I find myself greatly drawn to the notion of humorous games lately. More specifically, designing games that are legitimately funny for those playing them. I don't mean games like Apples to Apples, or Bad Medicine, or Cards Against Humanity that are intended to be funny party games. In a slightly finicky twist that makes this a blog post, I'm talking about games whose mechanisms and experience facilitate a lot of laughs.
I don't think humor comes from flavor text, or funny images, but from the mechanisms themselves. Like true thematic integration, humor must come from the actions of the players and the overall experience, not the window dressing.
Some of the games that cause us to laugh the most are Coloretto, Carcassonne, Speicherstadt, Libertalia, and Witness. Why is that?
What then, makes for a funny game? There are a few elements, which I'll detail briefly.
Simple content that allows players to focus more on their actions and opponents than the intricate details of their hand. See Coloretto versus Netrunner. Basically, player spent reading and learning cards is time not spent enjoying the table. Time spent deciphering icons and keywords is time not spent talking trash, discussing strategy, and staring your friends in the eyes to read their intentions. Funny games give players room to breathe, laugh, and crack jokes. Brainpower is required to be funny and overly verbose cards don't allow for it.
Player interaction. We can debate this example I'm about to toss out, but one of the reasons Dominion will never be funny is that it's not very interactive. Yes, there are some cards that allow you to swindle and torture your friends, but fundamentally, it's not a terribly interactive game. It's not a bad game, it's just not a very funny one. Humor is all about surprise that isn't upsetting, timing, and in some cases, tragedy. Good player interacting in competitive games is often all of those things. If you're doing something to help yourself, it's often at the expense of opponents. Now, I think the interaction needs to not be mean. Take that games are often mean. Good, funny interaction can be swindling someone with a low ball auction, taking the card they desperately wanted, or leaving someone with the bill when they thought they were driving up the price. Interaction is funny. That back and forth tension will just build great jokes. Feature it in your game if you want to be funny.
Schadenfreude. This continues the previous note some, but it can manifest itself in other ways. It can be the case that you are dealt some horrid luck. That's funny for everyone else. Perhaps you think you have the upper hand, then your friend reveals a card in hand just as you're pulling the chips towards yourself. That's funny for the rest of us. By designing mechanisms that allow for schadenfreude, you're giving everyone a reason to laugh. And, as long as your game is balanced such that someone can bounce back, it won't be all of us laughing at you, but all of us laughing with you. That distinction is key.
Public information. This one might seem strange, but it's important. If there's some level of public information, players can begin talking about it, boasting, criticizing (or swearing) at each other, and having some great table talk. I love games like Carcassonne and Coloretto where you can watch everything evolve. Everyone sorta knows what everyone else wants. You know that Bob really wants to sneak into this castle. And when they draw the piece they need, everyone starts to laugh when Joe shouts "you bastard!"
Hidden Information. But but but I just said public information! Secrets are fun as they lead to bluffing and two words that dominate my games of Netrunner with my friends: hot treats. If you want to see a nasty smirk emerge on the face of me or one of my friends, watch us play the Corp in Netrunner. We'll install a card, smile, tap it, and say "some hot treats for you." Coup is inherently funny because everyone is lying. Everyone knows everyone is lying. It's really just a matter of knowing when to call them on their lies. Secrets are hilarious, especially when they lead to unexpected consequences.
I don't know why exactly I'm drawn to having humor in my games. I think that humor, as a side effect, improves my early testers' perception of a game. I've found with my latest prototype that they're less resistant to early, garbage tests because they are having a good time. Imagine what happens when the game is fun?
I think to games of poker or dominoes with my parents, or playing Hocus at Thanksgiving. The number of groans I hear around the table as someone blocks another player, or steals someone's points, or scores big, just make for a very enjoyable experience.
I think that's a key to why board games are special and worth pursuing. Video games are only funny in a singular sense. Yes, occasionally something incredible will happen online, but this is usually more a case of online virality and less a moment of humor between friends. The secret sauce of board games is social interaction. Being in the presence of other people. Sharing a table with friends while interacting among a set of rules. Humor is so intoxicating. It's such a delicious human experience. It seems foolish of me to ignore such an ingredient for my games.
What games make you laugh? How do you craft humor in your games?