Thanks again to Bartoneus for filling in for me last week. (Guess this means I need to make a comic for a Random Encounter– there’s a scary thought.) As a short rebuttal to the question he posed, I generally don’t talk about fun specifically because it’s hard to design to be fun, and it’s a very subjective measure. We have someone in our design group whose job it is to make sure that a game is fun enough to proceed in designing after it passes the simple/elegant/not-broken tests. However, there is the other factor of whether a game is compelling or not, which is like fun but different. That elaboration will have to be a column by itself.
Now that I’ve swept the fun issue under the rug, it’s time to talk about another issue: rug-sweeping. This is a brand new game design term that we coined this past weekend at the retreat. This refers to a designer specifically ignoring an issue with a game and hoping that the players will not exploit this issue. This tends to happen most in party games. Why is that? Read on…
Many party games are built around a fun activity, which then has some attempt to score it. For example, there’s a whole genre of “somebody tries to get others to guess something.” Taboo is a prime example, where one player is trying to get the others on his team to guess a word, but that player must avoid using a forbidden list of words. However, nearly every time I’ve played, there’s been disputes about being able to use a piece of a forbidden word, or if other forms of that word count, or the big question: what about words that SOUND like forbidden words, but are perfectly valid descriptors? I’m sure this issue must have come up during playtesting since it has come up in so many games I’ve seen and played. Did the rules address it? Only slightly, leaving the players to come up with the rest. Thus, the game designer(s) of Taboo rug-swept the problem. They hoped that, as many groups do, the players would come to consensus when these issues arise.
The guessing genre comes with many of these kinds of situations. Pictionary is a classic example, where there’s lots of restrictions of what you can and cannot draw, but the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable is blurry. The game Squint tried to fix that issue by having the players use preset shapes to create an object that the others are trying to guess (and allowing players to do whatever they wanted with those abstract shapes.) Our illustrious webmaster Justin found the flaw in that by moving the cards around the spell the word. It was the first time in many games that I had seen that flaw, so I can’t say it was a definite rug-sweep by the part of the designers.
The “create something not too easy and not too hard” also tends to have a lot of rules to try to judge that behavior, but often have a way to exploit it by going to an extreme too easy or too hard. The “judge picks something” genre, most classically defined by Apples to Apples, can be flawed by having open scores, so the judge is motivated not to pick the best option but the option by whoever is losing.
Why are these problems? To most casual/party game players, they’re not. However, if these kinds of flaws existed in a strategy game, the majority of players would gnash their teeth, call it broken, and your game would be finished.
Of course, you should always try to avoid rug-sweeping any problem, even minor ones in party games. Unfortunately, sometimes that’ll be your only option. Some activities, by their freeform nature, have flaws that make them unsuited to those who care about points moreso than the “spirit of the rules.”
One test that we use to determine if it can be rug-swept or not is the tournament test. If your game might be played in a serious tournament for prizes, you should try to avoid rug-sweeping at all costs. As soon as there’s something tangible on the line, you’ll find players who will play to win. I once played in an Apples to Apples tournament. The horror. One of the many experiences that led me to swear off the game forever.
Anyway, sometimes rug-sweeping is inevitable. Your playtesters will let you know how much of a problem something is, especially if you find playtesters in the target audience for your game. Use your judgment, think about where your game will be played, and remember, someday, somewhere, your game might be played for money.
Any games you enjoy that have an obvious rug-swept problem?