Orchestra Stereotypes

In game design I often make concious efforts to avoid the use of stereotypes. Games are a form of media and a lot of harm is done in the world because various forms of media use their influence to reinforce stereotypes that cause people to treat each other badly. In theory they can be an excellent tool. People can learn rules more easily when they key into things that they already know. Also theme (the part of a game that describes what it represents in story terms rather than the mechanics and mathematics that determine how to play and win) is much stronger when it can anchor itself in familiar things within a players thoughts or memories. It has been my opinion that these advantages are nowhere near desirable enough to outweigh contributing to supporting the beliefs of individuals that condone pain, suffering and death on the grounds of gender, orientation or race. However today I’m working on a game that keys heavily into a very specific set of stereotypes and it is glorious.


To the best of my knowledge there’s not been a time in history in which viola players were viciously hunted to near extinction or a contemporary glass ceiling that prevents a person from obtaining a workplace promotion should their secret piccolo playing come to light. All in there seems to be very little real harm in playing with orchestral stereotypes, especially as they largely seem to be things that musicians say about each other rather than something that is enforced upon them by the outside world.

It’s been a delight watching people react to the theming in this game. While not everyone agrees with every card (there seems to be some local variation in how different instrumentalists are perceived) the joy that instrumentalists have had playing it appears to be genuine. I’ve also had an interesting time interviewing members of the orchestra as well as asking people from further afield what attributes the different players should have. I thought that it might be fun to share some of my notes from these interviews and the cards that have come up as a result, if you’re reading this from the people’s orchestra I hope you get something out of seeing other peoples interview responses, if you’re reading this on the board game geek mirror I’ll try to make it illuminating in how I go about getting from a theme to a mechanic.

Let’s talk about Flautists:
“Giggly and annoying”
“Somewhat chaotic organisation with no formal leader and the 1st seat can be from either the first or second section of the flutes. Choose their own leader (rather than the conductor doing it). Uncompetative with each other, somewhat one for all and all for one.”
“Kinky (mainly because of American Pie, though)”
“So many of them…. Usually women”

So first up is to ditch the gendered comment since that’s moving towards the sort of thing we don’t work with. I’m also writing games for a family audience so “kinky” is probably not the greatest theme. Disparaging comments are often good to sidestep where possible unless they’d be amused by it themselves. I’ve had violinists say “Yeah, we are a bit hatchet-fighty about the first chair” so I don’t feel bad about using that, but I’ve never heard a flautist say “I am giggly and annoying.” That leaves us with the unusual organisation, I kind of like that so it seems like a good direction for a card.

Mechanically this is a social deduction game and so good powers are ones that give information to a limited subset of players and ones that make players make public decisions that themselves become part of the sum knowledge of the group. The notion of the flautist carrying out some sort of semi-democratic investigation therefore works thematically but can do something neat from a mechanics point of view too, leaving us with this card:


Next up, I got this feedback about the trumpet players:

“Massive egos”

Those are all pulling in the same direction in that they can each involve a noticeable public display. Whether that’s because they’re loud or working an ego doesn’t really matter, it’s the common theme. Since mechanically we’re looking for player decisions and things that put information into the game having them show their role card to someone else seems like an obvious choice. This serves a double purpose as it creates an second order deduction game for them “Who is going to benefit from this information the most” as well as adding something for everyone else “Why did she choose to show that player rather than this player?”

The last comment also suggests the possibility for a thematic delivery of the rule:


It’s always nice to find ways to deliver things in a way that fit the theme since it reminds players what their actions are actually about rather than having them be some mathematical abstraction.

Not that I mind abstracts (i.e. games in which the pieces don’t represent anything specific, such as backgammon or poker) but I think that if a game isn’t an abstract then it’s because the theme is adding something to the game and if it is adding something to the game then it should add as much as it can physically be twisted into adding.

Since there’s a human mental weakness for feeling good about things in threes let’s discuss one more card: The viola.

“A dying out dinosaur instrument. Never noticed. A lot of them wanted to play the violin.”
“There’s a joke about Veola players not needing contraception because of their personalities.”
“I promise you that as a viola player I have a personality. Under all this alto clef. Somewhere. Violas and trombones get a bad rap as being a bit rubbish and tend to be the butt of jokes a lot.”
“Laughing stock”
“Usually violinists who got bored – butt of all orchestra jokes”

Ouch. Poor viola players. I feel bad about every time I pretended that I didn’t know the difference between a viola and a violin to aggravate Farrah. Reading through my notes on the subject I find myself wanting the game to take their side somehow. Joining in making them the butt of the joke feels like taking the low road, how about instead the viola attribute for the game was “overlooked” and they got some really useful power and a victory condition linked to not being ignored when they used it.

A useful power isn’t hard to imagine, it’s a deduction game, the most useful power is being able to look at someone’s card with no restrictions. A victory condition is easy too, the ultimate decision always falls to a particular player, so lets make the viola win if they can influence that player to follow their advice. This is something of a woolly victory condition, but I can make a precise ruling for people who need them (Something like “The manager chooses the person who you indicated that they should choose. You must have made your indication before they stated that they had reached a decision to choose that person. You must only have suggested one person as a target.”) and leave the wording on the card loose for our general audience.


This also has a neat side effect in that the viola player won’t unbalance their game with their potent information gathering power because they’re not necessarily going to share their information reliably. A viola player who knows something will probably benefit from sharing it because other information will likely support their information and so they’re likely to be listened to. However if they knew nothing at all they might benefit from saying that they looked at someone’s card and it’s definitely them in an attempt to make their voice more persuasive. So the high quality of the information is mitigated by the extent to which other players might be disinclined to rely on them.

Also giving them the opportunity to ruin everyone in seeking their solo win condition makes me feel like I’m achieving my personal goal of having the game take their side on some level 😉

I’ve still got another 20 cards to go before this game is finished, so if you’re reading this and have opinions about instrumentalists (or are in an orchestra and know that people have opinions about you) please tell us about it in the comments or drop me an email at greg@thepeoplesorchestra.co.uk

Until next time happy music making, gaming and playing of all sorts :)

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