The Magic: The Gathering community has a useful term called “Magical Christmas Land” that also has some value for game design. It’s a derogatory phrase used to describe decks or cards that are very powerful under ideal circumstances, but in most other cases (and there are many, as Magic is a high-variance game) they’re bad. For example, in Magical Christmas Land I might draw the specific seven cards I need to activate a combo and win on turn 1, but if I live in the real world and draw even a slightly worse hand, I’ll get run over and lose.
Living in Magical Christmas Land is a major problem to a game designer, but I don’t want to include a Christian holiday in my game design philosophy because I’m Jewish and our holidays get overshadowed enough as it is. So instead I wanted to examine this habit in the lens of a different holiday: Passover.
For those who don’t know, the most important part of Passover is the telling of the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt in the book of Exodus. Now, it could have been assumed that everyone would just perfectly understand this story and its meaning, and would leave the seder table informed about their own peoplehood. But this would be a problem. Some people don’t want to be there, some don’t get the meaning of the ritual, and some are young and need help. So we assume that four “children” are at every seder, and provide them with the answers that they need.
This is surprisingly translatable to the art of tabletop design. Living in Magical Passover Land is assuming that everyone’s going to get your story as-is; that is, that all your players are going to catch on to your game and be enthusiastic about it. This is a major problem, but a deceptive one: You can make a game that works great if you or your friends are playing it, because it’s tailored for you, but doesn’t work for wider audiences.
To counteract this, think about the four children (of any age) who may be playing your game.
The Wise Child
“BoardGameGeek states that the average score for this game is 75, which is pretty high for the designer…”
The Wise Child has 1000% enthusiasm for your game and its genre. This might be the hardcore Euro enthusiast, the armchair general with their gigantic Warhammer army, or even the president of your local Liars’ Club who plays 20 games of Mafia a week. Even if your game isn’t the best, they like it so much that they dive deep into the strategy. Normally this is good, but their enthusiasm can translate into unbeatable skill, which is a problem for groups of mixed ability.
For the Wise Child, we thank them for enjoying our work, but try to add systems through which the other players can occasionally nab a game or two. This can be by the inclusion of randomness, adding a low skill floor to the game, or, in the case of co-op games, a restriction on communication. Not every game needs or wants this, but everyone should be aware that the Wise Child may be at your table.
The Wicked Child
“Oh, my turn already?”
The Wicked Child in the Passover service isn’t actually wicked; they’re just a little selfish and don’t want to participate. They don’t understand why they have to bother with not eating bread and going through all this ritual, so it has to be explained to them why going to all this hassle is important for the survival of the Jewish people and them in particular.
Similarly, our Wicked Child isn’t acting out of malice; they just don’t want to be there. They’re playing this game because their friends wanted to play and it was better than sitting alone and doing nothing. The Wicked Child pretty much understands the strategy; they just don’t want to put any effort into enjoying the game because they don’t think they’re going to get anything out of it if they try.
For the Wicked Child, we design games where you still get what you need to even if you don’t care that much. This is kind of an abstract way of describing it, so let me use an example: The game Gloom is a fairly simple take-that game, which you’re supposed to spice up by role-playing how everyone’s Gorey-esque family dies horribly. However, if you don’t like the genre or don’t like storytelling, you’re reduced to playing cards at random on people. On the other hand, this is why I suspect Apples to Apples and its cousins are so popular: You can participate by simply choosing a card out of your hand.
The Simple Child
The Simple Child is a little out of their element. They don’t really understand the more nuanced strategies of your game, and will usually stick to things that are more laid-out by the rules or components. Not thinking about this child leads to one of the biggest traps in game design: That everyone who plays your game will “get” the complex strategic portions of your game that requires a lot of thinking and investment.
One might also assume that this only applies to heavy games, but there are plenty of light ones, especially with social elements, where the strategy goes over people’s heads if they aren’t familiar with the genre. Skull, which has very few rules but requires deep psychological analysis, fits the bill here, as well as many social deduction games like Werewolf. Be careful that the way to get ahead is laid out by your rules, not just by your assumption that everyone is a mindgame genius.
The Child Who Is Too Young To Ask Questions
I actually have nothing here – at this point, you’re supposed to start telling the story of Passover. I could try to make some link, but at this point I think it’s more respectful to my faith and my audience if I admit this wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but instead a cute way of addressing a part of game design that I don’t think has been talked about very often.
It’s not your audience’s fault if they aren’t a perfect fit for your game, and to assume that everyone is is to live in Magical Passover Land. I hope this article taught you about a new perspective on your designs, and, for those gentiles reading this, a little bit about Judaism. Make sure that you have all the children covered when they sit down at your table, and they’ll treat you well in kind.