On the Take (That!)

A Take That! mechanic in a board or card game is essentially griefing that's allowed, encouraged, and promoted by the rules. Take That! is typically defined by overtly aggressive player actions that are performed to the detriment of one's opponents. Some examples of Take That! mechanics include the Raider's Outpost in Alien Frontiers, many cards in Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (kill an opponent, burn their building), the entire game of GUBS, and about 88% of the cards in my own game, Farmageddon. One more: Uno. All of it.

The inclusion of a Take That! mechanic in your game design will be one of the most controversial decisions you will make. It will be incredibly polarizing for the audience and as such, you shouldn't include such a mechanic in a frivolous manner.

Many designers seek to add more player interaction to their game and their first stop is often Take That! It's the obvious choice, but perhaps not the right choice. Subtler mechanics are not the focus of this post, however.

The purpose of this post is to discuss the merits of Take That! mechanics, the downsides, and provide some tips on integrating Take That! into your designs if you're feeling sassy.

Why Take That?

Take That! is really great for a few reasons, namely its accessibility as a mechanic and the thrill it provides.

The application of a Take That! mechanic is often blatantly obvious to players, which means Take That! mechanics are inherently accessible. These mechanics are fundamentally aggressive and as a species we understand aggression. If you do Action A to player T, X will occur. People understand and enjoy Take That! mechanics and the sales seem to indicate this: Munchkin, Uno, GUBS, and Fluxx have all sold well.

I cannot imagine a universe in which I successfully explain all the actions, structures, and values of Agricola to my younger brother. I  can envision one in which he blows up my crops in Farmageddon and enjoys every second of it.

Take That! is also exciting. Knowing that something bad will happen, but not when, and not to whom, creates a sense of anticipation and excitement. Not being struck by the devastating action of another player is thrilling! Of course, being struck is less so, but we're on the good side at this point in the post.

Finally, remember that some people don't play games for intellectual stimulation or intense competition. They want to zap each other, laugh, and pass the time. I think this is the strongest argument on behalf of Take That! -- it makes people laugh.

Why Not Take That?

Take That! often feels cheap or unfair, especially to the victim. It's not fair that you were targeted (again). It's not fair that your opponent drew the card instead of you. You didn't have a choice or say in the matter. It's just not fair.

Take That! devalues strategic play. Games that require a great deal of planning, strategy, and careful decision making are made intensely frustrating when one action from an opponent entirely and unpredictably undermines your entire strategy. This is especially frustrating when the win is snatched out of your hands on the final turn!

Because they are often so overt and aggressive, Take That! mechanics stand in contradiction to the more subtle and thoughtful mechanics preferred by many players who seek a more intellectual game experience.

Finally, Take That! mechanics can be very stressful. I fully realize that above I said they were thrilling, but it's possible for a single mechanic to elicit several emotions from players, especially different players. One player's exciting thrill ride is another player's tedious or terrifying "It's a Small World." Just imagine the animatronic children your game may cause.

How to Take That?

There are some high level guidelines to help steer you towards the right level of Take That! for your game.

Firstly, you must understand your target audience. Who will be playing your game and when will they be playing it? I designed Farmageddon for casual gamers who might play the game after a small dinner party or in the evening with family. No brains will be burned while playing this game. If you seek to design a deeply strategic game, Take That! is not the correct choice. The more casual your audience, the more acceptable Take That! will be.

Secondly, how long is your game? The longer the experience, the more frustrating Take That! mechanics are for all players. Discworld would be far less enjoyable if it lasted even 15 minutes more to play. There are many cards throughout the game that can dramatically swing things in and out of a player's favor. But, at 30-40 minutes, it's a great deal of fun! The longer your experience, the less acceptable Take That! will be.

The frustration of Take That! is mitigated further if you provide your players a way to defend themselves. The Raider's Outpost in Alien Frontiers loses its potency as the game continues because of the decoy card that protects you from theft, or the fact that you have so many resources that losing a few is no longer a crushing blow. In Farmageddon, Foul Manure cards protect players' crops from all the terrible things in the game. You need to give players peace of mind, an eye amid the storm. Take That! is less frustrating if you give players a way to protect themselves.

Finally, give every player an equal chance to force their opponents to take that (or this?). Don't allow one player to dominate through lucky draws or unfair turn order rules. Don't make it so the player who is the leader is always the one to attack. Take That! is less frustrating if you distribute the chaos uniformly across all players. 

I find Take That! less appealing as I grow and experiment as both a player and a designer. But, it absolutely has its place and it often makes me laugh. It's a tool for you to wield, albeit a very controversial tool. In this case, think before you come out swingin'!

Comments

Interesting points. As someone who has grown very allergic to "take that" style games, you've provided some good reasons to question that knee-jerk bias. I hadn't considered the benefit of how simple such mechanics are for players to explain, grasp, and use. That's a big bonus! And looking back, my resistance to "take that" results largely from games that consist almost entirety of such mechanisms rather than those which include them in a more balanced framework. I never thought about this until now, but Magic the Gathering (a huge influence on me) is replete with effects that are decidedly "take that". But they are also decidedly balanced. Thank you for helping me gain a new and useful perspective on this subject!

I had never thought of Magic as a take-that game until I created a multiplayer game that distilled the essence of it. What was left was a pure take-that game and some of my testers hated that. I was shocked, but now I understand why so many players hate multiplayer Magic. It's curious that two-player Magic doesn't suffer that problem. Somehow, removing all politics from a take-that game makes it an interesting duel.

"Take-that!" is the cumin of game mechanics: it adds rich flavor, but overuse it and that's all you'll taste.

And like you said, knowing your game's target audience helps. Agricola's fan base would not dig tons of random "take-that!" play. So if you're making a game for that audience... aim for more passive-aggressive interaction...

Cumin metaphor is brilliant.

This is a nice article. I usually prefer games that are low on the "take that" scale, whose interaction is more subtle and self-beneficial (e.g., Puerto Rico or Agricola) or universal (e.g., Dominion), but there is a time and place for more directly aggressive games as well. And your points about how to integrate are good, too. It's true that I'm much more tolerant of "take that" gameplay when the game is shorter and has a different target audience.

Also, kudos to Paul I. That cumin example is gold.

Minor typo: illicit should be elicit.

Great article. I was thinking about this over the Easter weekend because I played 51st State, and was shown the New Era edition, which includes direct attacks. I immediately frowned, and said "Oh, hell naw," in my best Will Smith imitation.

51st State is already chaotic enough that adding in direct Take-That seems like it'd take too long for the "fun" that would be there.

As a parent, Take-That endurance is something that little gamers need to learn. Whether it's having a pawn taken by a knight, getting robbed in Settlers, or just getting kicked out of a column in Can't Stop, being a good sport is an important skill for all of us.

Thanks for the catch. My shame is intense.

I found it interesting that you touched on Small World (inadvertently?), because it is the ultimate bridge from lighter Take That! fare to more indirect Euros. Great piece, btw, it certainly points out how Take That! can be a useful mechanic to draw players in and cause much hilarity. Galaxy Trucker has a fun, Take That! mechanic instituted by the game rather than allowing for PvP, the game beats up on the players.

I meant Small World literally as the It's a Small World ride at Disney Land. It's probably a bad choice due to the similarly named board game, but to me it is the ultimate in tedious and awful entertainment (ride, not the game).

Thanks for this thoughtful look at Take That! mechanics. As someone who often feels burned by them, in my own design, I look for ways to have the curses turn out to be blessings in disguise.

In my recent game, Wizard's Museum Construction Kit, it's very tempting to stymie another player by playing mismatched pieces on them, but it's quite possible that your attempted cruelty will fuel your opponent's growth.

So far, this approach, which crafty players can take advantage of, seems to mitigate the bad feelings generated without ruining the fun of sticking it to your friends. As you note, short play times help this as well. (Think of the iterated prisoner's dilemma.)

Your wizard game looks compelling (I checked the site). Good example too; turn chaos into opportunity.

If you have just one opponent, you KNOW he's trying to stop you and you KNOW to expect him to do so. If you have multiple players, you don't know when you're going to get hit, who is going to do it, and the possibilities quickly spiral out of control. This unpredictability leads to frustration.

2 player experiences distill the chaos and provide predictability to the uncertainty.

I designed a game specifically for the "Take That!" strategy after I read your article last month. Let me know what you think. Thanks! -t

https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/karma-crystals-starter-kit