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What's your opinion on binding mechanics of protocol?

3 replies [Last post]
Joined: 07/10/2011

Some games have serious rules and theme, but encourage jocular gameplay experience and light-hearted interactions between players (e.g. Battlestar Galactica, or Coup, with their air of paranoia and constant accusation).

Some games have humorous rules and content, but mechanically encourage a pretty analytic and cutthroat experience. (I consider Munchkin an example of this –– nominally humorous, but the humor comes from the content, not the interaction; people will still think pretty carefully about who to ally with, and when to use a +10 Level card. Red Dragon Inn is another example.)

On the other hand, some games are mechanically humorous and play that way too, like Red November –– the semi-cooperative game about a bunch of drunk gnomes trying to survive on a sinking submarine. Blood Bowl is generally another.

Then, there are the rest of them –– probably the majority of games: Serious games that encourage a somber attitude. That's not to say they're not fun –– just that the mechanics don't lend themselves to humor. If there's joking, it's usually at the game's expense (e.g. a sarcastic rationalization about why Runewitch Astarra wears a metal thong instead of armor) rather than due to funny interactions between players.


There is a fairly well-known card game called Citadels, now published by Fantasy Flight.
It's a short little political game about building a city, and I'd say it has a serious theme with serious mechanics to match –– players can hurt each other in spiteful ways, steal resources without any compensation –– in other words: definitely in that fourth group listed above.

But then there's this one card:

Ball Room

The first time I saw this card (years ago), I thought "What...?"
It looked like something out of Magic: Unglued: An arbitrary procedural rule with real consequences.
But over the years, I've grown to be tremendously fond of this type of rule or content in a game.
Nevertheless, it seems an unpopular type of rule, and I'm not entirely sure why. People who like to play Citadels HATE the Ball Room.

My first thought was that the problem lay in the inherent subjectivity too it –– like, people would get into arguments about whether or not you followed the procedural rule properly, worrying about things like enunciation, timing, etc. I hypothesized that the subjective nature of such a rule would be out of place in a play-to-win atmosphere. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a lot of games involve subjective valuing of how a procedure is followed.

For example, when a player uses a spell in Magic: The Gathering, they are expected to proceed slowly enough that their opponent has a chance to respond with a counterspell card. But if the moment passes, it's understood that they can't go back and counter something that happened several seconds ago. The question of 'what's a reasonable amount of time' to wait before proceeding is certainly a subjective one, but the game doesn't suffer an iota for that. Does anyone ever say "hey, you didn't give me a chance to respond to that card" ? Sure. But do people get upset about it, one way or the other? Almost never.

My other thought was that it brought a certain unfairness into the game by changing the required skill set –– like a strategy game spontaneously incorporating a dexterity mechanic. People with a bad head for procedure (or performance, etc) would be feel like they could lose the game for the wrong reasons. But this also seemed like a stretch. I've never heard complaints about Dixit from colorblind people, or complaints that Settlers is biased towards those who can memorize every card an opponent has drawn (which it is).

Now, I think it's fair to take it for granted that arbitrary procedural rules like Citadel's Ball Room lend themselves to the humorous, which means they are not appropriate for all games. Asking an investigator in Mansions of Madness to recite an incantation before using a certain item card (while a perfect fit thematically) would be out of place, as something so goofy would inevitably ruin the mood. But other than a few darkly-themed games, it seems that content like the Ball Room would fit fine in most places.

To sum up my feelings, I suppose I'd say –– Procedural rules seem like they can be a lot of fun for a lot of people. For everyone who's not into them, they can forgo the spirit of the mechanic and just follow the letter of the rules. It seems like a Win-vs-No-Loss situation. So why is this stuff so rare?


As designers, what is your opinion on rules like this?

In the case of the Ball Room, it's a element that enters the game only occasionally, but I don't see the need to distinguish here.

One game I worked on –– Death Cup –– has a mechanic that requires players to raise and clink their glasses in celebration, loudly proclaim "All hail the Death Cup!" and take a sip before continuing. It was raucous and we never had any complaints. Another game I worked on required the players – during the set-up of the game – give an explanation/justification of why their selected player symbol matched their color. In this case, it wasn't just procedural – there was a good reason: so that later on, the opponents could more easily associate the figure with the player. Still, this was a reviled part of the game.

Joined: 12/27/2014
I don't really enjoy a game

I don't really enjoy a game that has a very one-off, specific card or rule that forces a player out of the rhythm and pacing of the game.

I think you summarized it well above, but I'll rehash with my own take:

I think it's okay in games that are:

A) Humorous in nature. The humor can be in the cards, in the theme, and could even drift into the action. In these games we expect to be seeing and doing silly things, so it's okay.

B) Games that already control actions. Example: The Cat in the Hat game for 4-year olds (which by no means is a real gem among games!). The whole point of the game is physical activity.

Games that you are getting into a serious mode shouldn't break the theme by either trying to force players to Role Play, or force players to do something silly just because it was a running joke for the designers.

Just my 2 cents.

DifferentName's picture
Joined: 09/08/2013
I agree

Yeah, I think the card being a one-off is the problem. If the game is almost entirely strategy and one card throws in some goofy rule, it just breaks the flow of the game. If goofy cards like that were extremely common in the game, it sets the expectation that you're going to have a fun time with goofy rules. Even if there's some serious strategy in the game, you know the strategy is going to get hit with a pie at some point and won't take it too seriously.

Soulfinger's picture
Joined: 01/06/2015
This adds nothing to the discussion, but . . .

The header for this discussion seems like part of the same conversation as "What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators." :)

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