Communication Breakdown (Get it? It’s a Led Zeppelin song? Get it? I’m cultured?)

I’ve seen a number of posts discussing the art of designing for specific genres, like worker placement games or deckbuilders, and find their information fairly useful. However, there is one genre of game I see little to no discussion about, yet its products – Codenames, Mysterium, Ugg-Tect, and Hanabi, for example – continue to be the talk of the town full of board game enthusiasts. If you couldn’t tell by now, these all fall into the fairly narrow category of communication games.

While I don’t have any personal experience designing a communication game, and therefore won’t be talking in terms of what you “should” do, I’m comfortable enough exploring the psychological side of game design that I feel I’m qualified to at least discuss the genre. Communication games are great, and I want to see more people working on them.

WHY DID YOU PICK THAT CARD AAAAAAUUUUUUGH

The core of every communication game is a giant “but.” Stop snickering.

Mysterium is “I want to tell these psychics what suspects to pick”

“I can only communicate with surreal illustrations.”

Codenames is “I want to tell my team what words to pick”

 “I can only give them a one-word clue.”

Ugg-Tect is “I want to tell my workers to assemble a shape using these blocks”

 

“I am a caveman and therefore can only talk via grunting.”

Because the vast majority of communication games are team games, they share a lot in common with co-op games like Pandemic. Both genres generate enjoyment from the fun frustration of watching helplessly as your carefully constructed plans fall apart. However, whereas most co-ops disrupt your plans through random effects, in communication games people most likely lose because someone at the table – not necessarily the person doing the communicating – beefed it. Being the spymaster in Codenames and watching helplessly as your well-intentioned clue sends your team into a death spiral of confusion is a special experience.

(10 years later) WHY DID YOU PICK THAT CARD

One of the guiding principles of my design is impact, which I wrote about here. In brief, impactful games are emotionally moving and memorable. The reason I bring this up is that communication games have a disproportionate level of impact compared to other genres. This is, in part, why the genre has met with such a high amount of acclaim – a good, impactful game is going to make more waves than one that’s only good.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons why communication games, as a whole, are very impactful. The first is the emotional ignition I mentioned in the last section. Oftentimes, the emotions communication games stir up are negative, but media – including games – are places to feel negative emotions in a safe environment, and the frustration is often balanced out by the rush of adrenaline you get when you give a brilliant clue to your Codenames team and they make a miracle rally to win the game.

Second, one of the major components of an impactful game is being able to use lateral thinking to win. People really like feeling smart, and the best way to feel smart is to feel like you outsmarted the game designer. Most communication games encourage this by design, giving players a pile of clues from which to construct a win. Comparing more conventional strategy games to communication games is like comparing a chair from IKEA to a big box of Legos.

Finally, most communication games are really easy to summarize in an elevator pitch. This reason isn’t as important than the other two, but being able to broadly recollect why a game was so interesting is part of what makes it stick in your mind. It also leads to a higher influx of more casual players, who are likelier to be interested in a game because of its hook than because it has a 7.8 on BoardGameGeek.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how confused were you, exactly?

As cool as communication games are, their biggest pitfall is that they’re very difficult to playtest. In a game with a more mathematical basis, it’s easier to make small adjustments when a particular strategy is too strong or weak. With communication games, it’s much harder to adjust the game’s difficulty because so much of it depends on human comprehension.

Probably the most effective technique is merely to brute-force playtests with a wide variety of players. After your game has been refined, you can also develop a sort of sixth sense for whether something is working or not and make an educated guess toward fixing it. It’s also feasible to simply give up on achieving the perfect level of challenge, especially when your game has high variance, and try to keep it within a reasonable range.

I’m keeping this section short because I don’t have any real solutions. Once I start working on a communication game – and I’m sure I’ll give it a shot at some point in my career – I’ll be able to come back to this topic with more confidence.

Conclusion

Because communication games have so many benefits, I hope to see more local designers trying their hand at creating them. The design process is fairly challenging, but the end result is something that cuts very close to the core of tabletop gaming’s purpose: Putting a unique experience in a box to be shared by other people. The genre is still very much in its infancy and I have high expectations of it in the future.

AUTOMATIC MODE ENGAGED

Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home. The next time you’re in the middle of a board game with your friends and nobody’s having any fun with it, suggest that you all quit and play something better. Nine times out of ten, everyone will refuse, citing that they “just want to finish it.” This isn’t borne out of some kind of dogged grit-your-teeth wish to push through it – it’s a board game, so there’s rarely any kind of stakes. Instead, it’s more like the game has some kind of hold on them, an unspoken contract that won’t be complete until the game ends.

My theory is this is the result of something I like to call “automatic mode,” a mental shift that some 95% of people, myself included, go through when they sit down to play a game. A lot of my game design stumbles have been because I don’t consider automatic mode, and keeping it in mind has made me go through iterations more quickly than before. It’s a very useful concept and one that will vastly improve the amount of information you get from watching playtests.

TARGET LOCKED ON

Automatic mode is essentially a single-minded desire to win. Once the rules have been explained to you, your mind immediately starts processing the best way for you to get the most points, or eliminate everyone else, or whatever. It pushes out thoughts of having fun, injokes with your friends, and what you had to eat for dinner that night. All you care about is winning.

There are a couple of exceptions to entering automatic mode. Once your group has played a game enough to get bored with the initial strategy, you start drifting away from winning into finding new strategies that might give you a chance to win. Party games de-emphasize victory enough to keep your brain thinking more about the “funniest” option, not the “best” one. And there is the uncommon person who is able to remain in manual mode in any game, mostly so they can do whatever weird goofy thing they prefer.

This behavior does share a few things with the concept of “flow” – a term referring to entering a blank state of mind when deeply engaged in a task at which one is skilled. But it’s a different concept for two reasons. First, people of any experience level can enter automatic mode, while flow is reserved for people who are reasonably good at the game. In fact, it’s the opposite – people with less skills are more likely to turn on automatic. Second, people still have conscious thoughts in auto mode – they’re just focused more on their goal.

INCREASING EFFICIENCY

The first feature of automatic mode that’s important to designers is that a player on automatic will try to win using as little effort as possible. If they can win without using a feature or two in the game, then they’ll go for it.

To illustrate my point, let’s talk about the game Condottiere. During each round, players play soldier cards of varying strengths in an attempt to control different parts of Italy. The gameplay of this is rich enough already (I discussed part of it in an older post about zugzwang), but buried in the rulebook is an interesting note: It says that players may talk and make deals freely.

This is interesting, because of the numerous games of Condottiere I’ve played with different friend groups, none of us made any deals with each other. We paid attention to who was about to win, of course, but nobody really ganged up on anyone else. Because each player saw a way to win that could be achieved without relying on the table talk aspect of the game, we ignored it and focused on having our knights flex their muscles as hard as possible.

If a mechanic in your game can be safely ignored by players looking to win, it might as well not exist in the first place. If you want players to do something in particular, make it absolutely fundamental to victory instead of a suggestion. This becomes more of a problem with “soft” mechanics like trading, negotation, and betrayal, as suggested above, but anything that seems extraneous could be a problem.

DEFENSES ACTIVATED

If there’s one thing an auto-mode player likes more than winning with as little effort as possible, it’s winning as surely as possible. Faced with a choice with higher risk/reward and a reasonably safe choice that could still help them win, they’ll choose the safe one almost every time.

My example for this comes from the playtesting process for my own Happy Daggers. In Happy Daggers, players attempt to push each other around a map, with more pushing being better for the player on offense. One of my defense cards in an early build of the final game allowed the defender to be pushed exactly 2 spaces. I figured this was a good idea, because other cards granted the ability to defend perfectly, but in playtests, players would always choose to be pushed 2 spaces. The card was quickly replaced with something better.

Designers of games that use variance in part to create a fun play experience should be careful not to offer a choice that’s too safe. That isn’t to say that some choices can’t be safer, but they should offer a small enough reward compared to shooting the moon that the choice should genuinely present some difficulty, even to players on automatic.

SHUTTING DOWN

Sitting down to play a game is essentially handing your brain over to the game designer to have them take care of it for a while. This is where automatic mode comes from – we trust that we’ll have fun on the way to victory and don’t want to put any more effort than we have to. As game designers, instead of trying to fight this behavior, we should tailor our games for it and try to create experiences that players can discover easily. The next time you run a prototype, or even play someone else’s game, thinking about what your players – or you – are doing while on automatic has a lot of value.

The Arty of Party: Part 2: Playtesting Your Party Game

In The Arty of Party: Part 1 I wrote about the party game genre in general and described some of the subgenres. This week, I’ll go into the nitty-gritty of designing your party game, in particular running it through playtests. If you’ve primarily worked in strategy games or similar, you’ll find the experience to be fairly different. However, it doesn’t require any special skills – you just need to evaluate the game in a different way than you’re used to.

“Writer’s Room” Playtests

As I mentioned, the majority of your work in a party game will be coming up with funny prompts. The average game will only use a tiny fraction of these, so to make sure that the majority of your prompts are funny, you’ll want to have two kinds of playtests: Regular ones where you show your game to people you don’t know, and what I call a “writer’s room” playtest.

To do this, you’ll need a group of friends and/or interested people who want to help work on your game. First, run two or three games with them so they understand how it works. Then, read off the list of prompts you’ve developed and, with their help, sort them into “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No” piles. Throw out everything in the “No” pile and look at the “Maybe” prompts on a later date. Having a lot of people with different senses of humor is especially useful as you get more perspective on whether a prompt works or not.

For pitch games, it’s also important that all the cards flow grammatically with one another. Pick out five or so cards and, for each new one you create, briefly check to see if it sounds weird when combined with any of the other five. As you work alone and with your writer’s room, you’ll find yourself coming up with cards that meet the requirements more and more quickly as you get used to the constraints of your game.

It’s good to hold “writer’s room” playtests every couple of weeks as you continue to test your game and develop additional prompts.

Engagement

When you do your regular playtests, the most important thing, obviously, is that everyone has fun. However, there’s a more scientific approach than constantly interviewing your players to see if they enjoyed it.Though it’s difficult to quantify fun, it’s much easier to quantify engagement, and if your game is good enough, engagement should be fun anyway.

Engagement is a concern for strategy games, as well – it’s no fun to wait helplessly for several minutes as Slow-Play Steve spends forever thinking about his turn – but even a short period of nonengagement in a party game can be fatal. The best way to tell how engaged players will be in your party game is to create a time diagram, mentally or on paper, of how a round passes.

Within this diagram, create three categories: Action, where the player makes a choice or otherwise does something; Entertaining Inaction, where the player isn’t doing anything but is being entertained by another player; and Inaction, where the player is just twiddling their thumbs and waiting for something to happen. Then, run your prototype for a few rounds and create a rough graph of how long a player spends in each state and when. Here’s an example graph for a round of a non-judge player playing Apples to Apples:

These graphs are inevitably very rough but they help you visualize how much each player gets to participate over the course of a round.

Also important is the number of players engaged at one time. As you can see from the graph, only the judge gets to be active for the majority of the round of Apples to Apples. However, in the game Quiplash, all but two players serve as the “judge” for each round, meaning that, although the selection/judgement flow is essentially the same, many more players are actively participating for the majority of the round. In this way, even though the engagement chart would look similar, the game overall is more engaging and fun.

Diversity

Making sure your party game appeals to a wide audience is one of the best ways to ensure it’s a good game. Bring the game to places with a wide variety of age ranges, senses of humor, and experience levels with games to make sure everyone has a good time. This also applies to setting: A bar or a party is a different place than your weekly game night, and it will be more challenging for anyone to focus on a game there.

Even within your friend group, you can test for whether the game appeals to a diverse audience. Think about the shiest, most quiet person playing: Are they enjoying the game? Are they winning about as often as anyone else at the table? If the answer is yes, your game is essentially accomplishing what it’s supposed to by allowing everyone to participate in the generation of jokes.

As you test for wide outreach, you may find that parts of your game aren’t accessible to everyone. For example, when I tested Stand Back, Citizen!, I found that the real-time gameplay, which emphasized being able to put together a combination of cards as fast as possible, was difficult for people who didn’t fluently understand English. If there’s any way that the core concept of your game can expand to be more accessible, make it a priority, but in some cases it’s simply impossible to include everyone.

It’s Time To Party

Even if you aren’t interested in creating a party game, I hope these two essays have at least convinced you that party games require just as much rigor as any other game design. If you’re mostly used to games that involve a lot of silent thinking, you might want to dip a toe into the pool of making your players laugh. A peek into player psychology can benefit anyone!