Recently I tried a gross simplification on Shenanigans: The Musical (as it’s now titled). I figured that the most interesting bit of a social deduction game is the discussion about who to target so wondered what would happen if I made the discussion encompass the whole game. I developed a version that I felt worked nicely on a mechanical level and did some playtesting, the results were unanimous: The new version is terrible.
Let’s start at the beginning, with what I actually did to the game: The notion was that each person gets a card saying who they are with a power printed on it. You can look at your card as much as you like and talk as much as you like and then – when you feel like it – you can place your card face down on the table in front of you and use its power.
Once you’ve done that you’re not allowed to look at the card anymore, but are still free to communicate with the other players. One player always has the power “eject someone from the orchestra” and when they use it the game ends with each player winning or losing depending on the outcome of that ejection. Most players want to see the artiste get ejected so the game centres on figuring out who that is.
Various mechanical tricks make this a little more interesting. Some roles muddle face down players (meaning that the player with the role may or may not swap their cards without revealing to them which they did) and some roles can look at face down cards to identify people – all of which provides more information for the final decision. However some roles may wish to lie because they win if the artiste escapes and some have entirely different objectives (like getting a particular person ejected). Finally the artiste has a choice of a few different common powers to help them get their card down undetected or even to frame another player
In practice that game worked largely as it did on paper. It resulted in a more balanced set of wins between the artiste and manager and meant that players were all engaged more often. To watch people playing the new version they seemed to be having more fun, I was sure that accepting these changes would be a good move and would result in a better game.
However once the game was done and I started asking for feedback it became apparent that this wasn’t to be. The players who’d tried both versions preferred the original and the players who had just tried the new one weren’t as enthused as players who’d just tried the original had been. I still find it somewhat mysterious that the feedback seemed so at odds with how it seemed people were actually reacting to the game in practice, but replicating the experiment with other groups produced the same result.
The main reason that seems to come up is the length of the game, having this very distilled experience makes people feel that the game is too short. Quite often “too short” is actually really good feedback, it indicates that players were enjoying the game enough that they wish they’d had more of it. In this instance, however, a game could be concluded in a few minutes so was genuinely a case of the game not feeling worth the time it took to deal the hands and read the cards. It may genuinely have been too short.
The whole experience makes sense, but is slightly mystifying on an abstract level. In Shenanigans: The Musical the time spend muddling cards and using powers never seems to have players jump to life so much as the closing moments of the game, in a way it’s felt like the price you pay to get to that point (Much like the time spend with your eyes closed is a price paid to get to the good bits of the one night ultimate games). Finding a way to cut it out seemed like the obvious refinement, in the “a true artisan is done when there’s nothing left to take away” mindset.
However I think that I may not have been giving the first steps of the game enough credit. They achieve some things that are too necessary to be missed, the most important of which is building investment. By taking a few actions and swapping a role card (with some goal in mind) players are building towards a conclusion, which creates a tension around how that’ll go. This helps to add some weight to the final discussion, which it needs in order to make the final accusation and reveal meaningful.
On a more base level it increases the proportion of time that can be considered “game time” rather than “setup time” (even though the setup is very brief). It also gives every player a chance to feel like they’re about to pull something off, in a discussion you can be immediately disbelieved, but using a power with the intention to lie the result later can help you feel like a clever schemer until the discussion phase actually starts. Feeling like your schemes have a chance would contribute to a greater enjoyment.
Overall this was a strange experience for me as a designer. I did something that I thought should be a technical improvement and in play it functioned exactly as I expected and yet I underestimated some of the human nature elements that impact upon how people interact with a game. Feeling short is usually a good thing for a game, but I’m convinced that there are times that a thing can genuinely be too short and that trying to cut away every part of a game to leave just the most excellent moment isn’t always the right thing to do.