A Rendez-Vous Between Card Games and Dating Sims
Hey Cutie
Developer: Brian Sowers
Format: Card Game
Number of Players: 2 - 4
Copy Provided By Publisher

Admit it -- we’re all suckers for games with a little romance. Even if you haven’t (or won’t admit to) playing straight-up dating sims like HuniePop or the infamous Hatoful Boyfriend (seriously, look this up if you’ve never heard of it), then you’ve at least found yourself choosing the “correct” dialogue boxes with sexy aliens in Mass Effect, or a sassy elf vixen or hunky hunter in Skyrim. Card games rarely take that route. From Magic: The Gathering to your standard Uno or Apples To Apples, the genre favors strategy, dominance, or a win.

Thus why Hey Cutie caught my eye on the show floor of PlayNYC. It was pink, covered in cute caricatures (including a Black Magical Girl...it’s like they knew I was coming!) and, well, with the words “HEY CUTIE” plastered on the poster. It reminded me of the bygone days of my youth, sitting with a few tween friends playing Dream Phone. I had to check this out.

After meeting with designer Brian Sowers and producer Lauren Warner, I was lucky enough to get an early copy of Hey Cutie, which is in the midst of its Kickstarter campaign.

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The Gameplay

Your objective: date as many prospective “cuties” as possible, while knocking out your opponents if they are vying for the same sweetheart. The person with the most points garnered from their dates wins. Simple, right?

Players start by choosing their character - a collection of token love interests, such as the professor, the lawyer, the lumberjack, or the drummer. Their respective player cards include a grid with four different types of “flirt” spaces: brains, edge, looks, and money. Each player then gets three heart tokens -- two that will be used as movement chips around the grid, and one to stake a claim on a prospective date. Then, the stage is set with the Flirt pool. A deck of cards with the four flirt options are arranged in columns of three; the first two columns face up, and the third facedown.

Now, in the immortal words of the Love Connection’s Chuck Woolery, let’s meet our eligible bachelors and bachelorettes! Three prospective suitors from the “Crush” deck are laid out with even more goofy tropes like Chloe, who “likes indie films that take themselves too seriously,” Bernard -- a Legolas look-alike who dislikes “licorice” and “Wyoming-shaped pizza”, and an honest-to-goodness fishman named Giles. I'm sure by this point you can tell that this game isn't taking itself too seriously.

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For those who really... really liked The Shape Of Water.

Each Crush has different “needs,” comprised of the Flirt options. Players will strategically move heart markers around the grid, and then choose corresponding cards to the spaces they’ve chosen. These cards have different point values. Get enough points in your hand, and you can choose to “Woo” one of the Crushes by putting your third heart marker on them.

This is where things get interesting. At the end of a round, players collect their crushes. If two or more players are gunning for the same crush, they enter a counter-date, where they lay out their hands to reveal if they meet the criteria. The player who meets the Crush’s needs with the highest total value in their hand wins the counter-date.

The game ends once a player earns five Crush cards. Every date is worth the same amount of points, but that doesn’t necessary mean the first player with five Crushes wins. Each player is handed a “Type” card at the beginning of the game, which is kept secret from the other players. These award bonus points for the total number of specific needs each Crush has, i.e. one extra point for every Edge need filled. The result is that players will strategize for which Crushes they want, based on the bonus Needs on their Type card.

There’s a few other decks to spice up the activity. Money cards can buy items, like a vape pen, fedora, or a rocket launcher (guess that’s someone’s fetish?), which can up the stats in your hand and increase the likelihood of claiming a crush. Additionally, each player has two “Power cards”, which can be used at any time during gameplay to up your game or thwart other players. These can be huge game changers, turning a game’s results around very fast (I personally happened to get thwarted by a “swap deck” card that left me with NO HAND. Well played, @ProfCoppermane :p).

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More fun than Tinder?

Yes, the game is fun...but not as fun as it could be.

Hey Cutie oozes with charm. Seriously, you’re going to want to read every ounce of text on the Player cards, Crush cards, and Flirt cards. They drip with romantic satire which, paired with the aforementioned Player / Crush tropes, make for a cheeky pastiche on dating sims.

Unfortunately, this is a game that falls into an all too common pitfall of board games: once you’ve read all the cards and the novelty wears off, it becomes a numbers game. The strategy of Hey Cutie is a bit like a poker game with imaginative commentary written on the cards. Just make sure you get the best hand in your deck and you win. It’s a bummer, because it’s obvious that the developer put a lot of time and effort into the parody of traditional dating sims, and that quickly gets drowned out in an attempt to gain points.

Additionally, gameplay can become cumbersome, with the instructions needing a few more clarifications. In my playthroughs, I found it was too easy to skip a step or forget a rule. There’s a lot of steps per turn, as well as a lot of counting. While that works in a tried-and-true strategy game like Magic: The Gathering, Hey Cutie’s vibrant, lighthearted vibe attracts players who may not want to put that much thought into a card game.

Another downside is that while the player cards have fun descriptions and character drawings, all of their grids are exactly the same. This felt like a huge missed opportunity, as there’s so many possibilities that could be made with this. The flirt options on the grid could be more attuned to the chosen character - i.e. the Nerd is stronger in the “Brains” department, but maybe not so much on the “Edge” end of things. Better yet, perhaps your chosen character has a “special ability” that could be used to their advantage: the lawyer can use her “Litigation” ability, which forces players to swap hands, or the Master Thief (yes, there is one of those) can use “Sleight Of Hand” to steal cards from the Flirt cue at any time, regardless of turn order. This option would highly increase replayability, encouraging players to test-drive each character.

Lastly, if there is no counter-date at the end of the dating round, results can be anti-climatic. As a test, I played my first round of Hey Cutie with four players (including myself), and my second round with one other player. The stakes were raised in the four player game, as a counter-date is guaranteed if all players choose to woo a Crush before the end of the round. It was hilarious watching my grown adult / married friends bid on who would date the Lady Vampire or Rodrick, the Cyborg. However, when I played again one other person, we didn’t hit a single counter-date. We just collected cards until the game was over. As much as it pains me to say this, that lack of interaction sucked the fun right out of the game.

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Conclusion

One of my fellow players summed up Hey Cutie perfectly: “You took me there, now take me further” (thanks Murphy!). There is so much good in Hey Cutie -- the flavor text sticks with you, the descriptions and ideas are well thought out, and the vibe is fun and irreverent. It presents an open door for players like myself, who get a bit intimidated by heavy duty numeric card games. Unfortunately, it starts becoming that heavy duty numeric card game territory right after it opens that door for you. It's a weird mix of light-hearted theme and number crunching, which might be just what some people are looking for... but because the theme and the style of game feel so different, it might not be for everyone.

In the end, the game was certainly enjoyable, but I haven’t decided how many more times I’ll hook up with Hey Cutie again after our first few dates. But...I won’t delete their phone number either...you never know. I could see Hey Cutie being that kind of game you pull off the shelf a couple times a year for some good laughs with friends.

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Hey there, is that a flirt card in your pocket, or are you happy to see me???...No seriously, what’s it got in its pocketses!!!!!!!!!

One more parting thought...anyone who doesn’t woo Gollum obviously has no taste in romantic partners. If you're still interested, check out their Kickstarter here.