The Pursuit of Happiness is a game about life, specifically, living your life to generate the greatest long-term happiness. At it’s heart, this is a worker placement game with an interesting theme which it carries out well. It’s not ground-breaking, but there’s potentially a very good conversation to be had during and after the game about goals in life and even the structure of the game.
Appearance: This is a cute game. The artwork is cartoony without being distracting, symbols and information are easy to read and understand and tokens are differently shaped to make things simple to locate. Perhaps the coolest thing they have are the hourglass tokens which are used as ‘workers’. This is a decent looking game but it won’t blow the socks off anyone. I should also point out that both the jobs and partner cards are double-sided, allowing you to pick your job / partner in a way that suits you.
Rules / Ease of Learning: The Pursuit of Happiness is a relatively easy game to learn. You have hour glasses for your ‘workers’ and can take actions on the board to purchase items / activities, get a job, date someone, pursue a project or spend your free time being creative, studying or making social connections or just working for money. Spending time taking up projects or taking part in activities can generate creativity / knowledge / social connection points which can then be used to complete further projects or complete your upkeep for your jobs. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the way the game works and any experienced gamer will grasp the basic mechanics very fast.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that the game brings to play is the ‘stress’ track. The stress track dictates the amount of time (i.e. workers) your receive each round and at the higher ends, can lead to your death. With ‘Old Age’ rounds adding to your stress track automatically at the start of the round, players who have managed to lower their stress in previous rounds will be able to gain an additional round (or two).
Gameplay: This game can play fast if taken lightly. However, if you have players who are prone to analysis paralysis or who need to get the most out of each round, this can drag as this is a pure information game. All the cards, all the options for each round are laid out so it’s easy to spend a while analysing the best route to get the most out of your turn. This can cause the game to drag a bit. In addition, the uneven ending times can also cause a bit of frustration for those not playing the last round(s), so this is definitely not a game for people looking to finish at the same time.
Other than that, the game plays quite well. There’s ample opportunity for ‘role-playing’ your characters and even more fun making up stories about who and what you want to be. My last game, I was the fitness fanatic, zen-master ex-President who found love late in life after spending the first half of his life ‘finding himself’. Another player was the true geek of the group, building up his gaming collection, taking part in and running gaming groups who in the end found his time sucked up by a high-paying job and a demanding wife.
And that’s where the game shines. The Pursuit of Happiness lets you make decisions that make sense. Want a job that gives good money? They often require significant amounts of time to upkeep each turn. Want a relationship or a family? That’s going to require upkeep each turn, how much depends on how involved you are. Each relationship and job will have different per-requisites and often different benefits, so best pick wisely.
One criticism I will level at the game is the lack of opportunities to reduce stress. There are very few cards that allow you to ‘jump’ between stress bands, which means that players are often deadly afraid of getting any forms of stress. It certainly feels more forced especially since the opportunities to improve your health are entirely luck-based and almost purely project based, ensuring that a player who manages to get a couple of those projects has a distinct advantage over his opponents.
Final Thoughts: The Pursuit of Happiness begs to be discussed in a meta context. Does having a relationship really generate that much long-term happiness? Is it always that stressful to date multiple partners (especially if it’s ‘casual’)? Is it better to have items or take part in activities to be truly happy? Should they both contribute the same amount to your long-term happiness? Don’t / can’t a career make you just as happy as raising a family? Those are all questions that can be raised and discussed, both with your friends and family after this playing game. Unless you have very specific objections to it, it also allows you to discuss the options that people decide to make to ‘win’.
The Pursuit of Happiness is a decent, mechanical game, but it’s the theme and conversations that rise from playing it that raises it above the generic slush of worker placement games out there.