Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Nerds are generally not very good at being funny. If you want evidence of this, look at the way movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail have been wrung dry by nerds who missed the point of the irreverent humor in favor of quoting the same lines until the sun has burned out into a tiny ember. In board games, several things compound this problem: Many game designers come into games through math or programming, which doesn’t provide much room for humor, and tabletop games are frequently forced to jettison theme for superior gameplay.

But being funny is great! So how can we add humor to board games in ways that will make people laugh?

My theory is there’s effectively two types of comedy in games: “Jim Carrey” style and “Leslie Nielsen” style. Let’s examine both of them.

Jim Carrey

Every movie with Jim Carrey in it is essentially about a single wacky person being super wacky in a setting where everyone else is pretty much normal. There might be some fiction elements, like the birthday wish in Liar, Liar that stops Carrey’s character from lying, but for the most part the movies are about Jim Carrey being a goon in a weary world.

The game comedy I categorize under “Jim Carrey” is the games that don’t take themselves seriously and intentionally make jokes. The Munchkin franchise immediately springs to mind, especially since the original draw of the game was as a parody of the self-centered band of dungeon crawling murder hobos, and nearly every card has some kind of joke on it. Other games handle this a little more subtly, like Galaxy Trucker, which is ostensibly a tense resource-management game but is couched in the theme of building a ship out of toilets and flying it into the sun.

One would expect that every party game falls under the banner of Jim Carrey-style comedy, but the genre has more finesse than one would expect. There certainly are party games that attempt to appeal based on jokes alone, like Cards Against Humanity, Say Anything, and the aforementioned Quiplash, but not every game is presenting you with premade jokes or expecting you to write them. More on that later.

The issue with Carrey-style comedy in games is twofold. First, jokes frequently clash with the need for players to take the game seriously. If people think the rules don’t really matter, then they aren’t going to follow along, and worse, may abandon a game partly through. Second, games, more than movies or TV shows, are designed for repeat experiences. Any joke is going to stop being funny if people see it over and over, and indeed that’s been a complain for many of the games I’ve mentioned.

Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen’s movies, including Airplane! and The Naked Gun, are the opposite: Nielsen maintains a straight face through an avalanche of one-dimensional characters, slapstick injuries, and visual gags. It could be said that Nielsen was effectively a dramatic actor who has been transplanted into a farce, and most of the comedy in these films hinged on his ability to keep everything from devolving into total chaos.

The board game equivalent of Nielsen is games that seem serious but are designed to inspire funny behavior from the players themselves. While the table devolves into laughter and screaming, the game continues to putter along, offering a springing-off point for comedy to arise. This is best achieved by social games that have some kind of communication constraint, forcing players into bizarre interactions in a bid for victory.

The best illustration of this concept is the social game Spyfall, which I’ve written about in previous entries. As I mentioned, the point of the game is to be ambiguous – to give some indication that you know where you are but not to let the spy know your location. The game is deadly serious (despite the cartoony art), but the verbal acrobatics players have to go through to win are almost always hilarious, even if they aren’t good at comedy.

This last part – that Nielsen-esque comedy in games can make normally unfunny people funny – is why party games that use this straight-faced humor style are superior. Some people simply aren’t good at making others laugh, and games that require that skill will alienate people who continually get penalized for a skill they don’t have. However, games that make players generate humor inadvertently will lead to people being funny without meaning it, which is a lot easier. Snake Oil is a good example: The judge doesn’t select the funniest invention, they select the one most suited for them, which means players are more focused on meeting that goal than on coming up with a joke.


I’m a big fan of Nielsen-style comedy in board games for multiple reasons; I think it’s better-suited to the medium and creates more personal memories for the people playing it. However, a dash of silliness in games, especially ones that are very gloomy and serious, can help provide much-needed levity. I definitely wouldn’t enjoy Dead of Winter as much as I did without Sparky the Stunt Dog’s inclusion.

When thinking about making a funny game, see if you can design it so that most of the humor is generated by the players. It’s more sustainable and often leads to better gameplay. However, giving your players a shot in the arm, often to get them started, is a perfectly valid strategy. Good luck!


Elven Space Farmers of Ancient Rome

Board games have an issue with theme.

Though exceptions exist, Zach Gage’s bizarre Guts of Glory springing to mind immediately, the majority of board games have similar themes. There are hundreds of (mostly) American board games with extremely similar European fantasy themes, soft sci-fi with aliens, and the ever-present zombies. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe brims with games about farming and being a Roman with a bunch of bricks and spare time. Even stranger, people don’t really seem to tire of these themes, with the exception of zombies, which have worn out their welcome even among a fairly tolerant audience of geeks.

Instead of complaining, or boasting about how my games are different (so far, their themes are “trains”, “superheroes”, and “Elizabethan England”), I wanted to analyze some of gaming’s most common themes and see why they remain enduringly popular.

Die, Skeletons, Die!

Most of the popular American board game themes involve violence of some sort. In fantasy, this is the classic adventuring party of the fighter, the mage, the cleric, and the rogue running into a dungeon and killing goblins, orcs, and skeletons. Sci-fi games take a grander scale, with gigantic spaceships firing lasers at one another. Zombies, superheroes, mafia – all of these themes require the frequent use of violence.

This is not necessarily because the average American gamer is bloodthirsty, but instead plays into a power fantasy. The ability to inflict violence is developed from significant physical skill, something that the majority of gamers, because gaming is a more mental hobby, either don’t or can’t develop. Violence in games translates mental power, which is often subtle and unsatisfying, into physical might.

Pro Farmer 2000 XP

Let’s turn our attention to the peaceful Euro. The running gag about these games is that they are almost invariably about farming, and indeed, the vast majority of them have very pastoral, almost boring themes: The hard-working farmer, the Roman architect, the peaceful village. How do people find the necessary stakes in these themes?

My hypothesis: Scale.

Eurogames give the players the reins over a domain of any size from a family (Village, Agricola) to a village (Catan) to an entire civilization (7 Wonders, Stone Age). Even games where players represent one person, like Last Will, typically has them in positions where they are capable of colossal things. Generally, time is compressed so that a single turn could be representative of weeks, months, or even years in extreme cases; civilizations are built and destroyed over forty-five minutes.

This is a power fantasy of a different sort, one where players aren’t supernaturally powerful but where they can construct something grand. Day-to-day, the average person doesn’t get to design a city, or build a house, or guide a civilization – the biggest decision they get to make is what to have for dinner. Classic Euro themes forego violence but retain the players’ subconscious wish to be something greater than they are.

Stereotypes And The Tautological Argument

It could also be said that these themes are popular because they are popular. One of the most insightful articles in designing theme for board games is Bruno Faidutti’s Postcolonial Catan, an essay that mostly discusses exoticism and stereotypes in board games, explaining their prevalence in tabletop games with this astoundingly profound sentence:

“The game designer, like the painter, cannot enliven his work by complex and subtle storytelling, and must do it only by winks and nods – a camel here, a helmet there. As a result, he makes heavy use of orientalist, ‘medievalist’ or ‘antiquist’ clichés.”

A board game has very little real estate it can use to convey its world. This faces the designer (and illustrator, and graphic designer, if these are three different people) with a dilemma: Do we stick with something familiar, allowing players some insight into how our mechanics work, or do we do something strange at higher risk? Given that theme is not a strong concern for many designers, and most people would prefer to see their game succeed, it isn’t difficult to see that they would immediately jump to something popular.


I don’t know if identifying the reasons board games have fairly homogenous themes will lead to more diversity; some themes just lend themselves better to games than others. However, I feel that theme is a part of games that isn’t talked about as often as mechanics or economics, and one that, if paid attention to more, could result in much wider audiences.