With the butter-knife reflexes of a sedated lemur, I snap my pistol, gangsta style, into position across the table, inches from the eyeball of Bill. The look of terror on his face fills me with glee, until I feel the uncomfortable pressure in the small of my back. Everyone holds perfectly still. Six of us, each with our guns ready to go off. At stake, $50,000, haphazardly scattered on the green felt table.
Someone is going to die.
Video game violence is remote. While it's graphic, the emotional connections are at best a layer deep. Tactile games tend to be even more removed in their conflict simulation -- I've never shed a tear for a half inch square piece of cardboard.
My hand shakes a little, my black foam gun amplifies the twitch so the barrel dances.
"Now calm down folks, nothing to get excited about." Bill is calling the shots for this round. I've got one gun in my kidneys, one in my temple, and one, I discover, pointed at me under the table by my grinning wife. If each of these guns has a copper jacket slug in the chamber, I'm dead.
"So let's think this over," continues Bill, all Tarantino-cool and New York-sneer. "You're not weak little puppies, but it's just possible there may be a misunderstanding here. So some of you might want to reconsider. One, two, THREE!"
Recognizing the hopelessness of my plight, I drop my weapon. "Hey hey hey, it's all good!" I beg, putting on my best mobster accent. I press the gun at my temple gently away, and ease back into my chair. My adversaries drop their weapons -- they can't shoot me, I've opted to whimper away and accept my own shame. Three guns remain in the air in a Reservoir Dogs three-way standoff.
"OK, anyone loaded?" Each player flips the card they selected before the first countdown -- a card drawn from 5 blanks, two bullets, and one super-nasty bullet that works just a little bit quicker than the others. Click. Click. Bang!
Dave takes a hit. With him down, and me cowering in the corner, that leaves four players both brave enough the stay in, and smart or lucky enough not to be shot. They split the pot, and we move on to round two.
The game continues this way for eight more rounds. At the end, the butchers's bill is light. Chris is dead, having been shot three times. John and I have pocketed the most hard cash -- $80,000 each. But because I weaseled my way out of that first round, I have a shame token -- a $5,000 penalty. John is the king bad-guy for the game, and he celebrates by giving his pistol a Western-spin and mock-holstering.
It's a simple game. It's bluffing, social reading and manipulation, and it's hysterical fun with 6 players. The same game could easily be played with 8 abstract cards and finger pointing. But it would be boring. But by layering on the baggage of the classic Quentin Tarantino no-honor-among-thieves showdown, the tension layer is thickened, and it becomes a role playing game even the most reluctant player can't help but play. The role playing is encouraged, a bit, by giving each player an alter ego -- Mr. Black, Tito, Huggy Bear -- although none of us stuck to our parts; we all had our own version of "Han Shot First" we we're eager to enact.
At its core, Ca$h'n Gun$ feels fundamentally wrong, and because of that, exciting. Grabbing a foam rubber gun and shoving it into someone's ribs is something I teach my kids not to do. It's a taboo. And like so many taboos, it's a hell of a lot of fun to break. But the gunplay isn't all there is. It's an intellectual challenge in its own right. It's a form of poker, where you constantly evaluate the likelihood of your opponents' bluffing based on previous rounds, manipulation by the other players, and the stakes at hand.
After a few rounds, special powers can be randomly ascribed to each player: "The Kid" gets to point his gun last, "The Cleaner" gets paid for every player killed before the end of the game, and so on. This ads yet another layer as each player has their own abilities and incentives, often hidden until game end. Our final round for the night includes these special characters. I play the cleaner, and attempt to guide the social situation towards the demise of the most players.
"You know, John's got half the cash, and hasn't been hit once," I cajole my wife.
"Hey! Just because you guys can't shoot straight, don't be looking to me for vengeance! We're just having a nice conversation, friendly like!"
My prodding works, and the next round, three guns come down trained on John. "See, I don't think you should be listening to Mr. Black over there. He's clearly got an agenda," begs John. "And I think you maybe loaded dem tings with blanks, cause a lotta lead's already flown around dis joint." He chooses not to pussy out, and leaves his gun up, hoping he's right and can get a share of the loot.
Bang! Bang! Bang! John's dead.
Dave leans over the table and takes John's gun, and the remainder of his cards. He reveals his special power: he can take an extra gun off a dead body. Dave -- a reserved academic by nature --levels his two pistols at me, a perfect imitation of John Leguizamo in Romeo and Juliet. "I'm gonna put TWO caps in your ass, Motherfraker."
And you thought shooting your friends in Counter-Strike was fun.
PS: Renowned game designer Bruno Faidutti recommends only playing the game for real money. I'm annoyed I didn't think of that.