I had always enjoyed play and make believe, from Dungeons and Dragons, to Magic, to boardgames I was very interested in make believe. In 2003 I moved to Bellingham, WA and, at the urging and advice of my good friend DK, I enrolled in an improvisational theater class. Here at last I had found an arena where adults truly play. Laughter, emotions, funny noises, wild characters and deep stories emerged. I knew how to play before I learned improv, but my understanding of play expanded exponentially. In games they talk about the magic circle that you invite players to enter when they play your game. In improv a similar circle is created by the actors as they spontaneously create a scene. In improv people talk a lot about the game and finding the game in the scene. What they are referring to is finding what aspect of the scene is the most interesting or odd or exciting and digging into that. A game may be that actors talk about watering the plants but are really talking about their relationship. It may be that one character is afraid of chairs. By finding what is unique in a scene improvisors are able to make an ordinary scene interesting and fun. The most skilled improvisers can find a game and use it not just as a gag to bring out the laughs but also as a way to dig deep into the connection between the characters and have the game be both meaningful and hilarious.
As a game designer I strive to find the game within my games. What is the part of the games that is the most engaging, unique or fun. How can I heighten that and bring it into sharper focus. In my game Little Pig the main action in the game is centered around each player simultaneously choosing which resources they want to gather. Players choose secretly and then reveal. At different stages in development I added in a board, and pig markers that players could move around. However, I found that the board and pigs didn’t really add to the tension of the game, they actually detracted and confused what the game was about. In a more recent incarnation I have removed the board and added in cards that can be played at the same time that players are choosing which resource to gather. This intensifies the central aspect of the game and makes the player choices both more meaningful and more interesting.
Offers are another term central to improv. They refer to anything that a player brings to the scene. “Hey boss” is an offer to the other player to be that player’s boss. If the boss says “This is the third time you are late this week” That is an offer that accepts and builds on the previous offer. Offers should be built on other offers following the yes and maxim. In the above example the boss, “yeses” by accepting that he or she is a boss, and “ands” by adding on the late offer. Common issues in improv scenes are too many offers and offers that don’t yes and. Actors in a scene will often keep adding new offers if they don’t know what the scene is about. The more offers in a scene the harder it is to keep track of them and the more muddy the scene becomes. I find a strong parallel in game design in that often I or other designers will keep adding in new elements to a game, sometimes to solve problems, sometimes just because they seem interesting. Adding in and testing new elements in games can be very positive and often you need to test an idea to see if it actually works. And in games unlike improv, we have the luxury to go back and tweak or remove elements that are not working.
Thanks for tuning in. Next post I will get into Catan and the Eurogame invasion.