By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 15 August 2018
Spend any prolonged amount of time with a group, and you’ll star to develop your own language. Inside jokes give new meanings to rather innocuous words, localized slang meshes together, and even foreign language words get blended together.
Every group eventually develops their own language, but what happens when that group goes outside and spends time with others? In many cases, the language dies off as the speakers no longer use it. Sometimes the language just vanishes, just like the rest of the ties that connected them in the first place.
Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies explores this very idea. After being successfully funded on Kickstarter in October 2016, backers began receiving their physical copies this summer. My own copy of Dialect arrived at the end of July, and now that I’ve had the time to really dig into it, I am bringing a proper review to all of you.
Dialect explores the how and why a community develops a language over time, and then visits the idea of the language dying.
The game is designed for 3-5 players, and is one part roleplaying game, one part storytelling game. Everything you need to play a game about an isolated community and how their language develops (and dies) is within these pages.
==What You Get==
As a backer for the game at the Glossopet level, I was sent a hardcover copy of Dialect, a screen printed bag for the book, a language deck, and a set of “Age Separators” to make gameplay a bit easier at the table.
The “standard” edition of the game will secure the same hardcover version of the book as well as the “language deck” used in the game. Digital editions are available as well, and are provided with purchase.
The book weighs in at 155 pages and is in full color. The language deck consists of 79 cards, broken down into four individual decks: Voice, Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, and Legacy.
==How It Works==
A game as intricate as Dialect cannot be simply summed up in my typical review approach, and it would be a disservice to the creators (and the game itself) if I didn’t go into detail about how the game works.
Sessions of Dialect can be broken down into three phases.
Phase 1 is the basic setup. Players agree on a Backdrop, which is the type of Isolation they will be playing in, and answering the necessary the questions (such as why they are separate). During this step, Aspects are created for the players to utilize over the course of the game that helps define the game. After selecting a backdrop, each player has a “voice” that helps flesh out the personality they will be donning during the session, as well as how that personality meshes with what Aspects are on the table.
Phase 2 is the actual play. A player plays one of the Story 1 cards from their hand, which usually poses a question or scenario. A word or phrase is created based on that scenario, and two players then have a conversation utilizing that word and the significance it holds on that society.
This phase is the majority of the game. After each player has done this, there is a “Next Age” step that moves the timeline forward. An Aspect changes, new cards are introduced, and the game continues on until Age 3.
After Age 3 has been completed, the Isolation ends and brings everyone to Phase 3.
Phase 3 is the “Legacy” phase. The end of the Isolation is discussed among the players, and using their drawn Legacy card, the player explains the legacy they left on the society they were part of and showcases how the language dies off.
It is projected that a game will run up to five hours, and should flow smoothly thanks to the help of a “Facilitator.”
I think I would be angry with myself if I didn’t say I wish I had this game twelve or so years ago. The idea of sitting in a foreign student dormitory with people from around the world and playing this would have been a wonderful time, especially since many of us were doing this (like re-purposing words from each other’s languages for a shared meaning only we got). As someone who literally lived what this game represents, I have to say it is a great thing to have with fellow linguists and language-loving friends.
With that in mind, the book is a solid resource for any gamer or linguist. For example, there’s a section of the book dedicated solely to the creation of new words that don’t exist. In fact, there’s two parts; one that is “simplified” for the game, and another written by David J. Peterson, the linguist that brought Dothraki as a spoken language on Game of Thrones. We have entire sections dedicated to the creation of words and how languages are tied to those that speak them, making this a wonderful resource for the tabletop gamer that struggles with new words (I know I do!).
Even though this is a book on language and linguistics, I found it easy to approach. It’s short enough to not be an issue to carry, it’s easily broken down into sections to prepare for your first game (and later sections are ideal for future games), and it’s written in a way that I didn’t need a dictionary on hand to read it.
The game itself is also interesting, in that it’s a great into piece or, in my personal preference, a toolbox to use in conjunction with a game. As written, the game is easy to pick up and teach, and as it doesn’t have piles of mechanics like most RPGs do, it’s very easy for players to pick up on if they have that skill with storytelling or wordplay.
As a game resource, it’s something to consider. I’ve been considering pairing it with Microscope to develop words/phrases to different cultures in a campaign world, and then moving into the actual RPG campaign afterward.
Finally, when it comes to the physical quality of the book, I have to simply say “I’m in love.” It is a hardcover book with full color pages that is not glossy, but rather matte. It makes reading on the go a breeze and incredibly comfortable, especially with its small size. The binding also seems rather durable and secured via a stitch binding technique instead of just being glued in like some other books. This quality also carries over to the cards; they don’t feel cheap or flimsy, and feel like standard poker cards, so they should be around for quite some time.
I think my biggest concern with Dialect is that it’s too niche. Granted, all RPGs are pretty niche, but I think Dialect heavily suffers for it.
For example, the premise itself is already pretty niche. You need a group of people that are capable storytellers that can grasp languages well enough to utilize new words, but also be creative enough to make new words. I run into people that struggle with communicating in general due to being shy or having issues with speaking, so this game already has an uphill struggle with these individuals.
The game itself is also less “game” and more storytelling. If anything, Dialect is just a framed shared narrative with very little in the way of rules and game mechanics, and more on just telling the story. While the idea of the shared narrative reminds me of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Dialect lacks many of the gamification elements due to it’s heavy narrative focus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you like it, but I find it odd that it’s marketed as a “game” in this case.
For me, Dialect isn’t something I’d do as a game, but rather it’s going to be a tool for something else. Spending about $30 for something I’d use maybe once or twice a campaign is a bit steep, and I don’t know if I’ll get my money’s worth out of it.
I hate to do it, but I do need to gripe about the art. Don’t get me wrong, the art is absolutely stunning in this book.
But I find that there’s not really enough “new” art. A chunk of the art tends to be just a housing for a quote (like turning a quote into a thread of yard), while the smaller art drops tend to just be sketches of what you’d see at a table. I just felt that, art-wise, there could have been so much more to this; visual samples for the different Isolations, ciphers, etc. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I feel like we are missing a few thousand words here.
From a nitpicky perspective, I wish we had more on the linguistics side. We have some word creation, but we don’t have anything else that really creates a language; tempo and flow, conjugations, tenses. None of that is touched in the language creation notes, and I feel that some of that, even just hints to it, may have been helpful for tooling around with the newly created language. This leads to a misnomer within the pitch: you aren’t really making a language, but rather a handful of words that have new meanings, and that does detract from the product at bit, at least for me.
The final verdict for this has been a long debate for me. My initial reaction is to give the game 2.5 buns, but in the end, it’ll squeak by with the 3 bun rating.
Why the increase? My major problems with the game, as explained above, consist of the game being less of a “game” and more of a discussion tool, and it being extraordinarily niche. These, plus the limited art, do hamper the game a great deal, but it has a number of redeeming qualities as a toolbox as well as being a fun game to play with the right people. Dialect also brings a new and interesting experience, and if that’s not worth handing it the extra half a bun, I don’t know what it.
If you are a linguistically inclined individual, want a tool to flesh out a language for a tabletop game, and/or enjoy playing with words in general, then you would absolutely love to give this book a read. If you are expecting more “game” with your sessions, then you may want to give this a pass.
Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies is published by Thorny Games. The game is still available on “Pre-Order” though the pledge page. A digital copy will run $10, while the physical edition will cost $29 (before shipping).