If you ask the average American what their image of a board game is, they’ll give you two examples: “Classic” strategy games like Monopoly, and the ever-present party game. Indeed, the party genre is among the most mainstream in a hobby only beginning to leave its niche, and the most popular games can be found lining the walls at big-box retail stores. While some designers ignore or disparage party games, others, including such stellar talents as Matt Leacock (Knitwit), Friedemann Friese (Terra), and Richard Garfield (Hive Mind), have combined the mass appeal of party games with the rigor of modern tabletop design.
Compared to more conventional hobbyist genres like deckbuilding and worker placement, there isn’t a lot written about designing or playtesting party games, so I wanted to venture into this uncharted territory. Much of this is based off the experience of playtesting my superheroic pitch game, Stand Back, Citizen!, which as of this writing is still looking for a place in the market. My prior experience as a script and comedy writer aided me greatly in that project, and provides me with the perspective necessary to discuss the topic.
What is a party game?
The definition of a party game is very easy.
Party games are comedy Legos.
Every single party game ever made is designed with the intention of making it easier to be funny. This is useful because there’s a lot of reasons someone might not be making other people laugh in a large social group: They might be shy, they might not know the others that well, or they might not have the ability to think up jokes on the fly. Party games even the playing field, allowing anyone, no matter who they are, to score some points with the rest of the people playing.
To accomplish this, party games give you individual components of jokes. all you have to do is click them together to create something that’s at worst recognizable as a joke and at best hilarious. It might sound like I’m overgeneralizing, but the comedy Legos come in all different shapes and sizes, depending on the game.
Pitch games like Cards Against Humanity, Snake Oil, and Stand Back, Citizen! have you inserting punchline tab A into setup slot B. Some of them require extra effort on your part to sell your joke, while others, like Say Anything or Quiplash, give you a blank space to write in the joke yourself.
“Know-your-friends” games, including Polemic, Scattergories, and Hive Mind, don’t make formal jokes per se but generate funny situations based on the table’s interactions with each other. It’s less the satisfaction of matching up two perfect cards and more the cosmic circumstance of everyone thinking of eighteen different ways to finish the phrase “Double ______”.
Trivia games are essentially a fun trivia book like Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader chopped up and placed within a game framework. The best trivia games don’t require anyone to know the exact answer but instead rely on approximate knowledge (Wits & Wagers) or being able to bluff something that sounds right (Balderdash).
There’s other games that don’t fit these rough categories, like charades-with-a-board Concept or hybrid party/strategy game Codenames, but surely by now you see what they all have in common.
Designing Your Party Game
The biggest difference between designing a strategy game and designing a party game is the amount of time you spend on mechanics. The bulk of your time in strategy game design is spent refining and polishing your mechanics; however, you’ll only want to dedicate about 5% of your energy to mechanics in party games, spending the other 95% generating lots and lots of prompts.
At a rough estimate, I’d say that most party games have about 400-500 cards; some games will put up to 6 prompts on each one. The idea of having to write several thousand funny things seems daunting, but your prompts exist independently of one another, so you don’t need to worry about gradually increasing complexity like you might with a strategy game. You can also get your friends, family, and playtesters to help you out. Pitch games are a little different, as all of your setup cards need to work at least semi-well with your punchline cards. Creating prompts gets easier as you hammer out a system for them, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.
Not all of your prompts will be winners, but try to keep your hit/miss ratio at least above 50%. The game Telestrations, a combination of Pictionary and Telephone, suffers from this problem: the mechanics are fun, and the good prompts are great to work with, but there’s so many mediocre and easy-to-guess prompts that the game kind of falls apart if your luck is bad. My play group tried using the highest level of Pictomania cards once instead and we had a great time.
Most party games arrive in small boxes and cost less than $40, so discuss with your printer/publisher how many cards you can fit in the box on a limited budget and aim for the highest number possible.
Now For That 5%
All good party games share two qualities: They’re easy to learn, and they have tons of replay value.
The main way you add replay value is through massive amounts of prompts, as discussed above, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure that your system doesn’t encourage the repetition of the same joke over and over again. For example, in Cards Against Humanity the white cards have essentially self-contained jokes, which means that people who play it a lot (and most people do whether they want to or not) will end up getting bored as they see the same thing over and over. Meanwhile, Snake Oil creates jokes by combining two standalone nouns, meaning the same card can create a near-endless amount of comedy just by picking different partners.
What you need to concentrate on, primarily, is making your party game simple. Very simple. No, simpler than that. The average player of your game is at a distracting party and two drinks in. If you can’t explain how your game works in thirty seconds, you need to cut some rules. On the other side of this coin, think very hard if you want to add a new mechanic: It needs to revolutionize the way the game is played before it can justify another ten seconds of the game owner blabbering about how it works.
See you in two weeks for Part 2: Playtesting A Party Game!