Review: When In Rome

This #VoiceGame is certainly one of the most anticipated products in the voice space: A board game that is moderated by Alexa! So… Does it live up to the expectations of merging the best of two worlds? Or might it actually be over-hyped? It’s writing voice history as the first of its kind, so it definitely worth to dive into a deep analysis!

Disclaimer: I kindly received a free copy of the game for testing and reviewing purposes by its producers from Voice Originals. While I find this very generous and am generally fond of (actually, super excited about) this game, I am not affiliated to Voice Originals in any way, and do not deliberately advertise it.

Let’s start at the beginning! What‘s all this fuss about?

Apart from the fact that (at the time of writing this) it is just about to be released, there are three reasons why people are so excited about ‘When In Rome’:

The full game set, as displayed in the Amazon store
  1. It’s (to my knowledge) the first board game that is designed around Alexa. I’m aware of at least one card game for which a third party built a ‘moderator’ Skill, but for this game Alexa is a key element.
  2. It includes content voice-enacted by people around the world, which would make it interesting even as a standalone Skill (which it actually can be played as, and I encourage you to do so!). I remember that initially (like in December ‘17?) there was a call for volunteers to generate and contribute content, but Adva kindly pointed out that the content’s quality indicates the use of voice actors.
  3. Its producer ‘Sensible Object’ received 3.2 million USD of funding, partially from the Amazon Alexa fund — So we can look forward to more delightful voice experiences of the ‘Voice Originals’ series!
Alright — Let’s talk about the actual game! How does it work?

Sure, let’s dive right in! So… You have two teams, red and blue, and in each team you can have one to four players (it doesn’t actually matter).With your team, you travel around 20 cities of the world, meet locals, collect points by answering their trivia quiz questions, and hunt for souvenirs.

The souvenirs

Souvenirs play a key role in the game — Similar to that of the golden Snitch in Harry Potter’s Quiddich: They are very lovely physical artifacts that are ‘hidden’ around the world. Collecting a souvenir is worth more than correctly answering any other trivia question, and the game ends as soon as three souvenirs are collected, or nine rounds have been completed.

The game happens in rounds, and each round has a fixed structure:

  1. In a head-to-head question, the two teams compete at guessing a city about which Alexa drops hints. The teams take turns in making their guesses, and the first team that answers correctly gets either two points or an upgrade card (more on these soon), and can move their plane first.
World graph of ‘When In Rome’. It’s a flattened 3D graph, so there’s no intersection between Rome, San Francisco, Tokyo and Cairo

2. The first team chooses their next travel destination. Their degree of freedom is determined by the game board, which is a stylised world map with 20 cities, each of which is connected by 2 to 4 other cities each. A team’s current city is marked by an airplane token, and in this step it can be moved to an adjacent city.
Well… Actually, things start to get complex here: If you already answered a question correctly, you made a friend in the respective city, and if this ‘friendly’ city is adjacent to you, you can immediately reach any other city adjacent to it. Don’t worry if this is not immediately clear, Alexa will happily list all your options explicitly.

The two teams’ plane and friend tokens

3. You arrive in your destination, where you meet a local and get a short intro to the city. The local also gives you the choice between two topics that your trivia quiz question will be about, typically with an easy option (which is often ‘sports and games’) for 3 points and a hard option (often ‘arts and culture’ or ‘history and architecture’) for 5 points. After the local told you their question and and its 4 possible answers, Alexa plays some music and gives you time to think. When you have agreed on one answer, you are encouraged to interrupt the music by saying ‘Alexa, the answer is A!’, for example.
If your answer was correct, you gain not only some points, but the local also turns into a friend, which is manifested by placing a friend token in your team’s color on the respective city on the board.
In some rounds, the local tells you about ‘a rumor’ about where to find the next souvenir, whereupon the souvenir is placed in this city, and both parties should change their travel plans towards this city.

One example of an upgrade card

4. If you were so lucky as to receive an upgrade card in one of your last head-to-heads, you can receive a bonus by activating it at an opportune time between points 1 and 3. Upgrade cards have both fun utterances and various beneficial effects, such as skipping the head-to-head, immediately moving to a given city, changing your question, or getting a hint for it.

5. Now the other team (that lost the head-to-head) goes through steps two to four. Once they’re done, the round ends, and the next one starts with another head-to-head.

Wow, what a trip! How long does it take to get familiar with all these rules?

This is one of the areas in which Alexa brings value to the gaming experience: You don’t need to read the rules at all — Just leave the moderation to Alexa, and she will implicitly teach you the rules by applying them, listing your options, and giving you time to deliberate. She also keeps track of your tokens and points, and of course of whose turn it is.
One thing that she’s not aware of is which upgrade card you might have, so she doesn’t tell you when you might apply it — This is left as an exercise to the human! :)

Cool! Since we’re just talking about Alexa’s part, can we just investigate the narration in a bit more depth?

With the utmost pleasure! As we heard before, the game is moderated by Alexa, and it works well with her helpful, positive and friendly persona. Matching the ‘friend and family leisure time’ setting, her tone is more informal and playful, and she uses quite a bit of comments and occasional jokes like ‘Red team and blue team both have 7 points, which means you’re either equally smart or… Well, never mind!’.
A minor irritation with Alexa’s part is that few of her texts are oddly structured, with prompts or questions followed by more lines of text, but I’m confident that this will be fixed soon.

Another crucial aspect of the narration are the locals that you meet in the 20 cities. Locals are real humans, with their names and accents nicely matching their respective cities. Like Alexa, they are also friendly, helpful and talkative, e.g. giving you hints about the game, sharing fun facts about their cities, or congratulating you about your knowledge. There’s also some playful interaction between the locals and Alexa, which contributes to the game’s fun atmosphere.

Another noteworthy aspect about the narration is the use of audio content. The game uses short sound effects like a passing airplane or a card being lifted from a deck at given in-game events, and background music for times when the teams need to discuss something among themselves, with the expectation that they use the wake word to interrupt the music at any point. The latter strikes me as an elegant solution to allow for breaks and intermissions while keeping the dynamics of the game high.

Sounds good! Does it make sense to list the game’s engagement factors explicitly?

It sure does! This is a high-end voice game, and it makes a lot of sense to get inspired by how ‘When In Rome’ builds immersion!

  1. Pleasant interaction
    The entire audio content (both text and sound) is so natural, light and variable that it’s easy to forget that the game is managed by a piece of software. This also includes the fact that despite maintaining the game flow dynamic, e.g. by using background music, the Skill takes a back seat and leaves the players room to play it in their own pace.
  2. Interesting content
    Traveling is a very positively associated topic, and the questions by the locals are great pieces of content, both in terms of the execution with the recorded audio content and an in terms of how difficult and variable the questions are.
  3. Group dynamics
    The setup of having two teams with (potentially) several people in each allows for both teamwork and competition. Especially the competition part is well designed, with the head-to-head in each round, the strategic placement of ‘friends’ on the world map, and the upgrade cards, and the hunt for the souvenirs!
  4. Commitment
    This is nothing that can easily be reproduced, but it’s still a factor in both retention and engagement: If you play this game in its full version, you have invested 30 bucks and the time of yourself and your friends or family, and you’re not so likely to quit in the middle.
Wait, are you talking about retention factors now? What else do we have in that regard?

Apart from the commitment factor, a major driver of retention comes from the many degrees of freedom, and possible strategies emerging from it: What if you start in a different city? What if you try to skip the first souvenir and focus on building your ‘friend’ network? How is the gameplay different with another upgrade card?

Notably, more established retention factors like leaderboards, streaks, habit forming or badges are absent from this game, since they don’t make much sense for a board game with varying constellations.

Alright. So what’s the conclusion?

Honestly, I don’t even try to hide how excited I am about ‘When In Rome’! Let me establish why:
The general thought of Alexa as a game moderator is very obvious, but the more complex a game is, the more difficult this becomes — For example, the thought of Alexa as a dungeon master in a pen and paper role play game like Dungeons and Dragons has certainly crossed every #VoiceGame developer’s mind at some point, but up to now the closest approximation to that are Six Swords and Skyrim, and each lacks depths in its own way.
In this case, it could be similar: The use case is obvious, but maybe moderating a board game also requires skills that a software can’t have, like empathy, imagination, and mental flexibility? But lo and behold, it actually works! And not only moderately well, but actually so well that Alexa’s contribution to the game is helpful, valuable and enjoyable!

I personally think that Sensible Object have hit a gold mine here, and we will see a new genre (or generation) of voice-enabled board games emerging within the next months. (Maybe even with buttons or other gadgets!)

What’s your view on Alexa as a game moderator? Do you see a perspective here, or is this a hype? Have you tried the game, and want to add your observation or thoughts?What do you think the next voice-enabled board game could be? I look forward to getting in touch here, in Twitter or by email!