Shenangians has been an interesting project to work on, because it very explicitly needs to work for players who aren’t generally tabletop gamers. What’s more, while this is usually a difficult group to recruit playtesters from (who’d have suspected a link between being really into games and being willing to volunteer time to their development!) I’ve had access to a steady supply of new players through The People’s Orchestra.
This hasn’t reduced the amount of time I’ve spent playing the game with my regular gaming playtest groups, but I thought that it might be interesting to share observations about the differences between how they engage with games and how that’s affected development.
Obviously the main difference between these groups is in what they’re experienced with, but this has some odd emergent effects. A game cannot afford to introduce too many unfamiliar elements or a large portion of players will give up on it. On paper that might encourage a game for non-gamers to “play it safe” and use a lot of elements from traditional card games and common parlour games.
It turns out that that is only half true.
A game that entirely consists of things that the player base has experienced before tends to be very dull. An ideal game manages a mix of elements, drawing heavily from existing experience but also including the odd novel combination. This is somewhat similar to the “break one rule” approach in fiction, in which writers are encouraged to have their world diverge in some important way from our own – but not in so many ways that it becomes unrecognisable.
The important thing to recognise here is that the set of elements from which you’d pull your “break one rule” is no different for regular gamers as it is for non-gamers. People who don’t play many games have no more difficulty grasping some bizaare twist never before seen in gaming than they do grasping something like worker placement.
I strongly disagree with the conventional wisdom that there’s a requirement to “dumb down” games for this audience.
Really, it’s more an act of looking for things that feel like second nature to gamers and trying to replace them with elements from more common games – but while keeping the door open to any new idea that might make this game stand apart from the others.
To offer a concrete example: Social deduction games often have a vote of some kind, in which all players indicate their preferred outcome and the majority wins. This is so common as to seem almost central to the genre. The thing is that this feels really unnatural to people who’ve played common games, there’s nothing in hearts or chess that prepares a player for the idea that a competitive game could contain a vote. So while it’d be a normal part of a regular game, in a game aiming at a broader audience it becomes your “one special thing.”
In Shenanigans it was possible to free up that resource by transitioning from a vote to a decision for a single person. The notion of one person calling a bluff (or not) is far more intuitive – to the point that we have a common English phrase to describe the activity. In a multiple round game like traditional werewolf, voting records become a really important source of information that’s necessary for the game to progress – but in a one round game like Shenanigans it was delightful to find that it wasn’t really adding anything significant to the game.
So I suppose what I’m trying to write is that while you want to use a smaller palette of options to build the core structure for your game for a non-gaming audience, doing so carefully leaves you free to make key design decisions from your full range of options.
Another key difference that emerges between the groups is in terms of the sort of social contracts that exist. People who have been playing games for a long time develop a series of unwritten rules about how they play, while these vary a lot from one gaming group to another, there are some common themes that cross cut a lot of the gaming community.
In most gaming groups it’s pretty much accepted that everyone can play to win and as long as they’re not being an awful person about it, then it’s all good. Outside of that culture it’s much more common for moves to be taken on or perceived as social cues. My average gaming group wouldn’t bat an eyelid if the player in second threw a bunch of obstacles at the player in first. The non-gamers I’ve been watching play are more inclined to interpret that as picking on that person for some out of game reason and conversely like to take some actions based on social cues rather than identifying a strictly optimal move.
That’s not to say that they can’t optimise. Simply that when asked “Why did you make Sandy and Bob lovers on the last turn?” I’m likely to get an answer that boils down to something like “I know I could’ve won if I’d picked myself instead, but I wanted to see the look on Bob’s face.”
I think it’s best to go with this instinct rather than fighting it. When choosing which Shenanigans expansions to include for free as part of the base game, I found myself arguing strongly for the lovers. Not because I esteem it particularly highly, but because the thematic ability to declare two of the players around the table lovers was adding so much to some people’s games that I didn’t want to take that joy away from them.
Here I suppose I am on thin ice, with respect to my ambition to make the game enjoyable for gamers and non-gamers alike. However I think the fact that there are identifiable ways to use the mechanics to influence your likelihood of victory would justify their value to people who aren’t getting some sort of meta-social value out of the concepts that underlie the cards themselves.
Finally, I think there’s an important lesson to take from this series of tests in that they make explicit just how many problems gamers have learned to ignore. People who play a lot of games have a high tolerance for problems that are common to a lot of games: Set up time, the physical act of shuffling cards and other bits of grist that power the gaming mill.
People who don’t play many games have no such tolerance and really (really) don’t mind telling you about it. There are things that I wouldn’t even have noticed were happening that are frustrating to people who are not used to them.
The thing is: I think that they’re frustrating to people who are used to them. We’re just in some kind of Stockholm Syndrome place in which we call it the price of admission. That may be true to an extent – I certainly wasn’t able to completely eliminate them. However I think that it’ll make me spend more time on my unstated assumptions about what’s okay for all of the games I make, not just ones aimed at a wider population.
There’s always a way to make something better.
It’s been enlightening working with a different sort of playtest group over an extended period of development and I hope to bring some of the lessons it’s taught me to all of my games.
It makes me wonder if I might find something interesting in recruiting playtesters from all sorts of different groups and seeing what directions they pushed things in. I can’t predict how it might change things to do some games with groups consisting entirely of knitters or nuns or ex-convicts or ice creme salesmen or whatever else – but then I guess that’s the point. Maybe I’ll try it some time, just as an exercise.