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Board Game Rules

Fix the rules and double your pleasure, double your fun!

I was walking down the street one evening and overheard a brief fragment of conversation. A woman was telling her friend about a Pictionary game she played the night before, chuckling about how mad everybody got at each other.

This didn't come as any surprise to me, having observed the same phenomenon myself. With Pictionary, as with many other games, the essence of the game is just fine, but the specific rules stink. In fact, I feel certain that many game rules nowadays are intentionally devised to get people rankled with each other.

So what's the problem? First and foremost, teams. The mention of "teams" and "teamwork" generally bring a glow to our hearts. One for all and all for one! and all that.

Well, there may be something to that in real life, but I can think of few instances where it works well in a game. (We're talking games here as opposed to sports.)

In games, teams have a way of making people cranky. If a player does or says something stupid, or is perceived as having done or said something stupid (which may be a stupid perception), there's sure to be a teammate jumping on his head. "Why didn't you say (draw, do) SUCH AND SUCH, you nincompoop!?" Yes, it's all so simple and obvious in hindsight . . .

You also have the teams getting testy with each other. "You're not allowed to say (draw, do) that!" "You're not supposed to be looking at our picture!" "You're using too many hand motions!" "The timer ran out before he guessed it!" This really starts to heat up if the teams are created along some natural division, like boys against girls. When the girls start pulling ahead... hoo boy, watch out.

Furthermore, the notion that teams are a good, or the best way, to get everybody involved, is, to put it bluntly, wrong. Extroverted players will naturally hog all the action. And even if there are no unduly aggressive players, a quiet person can and will easily disappear within the distant recesses of his team. (Note to school teachers peeking in: group projects are the worst teaching method ever.)

So, instead of teams, what? Every man for himself. Now that sounds cold and mean and nasty but is really quite the opposite.

Take Pictionary as an example. Throw away the board. Throw away the timer. Dump the riff-raff rules. Give each player a card. Each player in order around the table takes a turn drawing. When someone guesses correctly, both the drawer and the guesser get a point. You are rewarded for drawing well; you are rewarded for guessing well. Simple as that.

Do you get the picture? As one person draws, everybody else goes bananas trying to guess the answer. Now, instead of sitting there uninvolved during the other team's turn - and wishing them bad luck, to boot - you are continuously involved.

The atmosphere has become one of positiveness. The guessers root for the drawer to do a good job so that they can guess the answer and win a point. The drawer roots for everybody else to do a good job guessing so he'll win a point.

There's no reason for the most diehard wallflower not to join in the fun and frolic. He has to, of course, when it's his turn to draw the picture.

I mentioned throwing out the timer. Good riddance. What was it in Pictionary, 30 seconds? It's been so long that I forget. What fraction of the human race actually enjoys such pressure? I wouldn't be surprised if a study showed that people come up with correct answers faster when there's no timer breathing down their necks.

Time limits also cause perfectly good question items to be wasted. Isn't it infinitely more satisfying to finally answer the question (guess the word, identify the picture, etc.)? Isn't that what you bought the game for, and why you're playing it?

Sure, call time when it's obvious that all progress has been stalled, but you'll find that you won't need to do that often, and you don't need a timer to do it.

The style of play basically described above could be summarized as "Round and round, everybody involved all the time." It can be applied to lots of games. Some that come to mind are Trivial Pursuit (and virtually all question and answer games), Password, Twenty Questions and Taboo.

(Twenty Questions has a deck of cards with a list of clues describing a person, place or thing. The object is to guess what it is as the clues are given one by one.)

(In Taboo you try to get a teammate to say a certain word. That sounds like Password, but what's neat is you can ramble on and on, using whole sentences even, BUT... there is a list of words closely related to the one you are trying to get across, and you mustn't say any of those "taboo" words!)

For those games that have a board, throw it out. I blame Trivial Pursuit for starting the trend of this ridiculous, excess baggage. Really now, if you're playing a question and answer game, does it make sense to sit there hoping to hit "roll again" rather than buckling down to answer questions? Other question and answer games have things like "lose your turn" squares. Who wants to lose a game by hitting a run of those?

Just get comfortable in a some sort of ring. Each person in turn becomes the Server - reading a question, drawing the picture, giving clues, or whatever - while everyone else guesses.

Make whatever adjustments are necessary for the specific game. In games like Pictionary and Taboo, the Server works hard to get the answer across. Thus, he deserves a point when he succeeds in doing that. In games where the Server merely reads a question or the clues, only the person who gives the correct answer gets a point.

For the "high-brow" question and answer games, I suggest a more controlled action. The guessers are acknowledged in the order in which they slap and only get one shot at the answer. Games like Pictionary and Taboo may lend themselves to a wilder free-for-all type action - as the designers intended - with no limits on the number of guesses. If that turns out to be too loud and nerve-racking, no problem, downscale to one guess per player. This, incidentally, makes things a lot more interesting; you want to get in with your guess to win the point, but you want to hold back until you're really sure!

If you implement the "one guess per player" rule, a good routine to get into is to immediately clap your hand over your mouth after making a wrong guess. This should remind you not to blurt out another answer on the same question (word, picture, etc.) No need to rub in somebody's wrong answer; he can figure he bombed out when nobody yells, "Right!" If two or more people call out the same wrong answer more or less together, they are all out of the running, ha!

In Trivial Pursuit, which has 6 questions per card, and Pictionary, which has 5 words per card, deal every player one card. As play goes around and around, each player works off all the items on his card. Both of these games specify categories for the items on the card, but they can be ignored. Even if the categorization were sometimes meaningful, it's hardly necessary.

In Taboo, each player works on exactly one word during his turn as the Server. This is in opposition to the official rules which have him frantically trying to do as many as he can in some time limit - and wasting a bunch of perfectly good words in the process. Also, in Taboo, after a player's turn as Server, he becomes the Monitor of the next Server, the player to his left. The Monitor checks that the Server doesn't say any of the taboo words.

The point is, it's not hard to see what needs to be done to make any of these sorts of games fit into our "Round and round, everybody involved all the time" style of play. Step back and ask, what is fun for people and what isn't? Drawing a thermometer in Pictionary and having someone guess it is grand fun; having to draw a thermometer faster than a bunch of other people in an "All Play" is just nerve-racking. Ditch the "All Play". (Of course, you did that by tossing out the board and all the rules.)

Take a look at my pages on Scrabble, Monopoly, Password, and Family Feud for other examples of modifying game rules to increase the fun. I know from experience how much this horrifies people, figuring that game rules came down to us engraved on Moses' stone tablets. But I'm here to tell you, game designers are just people, and you're a people, too.

There are no rules to modifying rules, of course. I've bad-mouthed timers, but the Fast Money round of Family Feud wouldn't make sense without one. (I hope you choose a timer setting that doesn't stress everybody out and force them into blurting out the first dumb thing that comes to mind.) Family Feud is also an obvious exception to the "no teams" rule.

Here are a few more general suggestions for friendly, comfortable play. Avoid the accusation, "Come on, you're taking too much time!" This invariably leads to a counter-accusation ("But you took a long time on your turn!") and the mood is spoiled. What is needed is one emcee (master of ceremony) who can tactfully keep things rolling. He's the one who will say things like, "Do you have a guess?", "Do you have another clue for us?" and "You can regive a clue that you thought was a good one." The emcee gives the 10-second warning when it's needed. In the style of play discussed here, that's hardly ever an issue, though.

For the brainy-type question and answer games, understand that the job of the Reader is not to draw the answer out of a player. That is not fair to the others. The reader never says, "Ooh, that's really close," or, "More specific information needed," etc. All he says is, "No." It may be that, after the precise answer is given, or everyone gives up, that there is a consensus that the first answer deserved the credit. No problem; give that person his point. Put another way, a "No" may be a conditional "No". (Take a look at the rules to my Beatle Significa game.)

Here's a final suggestion - but be forewarned, everybody I've ever met goes ballistic over this. Keep a record of which words or questions have been used in the game by drawing little check marks next to them. If that suggestion hasn't already given you a heart attack, here's a follow-up: distinguish between questions which were answered correctly or not with checks and X's. I won't trouble myself to defend this practice here. If the value doesn't eventually become obvious, and you feel my suggestion has decimated the value of your game on eBay or at a future yard sale, send me a letter bomb.


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