Designing for Joy

Please keep in mind that the below piece, largely based on a single game, is NOT a review. I've played it only twice. As a designer I was inspired by our experience last night and I've spent the past few hours thinking about how I can attempt to bake that experience into my own designs. So, please take this anecdotal reference as such, not my hyperbolic and premature review. 

Four of my friends came over last night for pizza, wine, and the first chapter of Mice and MysticsIn case you're not familiar, this is the latest release from Plaid Hat Games. It is a highly story and scenario driven cooperative adventure that features minis, custom dice, cards, beautiful illustrations, and tons of boards with which you explore the humans changed to mice.

If I had to summarize it, it's a simplified tactical combat game, like Heroscape, that's cooperative and scenario driven.

Designers design for different purposes  Some purely for self-fulfillment (i.e. I don't care if this gets published), others for mechanics, others for theme, and some do it to appeal to a specific demographic. Some designers want to create a brain puzzler and some just want a dice fest. While playing Mice and Mystics last night, I was reminded that one of the most powerful emotions and experiences we can craft as designers is joy.


Simple, pure, smile and laughter inducing pleasure. At times we can get so caught up in chasing the mechanics or the theme or the whatever that we forget that we've been given the opportunity to be Willy Wonka in a Chocolate Factory of our own creation.

If joy is a desired outcome, how do we sew the seeds to make it a reality? I think there are some obvious, tangible mechanics and themes we can look to for inspiration.

Classics include dice, or a mechanism by which the possible outcomes are understood but not precisely known. Probability is comfortable and uncertainty builds tension, surprise, and thrilling moments.  In our game last night, we missed 9 sequential 50/50 rolls in a row. This is absurdly improbable! This almost cost us the game and there was no mechanism by which to mitigate this. In many games this would be infuriating. We almost became frustrated, but at some point we collaboratively developed an attitude of c'est la vie and it became a point of laughter and tension with every roll. And when it was finally hit? Exuberance!

Another solid tool for us is humor. You often see the best writers weave humor into even the most serious of stories. It's a wonderful thing. One can obtain this through funny card art (Farmageddon, Munchkin), take-that mechanics (schadenfreude can be rather enjoyable), or a generally silly premise. The rules for Scallywags explicitly state you should read the cards with a pirate's emphasis. But, without prompting, my friends quickly jump into these roles and before long we sound like idiots of the Caribbean.

Let's not forget the humor of Dixit, Apples to Apples, and Cards Against Humanity. Even boring people can be funny if you give them the chance.

I'm not entirely sure Mice and Mystics sought to be a funny game, but we, being horrid adult males, turned it into one. For one, I read every story moment with awful Cockney, Scottish  and Monty Python-esque "accents" and one character's name in particular became a recurring crude joke. I'll just say his name is Maginos and leave it at that. Big moments like the cat chasing us were, despite the circumstances, rather entertaining. And every time my friend paid the cheese to use his special ability and STILL missed we laughed.

How can your game latch onto such a thing? I'll try to approach this with a practical and personal example. How can my area-control strategy game Empire embrace such a concept? It's pretty important as the game is fairly dry!

If I quickly think about it, there are quite a few little details and embellishments I can make to provide players a canvas for mischief. Or at least a more interesting war.

  • The factions have names. One in particular, the Yorkan Clans, always causes a smile as it's a weird word to say. Can I lean into that more without going into full-on Harry Potter vibe?
  • The Tactics in game that have more dramatic, active names evoke a response from my playtesters. The player who plays "Dig In!" often shouts and slams his cards down with confidence. Not so with the player who plays "Encirclement." Fun verbs > boring verbs?
  • One playtester suggested I add phrases, like "Come and Take It" or the rebel yell to the faction boards to help people get into character.
  • I should spend a little time creating characters. When you play the General, should it be "General," or "Sir Lord Marshal Haversham, Order of the Bath?" And I could name a weak Infantry Unit (in Empire simply a card with an Infantry symbol with a 1 as opposed to a 2 or 3) as the Yorkan Militia, or Yorkan Volunteers. People will draw that card and think "Ugh, not the militia!" instead of "Oh I see a 1."

Beyond the tangible tweaks, the obvious things that just seem to be widely accept best practices, how do we approach the pursuit of joy from a philosophical level? After all, there are some things that just work, but less because of something we can point to or write speeches about, but a certain je ne sais quoi (I'm finished with the French).

There is something about Mice and Mystics that made coming to the table and sitting down just really enjoyable. It's something that games that are arguably better mechanically, or arguably better from a game sense, often seem to lack. It is easy to point to mice being cute, miniatures being awesome, and the well-crafted stories all being primary factors. I'm also a really big fan of Plaid Hat, but honestly nobody else in my group shares this fanboyism so it's not entirely that. Maybe it's the art by John Ariosa that everyone kept praising?

All I know is, I will be spending the next few days improving Empire in ways that make it a richer, more vibrant, and exciting experience for a group of friends without compromising its mechanics. For Innie, my new design that's being fleshed out, I'll take a step back and re-examine my current assumptions in light of potential opportunities to do the same from the beginning. The value in doing so seems quite obvious.

If I can help someone create a moment, a story, or a time to remember, doesn't that supersede the value of just making a good game? I think so.

What are some games that provide the je ne sais quoi for you and your group? Where do I make the wrong assumptions? Let's discuss, shall we?


This article sure got me thinking about my own approach, Grant ... thanks for finding a way to put this into written word.

After letting it turn over a bit in my head, I've found that I really focus too tightly on mechanics, even when they are informed by the theme first ... and trying to think more holistically about the players' experience is an area where I need to grow.

Now ... how to go about that ... ;-)


Thanks for this article. My son and I are working on two games right now (at this very moment, he's prototyping!) and think article has me thinking about how to make sure there's joy in the games. They have a similar theme (hunting) but are pretty different. Like you mentioned with Empire, the second is somewhat dry. So I will be interested in seeing how you inject joy/fun into Empire.

Hold on! In defense of Empire, it IS fun. But it isn't as amazingly entertaining as it could be. I'm going to work to make my fun game outstanding, delightful, joyful.

Man, I can't tell you how much I think about this stuff when I design. There's a reason my designs are generally simplistic... it's what I find to be the most FUN (please note, the key word here being *I* - I'm not suggesting that simplistic = universal fun.) Waiting minutes after minutes for someone to take their turn is the opposite of fun. Even when the ultimate outcome of their turn is fun/funny or awesomely impacts my turn, it's still simply not fun.

We have discussed in great length the merits of removing as much AP as possible from designs... in particular, how you achieved this with some novel mechanics in Empire (random turn order.) I love this type of stuff. Figuring out ways to give players enough decisions that they feel they want to be involved in the game, but at the same time limiting their options to not force them to spend countless minutes calculating... that's the good stuff.

I'm on the cusp of this right now in my current design. I feel like there is enough to the game already, but not everyone agrees of course... including myself (yeah, figure that logic loop out.) I have ideas for adding more layers of complexity without impacting the difficulty and some playtesters have brought forward some great suggestions... but right now, in the moment, I'm trying to make the game more FUN. I'll worry about strategy late. ;-)

Mercifully, there's potential for humor in any game when you're playing with the right people. That said, fun just comes more naturally to some games than others. I have the most fun when a game invites me to roleplay a little. As with Scallywags, any pirate game just begs for salty dogs and sea shanties. I played Artemis recently and had fun being both Scotty and Chekov (and have plans to try out Wesley, Worf and Data soon). Bang is best with a drawl and Robo Rally is better with an electronic voice.

It's possible that improvisation is the wider net that really makes my group laugh because we also have a blast playing games like Times Up! or Personal Preference. Maybe it's about how much of yourselves you can put into the game?