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.
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’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!