Yup, that’s not a title you thought you’d read eh?
In these days of confinement, I’ve started watching a lot of videos about video game and RPG design, and I like to take those learnings from adjacent disciplines and bring them into board games. And one I’ve read this weekend has stuck with me: the idea that some DMs offer players experience points when they show up to play. Based on the comments I’ve read, it also seems to be a very common thing too.
The idea baffles me for multiple reasons: (1) if your game is enjoyable, players will want to be there by default; (2) if life gets in the way, no XP bribe will be enough to skip out on a funeral; and (3) if it’s a case of “I’m not feeling up to it”, and the bribe does work, how much fun do you think that will be? It reminds me of professors in university who would assign a portion of your mark to attendance: why don’t you instead focus on making your classes interesting and informative, and evaluate the stuff you cover in class?
I also was reminded of this study they covered in Freakonomics(which is one of my favorite books in the world and you should read it too) about a daycare in Haifa, Israel, which had a problem with parents arriving late to pick up their kids, which led to anxious kids and frustrated teachers. As a good game designer would do, they added a counter incentive: if you came in late, it cost you 3$. Instantly, the number of late pickups… almost tripled. They incentivized against something, yet instead of deterring it, it seemed to encourage it?
In fact, what happened is that the cost replaced the much stronger social and moral incentives: before, you wanted to be there on time so you wouldn’t have to face the teacher you had kept from going home, or because you wanted to do the right thing, but after, all of those things were gone. The 3$ erased the guilt: it now just became an exchange like any other, and 3$ is not enough for someone to leave a meeting early or head out while you’re “in the zone”. It’s no longer about the kid, the teacher, or what’s right: it’s about that money.
Same thing happens, in my experience, with attendance “bribes”: if I had a long day and game night feels more like a chore, I might push myself to go so as not to disappoint my group, but if I start to think of it in terms of XP, I’m staying right on my couch. Same with class attendance: by offering points for being there, when my alarm rings in the morning, I think about how many points I’ll lose by staying in bed, not about the commitment I made or the learning I’ll miss.
In games, the same thing is true: in games with targeted interaction, everything else being equal, I’ll try and spread out who I pick on. Actually, spreading it out is a pretty high priority for me: I’ll do it even if it’s less optimal. In Small World, I’ll come in between two other players, just to hit them equally, even if it’s harder to defend; in Scythe, I won’t attack a player I just took a bunch of stuff from. To me, it’s part moral (“we’re all here to have fun, let’s not ruin anybody’s game”), and part social (“I don’t want them to be mad at me”).
Then, take a game like Hyperborea, where you get 2 points for every different opponent you’ve won a fight against: all of a sudden, those go out the window, and I’m trying to evaluate whether focusing fire is worth more than 2 points.
Game design is about creating incentives, but one thing you can’t forget is that you have to consider incentives that come from outside of the game during your process: they are often very powerful, but easy to extinguish.
Sometimes, like in the examples above, those incentives already go in the direction you want to push, and you want to avoid smothering them. Sometimes though, those incentives go against your goal: in games about deception, stealing, and other activities which are morally wrong outside of this setting, some players might resist. Adding even a tiny game element can take the guilt right out of it: in my interview with him, Peter C Hayward talked about the hidden incentive of valuing your turns, even if there were no limit to the number of guesses, because those were *your* turns.
Can you think of other instances of hidden incentives in games, whether in published games or in your own designs?
Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.
JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with the bluest beard in board games, Peter C. Hayward! Peter is the president of Jellybeans Games, and the designer of awesome games such as Bugs on Rugs, Ninjitsu!, and Village Pillage. Peter and I talked about issues he ran into while working on his latest party game.
PCH: Hey JV! So I’ve been developing a party game called French Toast, and I kept running into this weirdly specific issue: the game only works when people go FAST, and as soon as I started blind testing it, people would go veeeery slowly and have a bad time.
JV: And can you tell us about the game? How does it play?
PCH: OK, so I am the Toastmaster. I draw a noun card and you have to guess what it is. You say a word, for example Car, and I will say whether the word is closer to French Toast or to a Car. Then you say another word, and I’ll compare the two, and on we go until someone finds it. You get closer and closer and closer.
The game works best when you quickly guess a noun, just rapid fire, guess-word guess-word guess-word, but people would just go “do I want to guess train? Oh, we’ve already guessed car, maybe it’s too close, maybe we should try and guess cabinet to open up so and so” and then the game just dies. People for some reason just start valuing their guess, acting as if they were limited (which they aren’t!), and then it gets boring. If I’m around the table, I can manage that, but learning from the rules people couldn’t get to that point.
Which also means that I wouldn’t have spotted that problem without playtesting. I blind playtest waaaaaaaaaaaay earlier than most people would, and way more often, so I got my rules out and tried to get as many people to learn it from the rules, because that’s how you learn the game when it gets to you!
JV: Does the game include a scoring system or is it just Win/Lose?
PCH: There wasn’t one originally, it was just whoever would get it would go for the next round. Eventually, I added a hint system to avoid situations when the Toastmaster would just get stuck over and over on just one word, and then there was this scoring system which was just however many hints you did not use are how many points you’d get.
JV: So there’s no limit to how many guesses you can take? There are no incentives to use fewer, they truly don’t have any real value, but for some reason players assumed there was? If it takes you those 30 seconds to think of one word, you could have just blurted out 10 words during that times and gotten a lot more information.
PCH: Exactly. You have to treat your guesses as disposable. It progresses the game so much faster.
JV: And so why do you think players assumed that those guesses should be used sparingly?
PCH: Part of it is that the game would go around the table with players taking guesses, so after your turn, in a 5 player game, three people will go between every one of your guesses, which makes you not want to waste that shot.
That being said, if everyone goes fast, your turn will come back in 15 seconds, and so you don’t care about “wasting” it. However, it’s a vicious circle where if one player slows down, everyone starts cherishing their chances more, and takes more time, and so gaps between turns increase, and so on.
JV: That makes a lot of sense. Once you realized that problem, if we were to go step-by-step, what did you try?
PCH: So the first impulse of any game designer is of course to blame the players. “These players are dumb, other people will get it!” But the thing is, especially with a party game, it needs to be accessible. If anyone plays it wrong now, it means someone WILL play it wrong. And I say “wrong”, but the game is at fault here, not the players.
So my first attempt at a fix was to brute force it: I literally wrote in the rule “Go fast”, “Guess quickly”, “Don’t think about it too much”, “Don’t value your guesses”, but no matter how many times you write it, it doesn’t mean people will do it, as nice as that would be.
The next thing I tried was grouping people. If you play with 9 players, that’s 8 guessers, and so you have to wait for 7 people to go before you would, and that’s way too long. So I just made pairs, thinking it would just half the time between guesses. The problem is, suddenly, instead of being a problem some of the time, it became a problem ALL of the time. People now HAD to discuss their guesses with their partner: “should we say this?”, “what do you want to say?”, which dragged it out even longer. I tried the opposite, splitting them into 2 teams instead of teams of 2. It was the same problem, but you would now discuss by committee, and a team of 4 takes a lot longer than 2 teams of 2 as it turns out!
I went back to individuals, and I put a timer in, and you could take as many guesses as you wanted in that 30 seconds. That meant that you never were waiting more than 30 seconds times the number of other players, and you were incentivized to go as quickly as you can: perfect! However, people would never use the second half of their timers, because as you get closer, you’re helping your opponents, and then it won’t get back to you. They’d literally just wait for their time to run out, and you don’t ever want people who deliberately DO NOT play your game.
At that point, I went back to teams, but with that 30 second-timer for the team as a whole. People would then get cranky at their teammate if they took any amount of time, or, if they shared that time anyway they wanted, one person would often end up hogging the spotlight and take all of the guesses themselves, both of which were pretty terrible.
Then I also had another problem I wanted to solve: you know how in Codenames, you play a game, and then go again with the same teams, changing the Spymaster? Well I never did that! I always played every game as separate, switching up the teams, and I planned on French Toast being like that, with the Toastmaster a neutral referee in the affair. However, most players would play round after round with the same group, and so the Toastmaster felt an obligation to “their” team. The shared Toastmaster caused this unforeseen social problem, because players were thinking of it as a team game.
The next move was just making it a pure coop. Anyone can guess, as long as you don’t guess twice in a row. People responded very positively, I was really surprised. Some people are like me, they just want to spit out answers, but some people like to sit back and think about it, but when they jump in it’s something that really saves the day.
That really worked, and actually the coop version will be in the box as one of the modes, but I found myself missing the competitive nature of it. I also found that as everyone was working on the same time, people would get stuck more often, and what you get stuck the game just stops being fun. There was something about taking those 30 seconds off to let the other team go that would give you some distance and un-stick you.
Recently I was at a con, I sat down and said “I want a team vs team mode, you folks are designers, make this work for me”. And it was very simple, they just had two Toastmasters, one for each team, shared word, and I was CERTAIN it wouldn’t work-if I think Radio is closer to Car than Train, doesn’t mean that you do, and so we’d just be fighting for direction. For some reason, that didn’t ever happen. I kept the same rule from the coop where you can guess in any order, as long as no one guesses twice in a row. So far, that’s the version of the game that will go in the box.
JV: What about the Toastmaster? Did you have to push them to go faster at all? I feel like I’d take forever on those, plus with the stress of everyone staring at you.
PCH: So interestingly, them hesitating is interesting. When they’re stuck, when they’re thinking, it becomes fascinating for those who are watching, because that hesitation is telling you something. Maybe those are two very good guesses, or two equally poor ones, but it’s information. It’s only a problem when the guesses are slow, because that is not progress.
Also, people tend to give answers faster than they take the guesses, making those hesitations even more interesting.
JV: If another game designer reading this was struggling with players who aren’t playing the game in the most fun way, what would you suggest?
PCH: So that’s something that can happen in a party game or in a heavier strategy game, but it’s really about figuring out what the fun part is (in my game, play it fast), and then “Game design is incentive design”. In the old system, players were incentivized to value their guess, because they personally only got one of every 4 or 5 or 10. To incentivize going fast, I added that timer, and removed the rigid turn structure, and suddenly you don’t have a reason to go against the fun.
In a party game especially, it’s less about throwing points at them, it’s really about the social dynamics that come up, like pressure and attention and politeness. Incentive becomes a more nuanced concept then.
I had a similar problem in Scuttle!, my first released game, where players would forego special ability cards and just focus on big point cards and win. When I worked on Ninjutsu!, which is the second game in the series, you win by having big cards in front of you at the start of your next turn—meaning that now, it’s not just about playing those cards, but timing it accordingly.
JV: Well Peter, this was amazing. I’m in awe of every that goes in this process of designing a party game. It seems to me like you’ve perfected mind control, and have decided to use your powers for good!
French Toast will make its way to Kickstarter soon, but Peter does have another party game on it right now: Night of the Mummy!