The impress-the-judge game is one of the pillars of party gaming, a valuable social lubricant for parties of nerds and non-nerds alike since the early 2000s. However, more serious designers have largely turned up their noses toward the genre; this is in no small part due to 500-pound gorilla Cards Against Humanity forcing out competitors and earning the genre the undeserving reputation of being filled with offensive “punch-down” humor. This is a huge waste, as a well-designed impress-the-judge game can bring together new players and be a great time for longtime friends alike. I like to consider myself a scholar of the subgenre, and in this article I would like to go in depth on how to make a great impress-the-judge game.
(Before I begin the article in earnest, I’ll define the impress-the-judge genre for those not super aware of game design topics. The basic concept of the impress-the-judge game is that one player each round is the “judge”, who sets forth a prompt, and each other player has to come up with a funny answer that the judge will pick. Usually, both prompts and answers are premade cards, but several excellent games have gone with other options.)
As I mentioned in my previous article on the subject, all party games are comedy Legos, designed to help tables of people find common ground through laughter. This can range from complete strangers at a convention to families who have known each other for ages – no amount of familiarity or inherent comedy skill can’t be enhanced by a good party game. Some kinds of party games are better suited to some groups than others; games that rely on your knowledge of other people, like Wavelength and Hive Mind, are better for people who mostly know each other beforehand, while trivia games like Wits and Wagers are good icebreakers for strangers but don’t add as much to preëstablished groups.
Impress-the-judge are one of the most group-agnostic types of party games. All of the humor is contained on the cards and only requires a modicum of effort for players to rehydrate, which means that no matter how poor a group is at making jokes naturally, it should be easy for them to regularly get a laugh out of everyone most of the time. This also means that the impress-the-judge game is the most reliant party game genre on the designer’s sense of humor and ability to write funny cards.
All impress-the-judge games strike a balance between rewarding writing skills (picking the best card) and acting skills (being able to sell the judge on the game you made). Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are 100% reliant on writing skills, with anonymous submission systems that heavily disincentivize players from promoting their own answer. This has its upsides – the surprise when the shyest member of your group has a slam-dunk answer – and downsides – the despair of having your great card tossed aside because the judge didn’t get the reference and you couldn’t explain it.
Other games rely more on acting skill, though none fully reward acting skill without writing skill, as that is short-form improv and not a board game. Snake Oil is probably the widest-spread of these, though Shut Up & Sit Down darling Funemployed ventures even further into the acting side of the genre, as you have to use every card in your hand, so the ability to select the best one for the situation is taken away from you.
Your first decision when making an impress-the-judge game is where on this spectrum you want your game to fall. Your next decision is how, and if, you want to fix a few of the genre’s glaring problems.
The Three Sinkholes of Impress-the-Judge Games
The impress-the-judge game doesn’t have “pillars” of good game design holding it up; instead, it’s an excellent and time-tested gameplay base with a few large but patchable flaws. Deciding whether to fix these sinkholes at the risk of adding poisonous complexity to your game will inform much of your design work.
The enemy of all party games is downtime. You want your players to be engaged with, or at least entertained by, the game at all times, and unfortunately, the base impress-the-judge game has two areas that frequently produce downtime for most players.
The first is in the answer selection process. Generally, each player has as much time as they want to select or create a funny answer. This means that, with the exception of the slowest player in your group, all the other players are going to spend a lot of this phase waiting around for something different to happen. There aren’t any jokes or funny moments here, as everyone wants to keep their answers a secret so as to spoil the surprise (and win the round).
The most common solution to having too much downtime here is to incentivize players to work quickly. In Stinker, there is no preset judge, with the judge instead being the player who fails to assemble an answer before everyone else. This makes players work much more quickly, and also increases the general quality of each answer because the player having the most trouble with a good answer becomes the judge by default. I took a different tack when designing Stand Back, Citizen!. Each answer in SBC! is comprised of two different types of cards, with all of the cards of one of these types dealt face-up into the table; when the round starts, you have to pick a good card from the center and create an answer before an opponent can snatch it from you. Under this system, there will still be one player left trying to figure out what card to play, but their squirming as they’re faced with a single subpar option makes the time a source of comedy instead of frustration.
The second likely area for downtime is during judging. This is much more of an issue for games with an anonymous judging system, as arguing in favor of your answer, or against an opponent’s answer, or even for an opponent’s answer if you know you don’t have a chance but really liked Uncle Jeff’s pitch, is great fun and takes a lot of the dreariness out of the process. The game that came the closest to solving this is the Quiplash series, which inverts the process by having only two answers for each prompt and making all of the other players judges. This was helped in part by its status as a digital game, but I could see this method working for tabletop games as well.
Because impress-the-judge games rely on the subjective judgments of the other players, there is naturally an issue of a judge picking a particular answer either because it appeals to them specifically or because they’re biased towards one of the players at the table (for example, because they are dating). The early anonymous judging games were anonymous because of this second issue; I would argue that this is somewhat overblown and more of a problem with the gaming group than with the design of the game itself. It is true, however, that losing because someone else played a card that matched the judge’s hobbies or interests is one of the worst feelings in impress-the-judge games.
There haven’t been a whole lot of advances in this area, in part because judge bias is one of the flaws that players are most likely to accept as built in to the genre as a whole; if you wanted your contribution to not be measured subjectively, you could play one of thousands of strategy games, or even a more objective party game like Codenames. Stinker, perhaps unintentionally, went some way towards solving this by randomizing the judge after people lock in their answers; this might be a place where further advancement could be found.
The Novelty Wearing Off
Party games are second only to legacy games in their reliance on novelty. After all, comedy is based out of the unexpected, so if you’ve seen one funny answer already it’s not going to be nearly as impactful the next time. When you have a set of cards with all the jokes pre-written on them, the novelty will wear out sooner rather than later.
The easiest way to solve this is to vary up the “answer” components so players can write either anything (as in Quiplash or Say Anything, where players can even draw) or almost anything (as in Stinker, which uses letter tiles). However, this stumbles into a secondary trap, which Roger van Oech described in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head. Without some way of forcing them to create new answers, players are most likely to stick to the first things they can think of, which inevitably become relatively conservative answers that everyone’s heard before. So if you’re making an impress-the-judge game with totally open answers, you have to focus on creating lots and lots of excellent prompts.
If you’re using cards, consider using a combination of cards to massively increase the permutations that players can achieve. All of the answer cards in Snake Oil are a single word, and players combine two of them to create a product to pitch to the judge; because they’re built to change depending on the other word you pair them with, this creates a much larger variety of responses than could be generated through single cards. I used a similar method when creating Stand Back, Citizen!, though that uses an asymmetrical combination of fill-in-the-blank “power” templates and silly nouns – there’s half as many permutations, but they’re more directed and more likely to be a bullseye than cards that can be put in either order.
Order in the Court
Besides the actual prompts and answers, you should also think about the less glamorous nuts and bolts of your game; in particular, thinking about the scoring system and end condition.
You might think that because impress-the-judge games are party games for casual audiences, that whatever scoring system you create doesn’t matter because people aren’t going to pay attention to them. While it is true that party games are more about the journey than the destination, your scoring system is your best way to incentivize your players into being funny and shouldn’t be discarded offhand. Stinker is one of the best examples here: If your answer gets chosen, you get one point for every letter tile you used in it, so you’re encouraged to make longer and more elaborate answers (balanced with not becoming the judge because you spent too long moving tiles around).
A scoring system more complex than “judge picks the winner” can also introduce new skills to the game. In Say Anything, you get points if the judge picks your answer as usual, but you can also earn points by guessing which answer the judge is going to pick. This turns Say Anything into a hybrid of the impress-the-judge game and the venerable “know your friends” subgenre and helps it stand out.
The end of the game is also very important, because it’s critical that a party game not overstay its welcome. Apples to Apples had a huge issue with this, because the game ended when one player won a certain number of times – not only is this obviously problematic with a large player count, it meant that the game could drag on forever as everyone collected N-1 green apple cards, or end swiftly as some cut-up got all of them in a row. Cards Against Humanity has no end condition at all, which will frequently mean it goes on too long, but I suppose was insightful into how party games usually just sort of end anticlimactically in most of the situations in which they’re played.
I generally like going until everyone’s been the judge once. It means that the game is often too short at 4 or 5 players, but it’s better to undershoot the ideal playtime than overshoot, as it’s psychologically easier to just start a second round than cancel a too-long game in progress. It also gives everyone a chance to judge and many chances to create answers. If your game has more mechanical trappings and is expected to go a little longer, like Say Anything, going around the table twice can also make sense. Go with what works for your game and your players.
The actual biggest flaw with impress-the-judge games is that they’re tough to publish after both the wild success of Cards Against Humanity and the deluge of terrible imitators in the early 2010s. However, only sticking to games that are easy to publish means you’re constantly playing catchup with whatever trend is rocking BGG (or, more realistically, rocked BGG two years ago). At worst, designing a good impress-the-judge game means you’ll make your friend group very happy; at best, you can make thousands of people all over the world very happy. As long as your game deserves to exist and advances the medium, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to compete in a saturated category.