I’m going to make a very strong claim. You’re going to scoff and dismiss it, I’m sure. Perhaps by the end of this article, you may think I’m less the fool.
Richard Feynman famously said: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
We have to talk about this for a minute before we can begin to understand Bezier Games’ Cat in the Box.
Quantum mechanics is the study of how particles at the atomic and subatomic level interact with each other and the environment. This is a field of science you could spend a lifetime in. So many find this topic utterly compelling because we still do not have a strong understanding of how any of this really works.
The Uncertainty Principle is the genesis for all subsequent scientific and philosophical thought regarding quantum physics. Introduced in 1927 by physicist Werner Heisenberg, it posits that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions, and vice versa. It is often used as shorthand for and intrinsically linked to the observer effect, a concept that provides the grand mystery at the heart of quantum mechanics.
The observer effect is a phenomenon by which the act of observation alters the behavior of the particles being observed. This is extremely difficult to explain clearly within the context of a board game review, but this is ultimately due to the wave-like nature of matter. Because these particles exist in a wave, they exist in multiple states simultaneously. When an observer measures a property of a particle therein, the wave effectively collapses, and the particle assumes a definite state.
This was proven through experiment by shooting a wave of light, comprised of photons, at a surface with two slits. While the wave is split in two, the particles collapse at the moment of observation.
It’s some really wild science that leads to all kinds of interesting thought and analysis. For instance, you could extrapolate this to the macro level by questioning whether the appearance of your dog is altered depending on the manner in which you observe it. The scientific community has made little progress in understanding how the quantum level affects the macroscopic, however. It’s one of the greatest mysteries gnawing away at academic circles.
The most famous thought experiment regarding quantum physics is Schrödinger’s cat. In this proposition, a hypothetical cat is stuffed in a box with a vial of poisonous gas. The gas is released, killing the cat, if a radioactive atom decays. This is ultimately an act of randomness, and those outside the box have no knowledge of whether the cat is alive or dead. The most common interpretation of quantum theory can be applied to state that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, suspended in both states until it is observed and the wave collapses.
For reference, an alternative interpretation is the many worlds theory. This posits that the wave never collapses, instead all possible outcomes of measurement are realized in alternate realities. This will come into importance later, but it’s less relevant for the bulk of this discussion and never directly expressed in this game.
Right, so Cat in the Box.
Conceptually, this is actually a pretty simple game. If you’re familiar with the trick-taking genre, it’s standard in terms of card resolution. A player leads with a particular suit – yellow, green, blue, or red. Other players must follow with cards of the same suit, or, if they have none, they can play any other card in their hand.
The highest played card of the led suit wins, unless a red card was played. In this instance, the highest red card wins instead as red is the trump suit. I think the rulebook actually does a decent job of explaining these bones of trick-taking in a surprisingly concise manner.
If you’re not familiar with trick-takers, well, this already sapient article is going to be a bit more confounding.
What’s fascinating with Cat in the Box is that it applies concepts of quantum mechanics to this classic style of card game. When you play a card, you decide what suit it is when you place it on the table. By themselves, these cards consist only of numbers, sitting in a suspended quantum state waiting to be ovserved.
To track which card/suit combinations have been played, you place a token of your color onto a sideboard. This not only functions as a record of sorts for everyone to reference and abide by, but it forms an area control sub-structure that forms an equally valid alternate scoring vector to winning tricks. You score points for each token you have in a contiguous line, each point being equivalent in weight to winning a single trick.
The strategic implications begin to broaden as you fall deeper into the design.
If Beth plays a five and proclaims it yellow, no one else can play a yellow five for the remainder of the hand. In this way, there’s also a really intriguing battle of tempo going on in the soft space of play. If your hand is full of twos, you really need to get as many out as possible before someone cuts you off and makes them unavailable.
When you decide you no longer have any of a particular color, you remove a token from your personal board to show you are out of blues, or greens, or whatever. You’re no longer able to say a card from your hand is such suit.
There are so many layers to grapple with here. Not from a rules standpoint, but from an emergent strategic perspective.
Here’s the best bit: if you are unable to play a card from your hand due to suit and number restrictions, you create a paradox. The hand immediately ends and while everyone else scores normally, you lose a point per trick you’ve won this round as a penalty. Trick-takers generally struggle with drama, but not here. When someone creates a paradox, it is a defining moment, one capable of vastly swinging the scoring hierarchy.
It’s kind of silly how this is just as acute and satisfying in practice as it is conceptually. You can really engage this aspect of the design and make aggressive maneuvers to push people towards a state of paradox – such as leading with a suit they don’t have. It’s not thematic fluff, but legitimate depth to plumb.
The brilliance of Cat in the Box is in how it harnesses its subject matter to actually say something.
This is most clear in its central process of suit uncertainty. The wave does not collapse and the card is not restricted to a particular suit until it is played to the table. That is the moment of observation. That is the clever spark.
But what does it mean?
I’m fond of the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory, named after physicists John Von Neumann and Eugene Wigner, puts forth that consciousness causes the wave to collapse during observation. It seeks to place the human element at the center of the quantum mystery. A romanticized theory, yes, but one that’s intriguing on a deep level.
My interpretation of Cat in the Box’s subject matter is through this Von Neumann-Wigner lens. Again, the act of observation occurs when the card hits the table. This, by its very nature, places the collapse as a shared event occurring between all players. A player simply viewing their hand does not constitute an observation in this system.
The consciousness component of the experiment then is an explicit reflection of the human element vis-a-vis interaction and play, the core tenets of tabletop gaming. That is, the observation and collapse is the center of Cat in the Box, and this expression of consciousness occurs as the shared experience between players. It places humanism on its primary axis and frames everything around this conceit. It professes the significance of the ethological in board gaming.
This design also solves the primary problem of quantum physics, which is how we get from the multiple probabilistic outcomes of the wave to a specific measured position, by way of human agency – reinforcing the Von Neumann-Wigner angle. The uncertain becomes certain by our authority. Within the structure of the game, we are the cloudy mess at the core of the metaphysical world.
Finally, there is a simple and beautiful quality living at the edge of the experience. There is an organic emergence of thought regarding second-guessing your approach to the multiple scoring paths and micro-decisions within each trajectory. You’re even asked to look to the future and predict how many tricks you will win at the beginning of each hand. Ultimately, as intellectually dense games do, it beckons scrutiny and questions of “what if?”, second-guessing various decisions you made during play. It leaves you ruminating on alternative outcomes, leaning into the medium’s natural courting of many-worlds theory without batting an eye.
Bezier Games has brought this Japanese design to wider distribution at the perfect moment. The industry has been primed to experience and evaluate these classic card games in altogether new ways, thanks to the much-deserved success of The Crew. And with Cat in the Box, the artifact is unequivocally worthy of such meditation.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.