Blue Orange knows what’s up. This publisher has been producing children and family games for years – they even supply Chick-Fil-A with miniature versions of Spot It! and other clever sundry for their kids meals. I’d put them right up there with HABA when it comes to this category, which is about as high praise as you can get.
Shaky Manor is one of those games which fits so smoothly into Blue Orange’s stable that it’s hard to imagine designer duo Asger Granerud and Daniel Pedersen pitching it elsewhere. It’s a colorful box crammed tightly with four smaller quadrilaterals, each representing a series of connected rooms in the spookiest PG haunted house you’ve seen.
This house is terrorized by squishy spiders that fill the bulk of a doorway and massive eyeballs the size of a baby grand piano. There’s other stuff, such as treasure cubes and an investigator meeple that my five year old refers to as “the gingerbread man”.
So you throw these pieces randomly about your little rectangular house. A cube falls into the living room, the gingerbread man into the study, and that detached oculus into the lavatory. It’s chaos, raw and dire and ripped from the back of a Goosebumps cover. My daughter is squeeling.
Then you shake the thing. Yes, you pick the house up and shuffle it about, tipping it along its axis and shaking violently at times. These poor creatures of the night settled along the wrong fault line.
Your goal is to scoot certain pieces into a randomly determined room dictated by a drawn card. It’s as hilarious as it is simple. You will sit there in your chair, tipping every which way, and the very moment the ginger is in the room with the treasure – the eyeball sneaks in.
This is not acceptable.
So you shift the manor a few degrees. Now a treasure cube has escaped out one of the small doorways and slid down to the foyer. Oof. Maybe you persevere and keep at the game of tilt-a-whirl for another couple of minutes. Maybe you throw the puny house across your basement like a disgruntled god bored with their toy.
And that’s all there really is. Two very similar modes of play and a mixture of pieces that feature delightfully asymmetric performance.
While not explicitly spelled out, the game scales wonderfully for different skillsets and age ranges. When playing with my daughter I reduced the number of “bad” pieces to level the playing field. She kicked my rear. Our joy was mutual.
With a group of middle aged gamers there is still fun to be had. It’s a momentary diversion most likely, but it’s still good for one of those times when you have few minutes and you can reach into the back recess of your shelf and proclaim “you guys have to see this.”
You probably won’t play it again with that group, at least not for a long while, but it’s still served a momentary purpose and brought its share of thrills.
This is the weakness of Shaky Manor in that it’s a bit of a one trick pony. The challenge is an interesting one, but its depth is limited and its appeal is short lived.
But the real strength is its ability to succeed across the boundaries of time and space and age gaps. It can provide a level playing field so I can meet my little one half way. We’re both then actively participating instead of one of us (typically me) simply acting the passenger.
The action of playing games cannot be stripped down to merely pushing some pieces around and executing a series of decisions. It’s an experience that supersedes its rudimentary components and produces a moment, something shared between the participants as a result of what they’ve put in and how it’s come out.
In this regard, Shaky Manor can be a noteworthy game. I’ve enjoyed some special moments with my daughter, jostling rooms and flinging pieces through a tormented abode. Laughter and excitement tumble effortlessly from our physical competition and she’s ready to play again before it has even ended.
Shaky Manor has succeeded where other dexterity games have faltered. When playing with a particularly young child, they can struggle at times with precision. In such awkward ordeals they can’t quite engage the core loop of a design. This leads to frustration.
But they came into this world shaking.
This game succeeds at various age ranges because it offers such an abundance of piece variety. Thought and care was clearly focused and it pays off for the end user.
This one may not still be in my collection a year from now. Children games by their very nature are transient, capturing attention for a single moment in a developing human’s interest. What matters is right now, and right now my little girl wants to thrash about as an eyeball and snake scuttle between rooms of a condemned cardboard facsimile.