The last person to finish reading this article…MAY be eliminated

I have a bit of a taste for competition-themed reality shows. Many of them are very hit-or-miss in terms of season quality (Top Chef Las Vegas compared to Top Chef D.C. for instance), but the good seasons are fun to watch, with larger-than-life personalities demonstrating skill in an entertaining way. Today, I wanted to talk about The Amazing Race, which is both one of the best reality shows and filled with a surprising amount of lessons for game designers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, allow me to briefly summarize it: A dozen or so teams, beginning the US, race around the world. The race is divided into usually 12 legs, between which teams get a chance to rest. Teams that finish last on each leg are eliminated, though two or three are secretly “non-elimination legs” in which nobody has to leave. Each team has to complete two kinds of tasks on every leg: A “Detour,” which gives the team a choice between two different tasks, and a “Roadblock,” a task that only one member of the team can perform.

The Catchup Mechanic

When I wrote about TCG design several months ago, I mentioned that one of the benefits of learning about it is watching the designers make mistakes, learn lessons, and implement changes in public instead of having to read about the process second-hand. The same logic applies to The Amazing Race’s course and challenge design, particularly in the way it stops a team from rocketing so far ahead that nobody else could ever catch up to them.

This was a major problem in the finale of the first season, which saw the three remaining teams so far away from each other that it was a foregone conclusion as to who would win. Since then, the show has included several measures to stop this from happening.

The most obvious way The Amazing Race allows other teams to catch up is through mandatory transportation. For example, early legs frequently require the teams to travel using three specific flights, each of which depart an hour or two from each other. In this way, faster teams get a slight advantage that isn’t crushing and the weakest teams don’t immediately fall off and become completely unable to catch up.

However, putting the entire race on rails isn’t something the audience – or the producers – want to see, so a lot of ways The Amazing Race handles its catchup mechanics feel more natural. The most common way is, once again, transportation: Even without the show mandating which flights to take, there aren’t too many last-minute flights from Prague to Harare on any given day, so teams will naturally settle into two or three flights.

Making some tasks take place in museums or other locations with opening and closing hours also creates a bottleneck of leading teams that arrive there before hours. Sometimes, this completely equalizes teams; in other cases, it shortens the last team’s eight-hour gap to one hour. It also provides the fun visual of all these cutthroat teams sleeping on the street in front of the task location and getting stared at by locals.

The U-Turn

The other thing I wanted to discuss with regards to The Amazing Race’s game design is how it handled the U-Turn, a recurring feature meant to add more politics into the course of the race. From Season 5 to Season 12, the show used something called a Yield instead; in both features, one team may nominate another team to be delayed, but have to “sign” it so the other team knows who backbit them.

When a team got Yielded, they had to turn over an hourglass and wait for about half an hour to continue. When a team is U-turned, they have to go back and do the second task of a Detour. Realistically, these both take about the same amount of time and don’t change the basic strategy and composition of the race to the racers. So why was the change put in?

This is where The Amazing Race’s peculiar situation comes in. The vast majority of games are made to be fun for the people playing them, but because it’s TV, the main group the race is meant to entertain is the audience. Therefore, the Yield was changed to the U-Turn not because it was causing problems to the contestants but because it made for more compelling television. After all, watching a team struggle to complete the Detour task they didn’t want is a lot better than watching two people impatiently tap their feet in front of an hourglass.

One might expect that this has nothing to do with games, but there are several genres where attention isn’t paid to if one or more players is having fun. Most notably, role-playing games sometimes put too much of a burden on the GM, expecting them to not only entertain the other players but keep track of a huge amount of fiddly rules. Knowing who’s supposed to be having fun at all stages of your game is important, and U-Turns serve as an interesting lesson about it.


I heartily recommend The Amazing Race if you’re filing receipts, working out at the gym, or performing some other task where you’d like to be entertained. But if you’re a game designer, there’s a surprising amount you can learn from Phil Keoghan’s international gauntlet of pain. Don’t brush it off just because it’s a reality show – the producers have ridiculously high stakes that they have to meet, and they pay attention to the details of the race as much as any designer you could care to name cares about their game. Take what you can, and enjoy the race!