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.