Affection is a card-based, turn-taking game with a simple aim: be as vulnerable as possible. I am probably the least-equipped person to do this.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I’m autistic. Contrary to the many inaccurate stereotypes about autism, I do have feelings. I actually experience empathy to an alarming degree; I can’t begin to tell you the amount of TV shows and books that have ruined me, emotionally, for days and weeks.

Affection

robohaven
May 24, 2019

Sidequest was provided with a print-and-play version of Affection in exchange for a fair and honest review.

My problem is articulating my feelings. I can write them down to fully express and rehearse what I want to say (mostly). But trying to give them form in a spontaneous moment, during a conversation or casual exchange? The words never come out quite right when I speak them. It’s like there’s a disconnect between my brain and my heart. I’ve learned to put up barriers. I learned never to say what I really thought because, when I did, it rarely went well. I put a distance between who I am and who I am around others, the latter being a more palatable and socially acceptable version.

On top of this, I always feel like I never have time to just be with other people. I think back to my 20s, of weekends spent on some random adventure with friends, and I just feel tired.

So of course, I had to choose a game which asks players to not only make time for each other, but to bare their souls, to be genuine. I like playing life on Nightmare Mode, it seems.

What drew me to Affection in the first place was the focus upon being vulnerable with another person. It’s a game designed to be played with a partner, or partners (friends or otherwise). The initial premise is that you and your partner(s) awaken in a strange environment. “Divine machines” surround you, asking questions about you and your companion(s). To return home, players must respond to the questions honestly.

To do this, players use a deck of cards, each containing a Prompt question designed to elicit a memory or a truth. The cards also have beautiful illustrations of graceful robotic humanoid figures who reflect the Prompt of the card.

An illustration/sketch of a "divine machine" on a Level 1 card. The Prompt reads:: Cherish - who or what do you hold near and dear to your heart? Affection, robohaven, 2019.

A Level 1 Prompt Card

There isn’t an X card, an increasingly popular mechanism used by a player to signal to others that they are uncomfortable with a topic and want the group to move away from it. However, these tend to be used in roleplaying games where a Games Master may accidentally force a theme or situation upon players that causes harm to them.

Affection, on the other hand, seems to want players to explore, safely, where their tension is coming from. There’s also a focus upon trying to resolve, or at least address, the issue.

Players can go through the cards (or “Stack the Deck”) at the start to see if there are any that cause a “restlessness.” The game’s rules advise that if this is something players should discuss, the card should be kept in the deck. Note it doesn’t ask if the players “want” to talk about the restlessness. There’s a parallel here with Star Crossed, a game which asks players to think about what kind of discomfort they’re experiencing—is it bad or good discomfort? These games challenge the players to examine their feelings in order to gain insight.

I was initially worried about this. As I said before, I’m not good at finding the right words and was concerned I’d make a “restless” situation worse. Going through the cards with my partner, I scrunched up my nose at certain Prompts. They felt too personal, too exposed, too likely to cause an argument. We talked about these cards as openly as I could and agreed to keep most. I still felt uncomfortable with the ones we kept, but not to an extreme. I wanted to move us out of our safety zone a little, but I didn’t want to run screaming from it. Affection requires a great amount of trust and, if I was playing with anyone but my partner, I’m not sure I could have handled this.

A good ground rule is that if the restlessness comes from “something that doesn’t involve anyone [present],” the card should be discarded. It’s a neat little way to ensure the game doesn’t drag in any outside issues; after all, how can these be properly addressed if the relevant people aren’t there to engage with it?

Another way of establishing the right level of comfort comes from the different cards types. The cards go from Level 1 to Level 3; the higher the level, the more challenging the emotional vulnerability, familiarity, and intimacy. It’s a good way to allow players to set their boundaries clearly and honestly before the game even starts. Level 1 cards can be played with “friends old and new,” Level 2 cards are for those who like to become “closer friends,” and Level 3 cards “ask you to share more with a partner.” For example, one Level 1 card is “Reflect: look back on when you and your companion met. Have you grown?” In comparison, a Level 3 card says, “Mention: reveal something about your companion that they may have overlooked.”

I wanted to get a sense of how this game would work with a partner as well as a group of friends. I started with my partner as this was the easiest to organise (what with living together and everything).

The rules advise that players “set the scene.” This means creating a comfortable space, and players are told they can do this by throwing down a comfy blanket, lighting some candles, or sitting in a circle of treasured items. It was here I realised how much effort it seemed to make time for ourselves. Most of our possessions are packed away as we’re prepping our home for sale. I put off playing the game for several days because I was just too tired to rummage around boxes or find some candles.

We reminisced briefly as we collected the items together, and smiled as we tried to arrange the mismatched objects into some kind of chaotic order.

Eventually, we pulled together an invitation from our wedding day, a scarf souvenir from our honeymoon in Japan, a soft toy I’d bought my known associate, and a Totoro hat we both loved. I managed to find a pair of dusty tea lights and set them a sensible distance away from our (very flammable) pile of memories.

This small task actually set the scene well and showed we were playing the game already. We reminisced briefly as we collected the items together, and smiled as we tried to arrange the mismatched objects into some kind of chaotic order. It was a way to find connection.

As I’m writing this, my defence mechanisms are kicking in. I keep wanting to make a joke, or undercut my words with a self-deprecating remark. You can imagine what came next in the game itself was an incredible challenge because of my bad habits.

The gameplay is simple. Each player receives three cards, or fewer depending upon the number of players or cards being used. One person picks a card from their hand and becomes the Speaker. Before they outline their card, they may describe their Needs e.g. whether they want to be comforted about what they’re about to say.

The remaining players are Listeners. Once the Speaker has finished, the Listeners can then give their Reactions. This could be a response such as saying thank you to the Speaker, or a Listener sharing their own experience related to the prompt. After that, the Speaker role then moves to the player on the left.

The game ends once all players have taken turns and used up their cards. Players are then encouraged to hold hands and/or face each other, expressing their gratitude to have learned more about their companion(s), as well as say what they are glad to have shared about themselves. There isn’t a fail condition in the game; the winning comes in growing closer. However, it could go very, very wrong if players don’t respect boundaries. An X card or an additional safety mechanic besides Stack the Deck would ensure better protection for companions’ well-being.

I started off awkwardly trying to express my thoughts, reminiscing about a fond shared memory. What made the experience much easier, however, was my partner’s support and earnestness. In truth, it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. When we met, I had spent a very long time telling myself that I had to pretend to be someone else, that I had to “tone it down.” It was a shock to find someone who not only wore his heart on his sleeve, but reassured me that I could be who I am.

The more we played the game, the more I realised we hadn’t talked like this together in a very long time. Affection encourages emotional intimacy and strengthening of bonds, but it also reminds you this can only happen if you dedicate time to doing so.

What made the experience much easier, however, was my partner’s support and earnestness.

We ended up hugging at the end, and I felt closer to my partner than I had for a while. It was a reminder that our relationship was built on more than Netflix marathons and a shared apprehension of social events.

Overall, the game didn’t take long to finish between two people: around 20 to 30 minutes at most. The premise and rules are straightforward and easy to grasp. The Needs and Reactions examples are great for giving players a starting point. There isn’t much of a story, however, besides the ones you share. The “Divine machines” didn’t factor into our game apart from their role as an initial narrative prompt. It seems a shame, as the art and premise are interesting and might have been better used. Instead, at the end, the rules only suggest that players ask “Are you and the divine machines satisfied with the answers shared between you?” The focus is really upon the players and what has been said rather than the roleplaying setting.

One of the main strengths (and potential pitfalls) of Affection is that it requires players to really engage. To help with this, the different “challenge” levels of cards and the Stack the Deck options make it an adaptable game for various settings, groups, and relationships. Yet the other major risk in the game (besides the lack of back-up safety mechanics) is that you have to be absolutely certain the people you’re playing with are happy to engage in the same level of emotional intimacy. I can foresee some difficult conversations between couples or friends who don’t feel as secure with expressing themselves in this way. Affection is partially designed to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zones in order to build intimacy, but it’s always possible that familiarity can lead to contempt.

Those used to live-action roleplaying (LARP) or tabletop roleplaying games may be more open to this type of play than a group who were expecting to play Settlers of Catan while checking their phone during Friday’s game night. Communicating and setting expectations beforehand is key. On the other hand, players used to acting as characters may actually find this more of a challenge. I’m fine with roleplaying games, letting my subconscious run riot while disguised as a half-elf rogue with a looting problem. But that’s the thing: it’s not me, not really.

Affection is the kind of game that would normally send me running. Yet by giving me prompts, it gave me words to express what I felt. There were rules, with clear guidelines for creating a safe environment. Affection asks players to do the most difficult thing of all: be vulnerable, and be yourself. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience if you can achieve this.

Despite this positive experience, I had a bigger, practical issue. The playthrough with my friends never ended up happening. I’d like to say life just got in the way. That’s true, to an extent: busy calendars, unexpected family issues, poor organisation skills on my part due to work stresses, et cetera.

We live in a society that emphasises our value in relation to what we produce. Seeing family and friends gets relegated to maybe a weekend here or there, or perhaps a drink once a month if I’m lucky. We catch up via WhatsApp or text message because coordinating an actual get-together requires energy I don’t always have. We used to meet every weekend, often going on trips to see friends. Now we’re older, the responsibilities that come with this mean I don’t have that kind of free time anyone.

Affection is the kind of game that would normally send me running. Yet by giving me prompts, it gave me words to express what I felt.

However, playing Affection makes me question this. Not that I think the pressures of capitalism, 37-hour weeks, and 4 hours’ daily commute time don’t weigh a person down. It’s more that I wonder about when I suddenly started thinking of my emotional well-being as less important than everything else.

I know there are institutional and systemic issues behind this that I can’t solve alone. Many jobs could be done via remote working most of the week, yet office environments often insist on being in a physical building because of traditions based on old, outdated modes of working. I’m disabled by societal expectations and exhausted mentally by constantly self-monitoring what I say and do. Bills to pay, mortgages to maintain, dependents to take care of.

But there are things I can do, especially in my relatively privileged position. I can become more involved in activism, I can become (and am) part of a union, I can advocate for the disadvantaged.

I can also, maybe once a week, play a game with others to remind me that I actually do exist. Or rather, that I can do more than just exist. It was strange to play something that made me feel able to express myself verbally and, more incredibly, to really believe expressions of affection directed toward me. Even with my partner of nearly ten years and with friends I’ve known for over half my life, old defence mechanisms mean I still balk at the idea that people both love and accept me. Yet just using Affection’s prompts with my known associate meant I was able to find the words I wanted. It gave me permission to feel vulnerable, something I just don’t do, but also loved.

Playing Affection hasn’t meant I’ve dismantled all of my emotional barriers. However, it did show me it’s possible, if just for 20 minutes to start with.