Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Director: [QUARTERLY REPORT] Games with Judges

What happens when the winner of a game is chosen subjectively?

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my friend about our tastes in board games. He prefers Eurogames: Seven Wonders, Ticket to Ride, Power Grid, and other high-strategy point-based games. When I expressed my preference for games like Apples to Apples and Channel A, he raised an eyebrow and replied "but those aren't games."

Are they?

Games like Apples to Apples, Channel A, and Cards Against Humanity all have a similar ruleset. There are two sets of cards, what I will refer to as "cue" cards and "player" cards. At the beginning of a round, one player will take on the role as judge. They flip over one or more cue cards from the cue card deck to serve as an inspiration. The remaining players then sift through their hands of player cards to find a response to the cue cards. The stated goal is to find a player card that is the most interesting, creative, or funny in response to the cue cards.

But which card is the most interesting? The uncertain element in this kind of game is the judge. Which card they ultimately choose as the winner is entirely subjective; what could be funny or compelling to the rest of the players doesn't matter if the judge chooses a different card as the winner.

So is this a game?  There are points: whoever's card the judge chooses gets a point. There is a clear objective: come up with fun card combinations to win points, whoever has the most points wins. But a funny thing happens when a group of friends starts playing one of these games...

Let's take Channel A as our example. In this particular flavor of the game, the judge is the producer for a company that makes anime. They draw five possible cue cards that contain common anime tropes: Monster Hunters, Supernatural Battles, Kid Detective, Cyberpunk Dystopia, and Coming of Age are a few examples. They pick their two favorites, turn to the other players, and say something along the lines of, "Alright, team, we've had our marketing folks hold a few focus group sessions and we've determined that this season the kids are really into Monster Hunters and Coming of Age dramas. Show me an anime that has those two elements and we'll make a fortune!"

The players look at their hands of player cards. The cards have single words like Angel, Lucky, School, Robo, Rune, and Eternal. The player uses these cards to pick out a title that matches the cue cards. They pick between two and four cards and take turns pitching their anime ideas to the producer: "Picture this: there's another world hidden in the shadows of modern day New York City. An underground society of dark engineers have harnessed the power of an Old Magic and are weaving spells with machinery into an army of cyborg monsters. Of course, the world cannot know of the existence of magic. Thus, the ancient line of wizards safeguarding these arcane secrets have founded a new school to train worthy teenagers in the ways of mechanomagic. Our heroes must learn to work together and control their strange new powers in... ROBO RUNE SCHOOL!" The player reveals their title cards to the group.

The titles people come up with can be extraordinarily funny, clever, and witty. On the other hand, they can be hilariously bad. There's a ton of table talk; people laugh and joke about the best titles or rib the people with bad ideas. Occasionally the laughter will become so contagious that nobody at the table can catch their breath for several minutes. Sure, somebody's winning, but does anyone even care anymore? People keep playing until they get bored and then only briefly note who got the most points if at all. It isn't about the points anymore; nobody cares who won. It's become a social experience. Does this make it less of a game?

Some might argue that it isn't; it's a social experience and an icebreaker, not a game. I'd argue that this makes it more of a game. The focus becomes about the act of playing and less about who wins. I suppose it depends on what you want out of a game. If the point of a game for you is to win, then perhaps this particular style is not as good for you as a game as Seven Wonders or basketball. If the point of a game is to enjoy the experience and interact with other people, though, then these fit the description perfectly.


  1. This is a very interesting topic and I think someone could conduct a study on this. Although I have never played any of those games, I have seen people play cards against humanity and I totally see how having judges can be a problem. The first thing that instantly came to my mind was that a group vote can usually solve the potential problem. But if I were to go more in depth about it, I would say that the main goal of these types of games are to create a fun and memorable experience that will get players to want to come back and play it again. Just simply because it is so fun. Yes the game has points systems and there is a winner, but I think that the win state is probably just a motivator to get the game going which is quite ingenious. If the game was played without a win state, the natural mindset would be that the game is redundant and no one will have the motivation to play it properly. By having the point system, players have a motivation to actually try and think of the most hilarious anime ideas (talking about Channel A). Once people start laughing, the goal of the designer is met, which is to get everyone enjoying their time playing the game, and points don't matter so much any more. Secondly, the win state is to give the game an end. My thought is that designers want the game to end on a good note and people laughing when it ends, so they have make the game short enough by implementing a win state. If the game didn't have a win state, the game will drag on too long and people start getting bored. This gives the game a bad impression which designers want to stray away from.

    These were some of my thoughts, and whether I am right or not, I don't know. It is a great topic though! I might consider expanding on top of yours in one of my future blog posts as well.

  2. If you had asked me my thoughts on whether this constituted a game a couple of years back, I would have outrightedly said no.

    Having gone through Improv Acting in our first semester here at the ETC and played many of these more non traditional games, its interesting to think about how a game like this would shape out. I actually disagree with Justin in that I don't think a game needs to have a win state in order to constitute being a game. Let's think about a drinking game - is there a win state? Everyone getting drunk could loosely be defined as a win state, but often it is the losers who are getting drunk, since the penalty to losing is in fact drinking. Arguably, if there was one winner, he would be the loser since he's the sober one cleaning up after everyone.

    Get that game prototyped and try it out!

  3. I think the question about "Are they games or not?" should back to the definition about "game". According to the Oxford Dictionaries ( a "game" is
    1. a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.
    2. an activity that one engages in for amusement.
    3. a complete episode or period of play, ending in a final result.
    In summary, I think there are three important factors which form a game: interaction, rules, and goal. I also do not agree with Justin said that "a game should has some 'win state'." Everyone would take "tag" as a game; however, there is no "win state" in "tag". The game ends when "it" gives up chasing others, instead of someone reaches some "win state".

    Back to those games you mentioned in the article, although I've never played any of them, I think they are games. They all include the three elements I mentioned above: interaction between players, clear rule sets, and specific goals. But how about the fact that the winners in those games are chosen subjectively? I think this question should back to what experience the game designer want to provide. Just like what I said, the "win state" is not necessary in a game. If the designer wants player enjoy the interaction during the game more, instead of pursuing the goal, then choosing winner subjectively does not matter. Otherwise, that could ruin the whole game. For example, the winner in any sports game, like soccer or basketball, should not be determined subjectively. The way how well players achieve the goal plays an important role in those sports games. As a result of someone achieves goal well, the winner in those games should be judged objectively. However, those games like "tag" or "Channel A" emphasize the interaction part more. Hence, in those games "determining the winner" can be taken just as a bridge of each round.

    Anyway, I'm still curious about why your friends say "those aren't games." Maybe we can find the essence of games more from his point of view.

  4. I tried to come up with a response using my set of Cards Against Humanity, but the result would likely get stuck behind a spam filter.

    I am of the mind that a win state is an emotion or... an experience. It is the goal of a game to give that experience rather than to have people "win the game".

    For instance, if everyone at a party enjoyed playing Channel A and someone won by being the most hilarious then all the players presumably contributed to the winner winning. There is a completely different feeling to losing at such a game than when one loses at Risk or other clear win state games.