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'!