There have been a few games over the years that would be said to have caused some controversy in the public eye. These can be either games that take political correctness to a dangerous place (Cards Against Humanity) or those that touch on subject matters that resonate strongly with particular groups of people (Freedom: The Underground Railroad).
Dealing with the former depends on your ability to let go and simply take what's given in jest (though I don't find Cards Against Humanity to be funny in general). The latter is fine in my opinion providing that the publisher and designer is careful and thoughtful about how they bring that theme out in gameplay. In Freedom's case, if you check my blog review they did an excellent job of being thematic, yet considerate.
Unusual Suspects fits more in the first category of controversial titles where it forces you to be incredibly judgmental based solely on physical appearances. Not something you want to be teaching your children so word of warning, keep your kids away from this game! But for adults, is this a game that will cause more laughs than frictions?
From Board Game Geek
Incredible! The shifty thief who operates undisturbed from months is about to be caught! After copious failures, a team of detectives has a secret weapon: a witness. However this witness is quite weird; he doesn't remember anything about the appearance of the criminal, but he knows everything about their habits and behavior. Will the investigative team be able to find out the criminal only from these elements?
In Unusual Suspects one player is the witness and the other players play the part of the investigative team. The witness knows the real identity of the guilty and tries to make the team hit it only with his answers. The team asks questions to the witness and, depending on his answers, will exclude the innocent suspects after players have discussed what they learned.
Unusual Suspects can also be played competitively or collaboratively (team vs team). In the latter case, a grid of 12 suspects is created. Every round the team reveals a question card and the witness has to answer yes/no. According to the answer, the team has to remove suspects until only the guilty one is on the board.
Ask me a Question
There's quite a lot of variety in the box to keep you going. Essentially you're just buying cards, but you're buying a good chunk of them. There's enough character portraits to have plenty of games where you don't duplicate a single one and even then the questions that get asked and the group you're with will change how it plays out dramatically.
Add to that the giant stack of small question cards and you've got near infinite replay-ability and that's before you decide to go nuts and get players to ask their own made-up questions. Yes the price tag is a bit high, but stick with me, it may just be worth it.
The artwork is adequate for what's required, but there's enough detail for players to pick out all sorts of character traits based solely on what they see, from clothing worn, to facial expressions to size and ethnicity. You'll hear plenty of comparisons to movie stars (look out for Chuck Norris in the deck) and even people you know! I've seen some spot on comparisons crop up with photographic evidence.
The Elephant Approaches the Room
There are two variants in the box, co-operative and team competitive, but to be honest it's really the co-op version you want. The team variant isn't as enjoyable and it's far more amusing to have that dynamic of the witnesses perception vs the team's perception play out. It's also much easier to teach and play, with games being wrapped up within anything from five to 15 minutes depending on how well the group does. And every time I've brought it out, it's been played at least three or four more times.
We'll get to the elephant in the room in a second, but Unusual Suspects has resulted in some hilarious games with other players. Just hearing what is said by players as a process of eliminating innocent characters is enough to make this fun to watch, let alone play. It's very much a social experience with the deduction almost being a light backdrop. The questions in the deck are quite varied, but note that this is very Americanised (is that a word?) and you'll have to take some liberties on the fly when they start referring to concepts like County Fairs, CNN and Fox News.
The scoring is pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things however. Assuming you're playing this in co-op mode primarily, all the scoring does is evaluate how well the team did, but you'll bust at least half of the time so it quickly becomes irrelevant. Just succeeding in general is a suitable benchmark. You may argue that players will simply eliminate one at a time without incentive, but actually that becomes problematic for the team as you run the risk of ambiguous questions turning up more often.
And here he is!
The elephant in the room though is the controversial nature of being judgemental based on physical appearances. I can't stress enough how group dependent Unusual Suspects is. You have portraits from pretty much every aspect of the public domain. Young, old, male, female, white, black, Chinese, Indian, Native American, Mexican, jock, nerd, biker, fat, thin, the list goes on and on. And throughout the whole game, players are going to be throwing out comments on them based on the question asked.
Now the questions themselves aren't intended to be insulting, but you might for example have to assess whether some characters would have a gym membership and I think you can already see where this could potentially lead. And if your group has multiple ethnicity's within, you really need to be cautious.
Now of course, whether this is a problem or not depends on the group's mentality towards the game and each other. Among friends, you could throw out plenty of comments in jest remembering that this game is to be taken as lightly as possible. But if you're playing with a group of unknowns, the risk factor just skyrockets - be very wary when you whip this out at a large convention. I've played Unusual Suspects with many different groups including my two local gaming clubs, my parents/brothers and a group of unknowns.
Surprisingly though, the only game to fall a little flat (even though it was still fun overall) was with the family. Both gaming groups adored it and it even went down well with the unknowns who included a woman who was the polar opposite of judgmental. So as you can see, it's going to affect different people in different ways, but always make it clear what this game is portraying before you start.
Final Thoughts on Unusual Suspects
Unusual Suspects can be one of the funniest games you'll play in the year, but with one of the biggest caveats I've ever given. Social deduction games are group dependent by their nature and this one is the poster child of that definition. With the right people, who are generally laid back, this will be a decent quick party filler and lead to some genuine tear-inducing laughs. But it is very easy for the game to rattle a few cages with some players and as such this needs to taken lightly and its subject matter communicated in full to players before starting.
Competitive mode isn't even worth considering as it's best played as a full co-op. Whether you're the witness or deducing the guilty party, you'll enjoy hearing what players have to say about their own personal perceptions of the characters on the table, again if you're not going to be offended. It's quick to play, easy to teach and has a good amount of variety in the box with the ability to make up your own questions on the fly if desired.
Take it lightly and with a high degree of jest and you'll have a good time, but if you feel at all that it might poke you in a way you're not comfortable with, you'd best keep your distance. You have been warned.