A serious look at tackling a design issue in a party game

by Gil Hova

Update 9/11/2014: I have renamed Side Effects to Bad Medicine (thanks to Rishi for the name!). I’ll update the document throughout with the new name.

Update 9/3/2015: The game is now printed and close to shipping to backers! So I decided to go back and update this post with the final outcome. What did I decide? Read on…

This is a pretty long read, and it doesn’t culminate in any single strong outcome. It will give you some theoretical background, then introduce a design problem I’ve encountered with Bad Medicine. Then I’ll lay out possible fixes to the problem, and why I’m rejecting all but one. 

It won’t end with me saying that I think my final choice is the best. But I wanted to give an illustration of how an experienced game designer takes on a design problem, using theory, experience, knowledge of other games, and the obligatory barrage of playtests.

So I’m having this problem with Bad Medicine.

Many party games use voting for their scoring system, either with a single judge or by having all players vote. But a tricky thing about having a judge or open voting in a party game is if players choose their “favorites” based on in-game scores. Like, “I think Ralph’s entry is the best, but he’s in the lead, so I won’t vote for him.”

Is this a problem? It depends on the player. The casual player won’t mind. The serious player will probably not touch the game with a ten-foot pole.

Apples to Apples (and by extension, Cards Against Humanity) works around this by having all submissions secret. So you may not want to vote for Ralph, but you probably won’t be able to tell which card he submitted. A player may still choose to vote or not vote for a player because of metagaming or extra-game reason (the player who will always vote for his S.O., the player who will never vote for his ex), but at that point, we’re in spoilsport territory, and I don’t believe a game designer is obligated to fix that.

But Bad Medicine is a game about publicly pitching. Each player pitches his drug, and then the players all vote for their favorite drug. Each player gets one point for each vote they got. The player with the most votes gets 2 bonus votes (1 in case of a tie). After five rounds, the player with the most points wins.

My problem was that as of last week, it was totally fine for a player to not vote for another player if he felt that she was in the lead. The game did not disincentivize that behavior. This rubbed some testers the wrong way.

Like I said, this is not a problem to a casual gamer, but it’s anathema to a serious gamer. I’d say only 5% of my playtesters complained, but it’s stuck with me. Can I do better? Is there a system I can use that will incentivize always voting for the best player each round, regardless of score, and still keep the public pitches?

First, I decided to hide players’ scores. I had one playtest with open scoring, where the game ended when one player hit 10 points. That was ridiculously bad; I was just about inviting players to get political with their votes. Hiding players’ scores makes the leader non-obvious.

This was a decent start, but it alone wouldn’t work. First, it’s hidden trackable information. Scores don’t get very high, so some players might not have a problem recalling everyone’s scores, especially in a 3-player game. Second, some serious players detest hidden trackable information. Third, even if you’re not score-counting, almost anyone can track who got the most points each round, and will avoid voting for a player who’s won two rounds.

Second, I thought of a lottery system. Players still get their points. At the end of the game, players put tokens representing all their points into a pool and shuffle them. Then one token gets drawn. The player whose token it is wins. So, each point you get increases your odds of winning.

This is the notorious, polarizing Killer Bunnies scoring system. The idea behind it is that as long as you have at least one token in the pool at the end of the game, you have a shot at winning the game. It also reinforces the idea that the outcome of the game isn’t as important as the actual play.

But I rejected it pretty quickly. First: people hate Killer Bunnies, because the scoring system is so opaque and capricious. Second: it won’t actually do what I want it to do. Players will still know who’s won various rounds, and will still avoid giving them votes, which would give them valuable tokens during endgame scoring. So there are all these extra mechanisms, but they don’t actually pull their weight. It comes off feeling like a gimmick.

Third, I could reduce the “atom” of the game. According to the book Characteristics of Games, an “atom” is “The smallest complete unit of play, in the sense that the players feel they’ve ‘really played’ some of the game.” For a board game, an atom is a single game. For D&D, it’s a single session in a campaign. For a video game FPS, it’s a level.

Bad Medicine is five rounds. What if I made one round an atom? So you play a round, vote on a winner, then that’s the game. You can string together as many rounds as you’d like, and then the player who won the most won the game.

This is what people do for the new party game Concept. I’ve never seen anyone actually use the game’s scoring system. Instead, everyone plays a round, then another, then another. Each round is a self-contained atom, and people can leave and join the game between rounds.

But it wouldn’t work for Bad Medicine. One round isn’t enough; it just doesn’t feel right. Five rounds feels right. So this wouldn’t work.

Fourth, I thought of doing something similar to what Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim did for their newest party game, But Wait There’s More. Like Bad Medicine, this is a game about pitching, except it’s more like late-night television ads. But they did something interesting: they hid the scoring. So after each round, players distribute point cards face-down to all the other players. You don’t look at or reveal your points until the end of the game. So you can’t decide to vote away from the leader, because you don’t know who’s actually in the lead.

This system does fix the problem. You can’t throw your vote away, because you don’t know who to throw it to. So you may as well vote for your favorite! It’s typical of Jay and Sen; they are extremely thoughtful game designers, and I’m sure they put this system because they came across this very problem.

However, I will not do it for Bad Medicine for a few reasons. First, I’m worried about Bad Medicine resembling BWTM too closely. So I’d rather not use a scoring system that echoes theirs. Second, I want to keep my component costs down, and this system would almost double the number of cards I’d need. Third, Bad Medicine as it stands is quite elegant, and this scoring system would feel out of place; also, it’s a bit fiddly, as there’s a point halfway through the game where it’s tough to recall which scoring cards you’ve earned and which you have to distribute. This doesn’t harm the experience of BWTM, but I would rather take Bad Medicine in a different direction.

Finally, my fourth reason is the biggest. There’s a feeling game designers shoot for. I’ve heard Jane McGonigal call it “fiero”. It’s the rush of a triumphant moment, some point where everything comes together and you’ve Done Something Awesome. Armchair biologists will link this to the idea of a dopamine release in the brain. Even if that doesn’t have actual scientific veracity, the idea is important: one of the reasons we play games is to experience this rush of a feeling called “fiero”.

And when a player wins a round of Bad Medicine? That’s a fiero moment. It’s a moment where the winning player cheers. I have a mechanism where the side effect of the winning drug is the malady to cure in the following round. It’s not something that has mechanical heft or an quantifiable effect on the outcome of the game, but it feels awesome.

If I were to implement secret scoring, that fiero moment vanishes. That moment of swapping in the winning drug’s side effect for next turn vanishes. A big part of the fun of the game vanishes. Sure, I’ve satisfied the 5% of gamers who have complained about this, but I’ve reduced the fun factor for the 95% of other gamers who didn’t think it was a problem.

So I’m trying something else. It’s this: if there is an outright winner of the round (no ties), then every player who voted for the winning player gets a point.

It’s not much. It means that if you vote for the winning player, you’re no longer sacrificing your own point. You get it back by voting for the winner.

Also, there’s an important psychological effect. Now, if you’re thinking of throwing your vote, you are possibly sacrificing a point. It’s no longer an automatic optimal move.

Some gamers might still be turned off. It’s something I’ll have to watch for in playtesting.

Like I warned you at the top, I’m not convinced that the one-point rule will fix the problem once and for all. It’s my leading candidate for now. If it works? Excellent! If it doesn’t? I’ll see how it doesn’t work, and use that knowledge to try something else out.

Update 9/3/2015: This system did not make the cut. Players found it too complex, and it addressed an issue they simply didn’t care about. It wasn’t well-received, even as a variant.

in the end, I decided to not “fix” the problem. The only people who had an issue with that scoring system were people who don’t enjoy party games in the first place! The game plays just fine with “open” scoring, so I opted to let it work for its core audience.

In fact, I simplified the scoring system since I wrote the article. You now get 2 points per vote in a 3-4 player game (there are ways to score 1 point), and 1 point per vote in a 5-8 player game. That’s it. No bonus for having the most votes, since you’re getting points anyway. Much simpler, but still works just fine.

Bad Medicine’s core engagement is the funny pitching. The scoring system incentivizes you to make a funny pitch. And that’s pretty much it. If you want to go “outside” the system to throw your vote, you can, but if you’re thinking that way, you’re not participating in the game’s core engagement. 

I have game designer friends who will disagree with me on this, saying that playing “in the spirit of the game” is a cheap way of not properly incentivizing players to play properly. But I think for a party game, it works fine. 

Game design is many things, but it’s especially trial and error. Even with a seemingly-simple party game like Bad Medicine, you can use the same tools of theory, experience, market knowledge, and playtesting to hone your game. And as long as you’re aware of the differences in core engagement, you should be fine.

But my next game will definitely be a heavy economic strategy game!