The main focus of my job as a game inventor is to make a lot of games and prototypes. And while plenty of the games I’ve created have landed on retail shelves, many more are still on the office shelves.
And that’s fine. Sure, you always want to see every game idea you start make it to retail, but a lot of that path lies in finding the right publisher for whatever I make. There’s a part of Forrest-Pruzan that builds games on-demand for publishers who’ve already made arrangements to sell games into retail channels, and they’re more or less guaranteed a high percentage of concept-to-published projects. I’m not in that group. The things I build come with a known risk associated with them, but it makes the successes that much more exciting.
These are the shelves in my office.
I’ve taken the liberty to remove the names of anything secret (or incriminating), so don’t hurt yourself looking too hard.
About half of what’s in those boxes and bins are things I’ve created, mostly from scratch. Some of those boxes are games and products that have been published in one part of the world or another, but can still be pitched to publishers in other markets, or games on which an old publisher’s license has expired and it’s back in the pitching rotation. You may recognize some of the Wonky boxes near the bottom of the shelves from a previous post here on the blog.
Sometimes these boxes will get snatched up by the “blue team” — those aforementioned teammates who make games on demand for publishers who already have a retail shelf waiting for a game — when a client’s needs require a faster-than-light turnaround. Producer with no space in the timeline for making something new? Meet Fletch’s Shelves.
One of my more recent examples of a game plucked from the shelves to quick-fill an order is Banned Words, published by Wonder Forge. The client had a deal in place to provide the chain retailer Target with a set number of Target-exclusive new games. One of those slots had to be filled with a family-and-up party game. The blue team was crunched for time, and the ability to pull something straight from my shelves gave them a jump-start on the development cycle in a way that freed up resources for the other games in the order.
Banned Words is a word association game that, at first glance, looks like dozens (if not scores, or maybe hundreds) of other traditional “mystery word” games before it, but plays at a notably deeper level than most. Its roots actually came from a different word association game I was working on that hadn’t quite borne the fruit we were hoping for.
The backbone of that earlier game centered around trying to guess the most likely pairings of words that players would select from a field of options (again, forgive me for being intentionally vague here). One afternoon, while tinkering with that game, I had one of those “jump up and tell everyone to be quiet” moments. The kernel of the thought was this: What if we let the players generate the rules about making those associations?
There’s nothing new at all in the concept of user-generated content. It’s been a staple of games — and especially “secret word” games — for dozens of decades. It’s something that publishers and developers love because it means there’s less work to create editorial content before the project goes into production, which in turn means there’s fewer things that can go sideways at the last minute. If your rules for what kind of content the players should create are sound, you as the game designer don’t actually need to put any pre-formatted content in the game at all. Any time you don’t need to put something in the game, the game is cheaper and generally easier to produce.
In that “be quiet” moment of the meeting, it occurred to me that there are lots of games where people are trying to guess a secret word or words based on other clues. We could let the players affect the rules of the secret word game by having them generate the parameters of the game as they played.
Let me explain that by turning some other games a little sideways.
Taboo is one of the best-known examples of secret word games these days. In it, one player tries to get their teammates to guess a secret word. There is a limiting parameter that the clue-giver must work within in that there are five “taboo” words or phrases that the clue giver may not say. The clue giver knows what the taboo words are, and is being watched by a judge from the other team whose job it is to keep the clue giver honest.
In 2015, Vlaada Chvátil released Codenames. In this word association game, the clue giver must get their teammates to identify a set of secret words from among a visible array of 30 words. The catch is that there is another clue giver offering clues to an opposing team, whose words are mixed into that same array. The parameters are that the clue givers can only offer a single clue per turn, and that clue must be only one word. They can also offer their teammates a number, which indicates how many words in the array the given clue corresponds to. The net effect is an incredibly deep puzzle in which the clue givers are trying to play upwards of nine different word association games at once, while also avoiding giving their teammates any clues that might accidentally lead them to the other team’s secret words.
Both games set parameters for the clue giver in the way clues are given, and in both games, the clue giver has a small puzzle to solve. In Taboo, the clue giver has had five of the most obvious possible clues taken away. In Codenames, no clue is off-limits, but the clues must be very carefully chosen so as to thread as many needles as possible at once. In Taboo, the clue giver works against a physical clock, while in Codenames, the clue givers are each trying to be more efficient in their selection of clues than the other.
Given the choice of which party/word game I’d want to invent, it’s a no-brainer in favor of Codenames. By far, it’s the more sophisticated game of the two, diving heavily into the concept of emergent strategy (something that I should probably write another post on someday). It forces the clue giver to craft clues that not only lead teammates to their targets, but that also steer them away from choosing words that aren’t their targets. It’s something that requires an extra layer of craftsmanship as a clue giver, since there are almost no clue words you can’t give, but in any given situation there are definitely clue words you shouldn’t give.
Banned Words got its hook when I realized that there were three parties affected by the parameters of the game: the clue giver, the guesser(s), and — the one that is more or less forgotten by the other two games — the judge.
Taboo was about being a clue giver who didn’t want to say certain off-limits words, lest the judge catch them.
Codenames was about being a clue giver who wanted their teammates to not say or select certain off-limits words, lest the judge (in this case, the game structure) catch them.
In both of those cases, the judge has very little actual power or influence in the game. I could make a secret word game in which they were the ones who secretly set the off-limits words that could catch either the clue giver or the guessers.
Banned Words is about being the judge who makes the rules, refuses to explain them, and waits for the clue giver and guessers to fail.
There’s a little bit of malicious intent in that, and that’s why it’s fun.
Here’s how it works: Teams are separated from each other by a screen. Hidden behind the screen, the teams have sets of sixteen small dry-erase whiteboards (placards) and pens. Both teams draw a card from the box, which shows a list of five target words that the other team will eventually have to play the giver-guesser roles with. Keeping the lists hidden, the teams then have 90 seconds to write down sixteen words on the placards that the other team won’t be allowed to say during the clue-giving and guessing stage.
At the end of the 90 seconds, each team picks a clue-giver for the round, and the lists of target words are passed around the screen, face-down, to the other team’s clue-giver. One team will go first, and the clue-giver now has 90 seconds to get his or her team to guess their five target words.
Here’s the catch: The clue-giver doesn’t get to see the words the other team prohibited them from using, and if anyone on the clue-giver’s team — either the clue-giver or the guessers — say those words, the other team reveals the placard with the “banned” word and gets a point. In other words, the judges have set a field full of invisible landmines that the other team needs to avoid. The judges know the rules, the players do not. Once the active team’s time is up, play goes to the other team, and the roles of judge and victim are reversed.
The structure of the game adds a couple of really nice features to the standard secret-word format: it creates a constant state of “all play”, and it pushes emergent strategy.
In the first stage of the game, all of the players are furiously brainstorming and optimizing their lists of banned words with their teammates. In the second stage of the game, every player at the table is serving a role as a clue-giver, a guesser, or a judge. The role of the judge is especially exciting in this game, as there’s a constant tension as you wait to catch the other team in your traps. There’s no down time for players, and no one is ever relegated to just being a spectator.
When you’re writing the list of banned words, writing the most obvious words the clue-giver might use is the most straightforward strategy, but it’s not the only strategy, nor necessarily the best strategy. If the clue-giver assumes you’ve gone the obvious route, they can put together a likely set of clues they shouldn’t give right away, and now your banned words list has a lot less potential to score you points. You’ve got a balancing act on your hands; on a scale of obvious to obtuse, where do you try to trip the other team up?
And if you’re the clue-giver, can you really assume that the most obvious words are off-limits? After all, if the judges assume you’d already avoid those words, they might have gone a few steps deeper into the pool and left the shallow end alone. Plus there’s the risk of steering your guessers into a banned word, which is just as bad as if you said them; how do you get your teammates to zero in on the specific target word and not something very similar that’s probably among the other team’s words?
Crafting both the list of banned words and the clues is a bit of a game of chicken, and it will evolve among the group of players over the course of the game or games.
As I write this post, Banned Words currently has a 7.7 rating on BoardGameGeek.com. The stretch of time from the very first ideas that kicked the project off to when it came off the office shelf to be presented as a concept pitch to Wonder Forge was about two months. From the point that Wonder Forge first played the game to the day files were shipped off to the factories that made the game, it was roughly one more month. Seven months after that, this past August, it hit shelves at Target stores all across the US.
Not bad for a game that had only barely begun to exist one year ago on a shelf in my office that I can’t actually show you.