasty challenge within a winning framework and improves on the flaws of its peer. It slots in nicely alongside a recent swell of similar titles and manages to ironically stand out. I’m not saying I’ll be breaking this out with my co-workers anytime soon but never say never.
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Image Credits: Big Potato