Making Knee Jerk Content Buttery Smooth

Knee Jerk, our party game launching on Kickstarter in September, finally has streamlined content. This means that players won’t be challenged by seemingly impossible situations or weird grammar. It’s easy to say that now, but it was a difficult task. A mix of brute force, stepping away from the content, and listening to playtesters enabled me to understand what makes the best Knee Jerk content. (For the Knee Jerk newbies, you can learn how to play here.)

The game uses the structure Adjective->Location->Verb to form situations. I experimented with other structures, but this was the most successful. And you cant’t plug just any adjective into the adjective slot, any location into the location slot, or any verb into the verb slot. I knew the three terms all had to “agree” in some way, but what determined “agreement” turned out to be complicated.

I’m sure an English expert could explain this better than I can, but I will try my best. In the interest of keeping this post concise, here are the things that work and don’t work regarding Knee Jerk content:

Good: Sensing Verbs, Bad: Active Verbs
The game started with just the five senses as verbs (“Because I Heard,” etc.). I added a whole slew of verbs, culling the ones that didn’t work. I did this by gut-feel, as I didn’t have content-development guidelines yet. These included additional sensing verbs such as “Because I Found Out,” and active verbs such as “Because I Touched.” Over time, however, I learned two things:

  1. It’s bad to mix sensing and active verbs because each type of verb only works with a specific body of adjective content. Consequently, when mixing verb types, certain verbs were inconsistent in their frequency of success with certain adjectives.
  2. Players are more outspoken when they aren’t talking about something they theoretically did. This insight came from fellow designer Brad Brooks. Shy players generally have a harder time with Knee Jerk, so I wanted to do anything I could to reduce the speaking barrier.

Thus, I removed all active verbs and their agreeing adjectives. (This content could still appear in a future expansion for the Knee Jerk die-hards, though.) The “sensing” content is what resides in the game today, and it’s very successful. 

    Bad: “Two-phase” Answers
    Normal verbs ask players to think solely about one phase in time – usually the present, but occasionally the past or future. “Two-phase” verbs ask players to think about two of these phases of time. For example, “Because I Forgot To” makes players think about what could be happening now, and how they could have affected the current situation via a past action. These types of answers are too complicated to garner fast, “knee-jerk” responses.

    Good: Ambiguous Terms
    The best terms in the game (verbs/adjectives) are those that are simultaneously evocative and flexible. These are great for replayability as well as making situations fun for different demographics (families, groups of adult friends, etc.). For example, the adjectives “excited,” “dirty,” and “stimulated” all have multiple meanings – from politically correct usage to the more suggestive. On the verb side, a term like “Because Someone Is Wearing” can elicit responses that are literal (“a tutu”) or figurative (“an evil grin”, “his heart on his sleeve,” etc.). 

    Bad: Locations That Are Too Exotic
    Locations need to be fun, recognizable, relatable, and supply a wide range of possible answers. “At The Dinner Table” is a situation that almost everyone knows and has been a part of. “On The Tropical Island” is more exotic, but still common in our culture that people know enough references to it. “At The Hair Dresser,” while common and relatable, is too narrow to provide a wide range of plausible answers. “In Japan” is common, but most people haven’t been to Japan so they can’t provide a wide range of answers despite our knowledge of its culture and happenings. 

    Good: Different Performance Styles
    For most of the development of Knee Jerk, answers were all verbal. Now there are verbs like, “Because Someone Made A Gesture Like This:” that encourage players to quickly act out situations. They’re a breath of fresh air that add flavor to the game.

    Bad: Redundant Terms
    I want Knee Jerk to be incredibly replayable. In its current form, there are 150,000+ situations from just 55 cards, thanks to our nifty card design. Redundancy waters down the potency of individual content, so we’ve removed a lot of it. For example, you won’t find synonyms of “I Feel Angry” – it’s the one term in the game that means angry. However, we do allow for terms that are similar but can evoke different answers. For example, “I Feel Like I Could Get Hurt On My Family Vacation” could end in “Because I Heard… Cthulhu’s tentacles tapping on my window.” On the other hand, “I Feel Like I’m Going To Die On My Family Vacation” could have the same answer, but also allows for, “Because I Heard… my brother’s wet fart.” 

    Good: Phrasal Verbs
    At some point I realized humans don’t feel feelings in the form of adjectives – we generally feel feelings in the form of desires, or verbs. For example, “I Feel Like I Want To Hurt Someone” is a more common thought than “I Feel Furious.” I took this realization and ran with it, adding a number of "adjective" terms to the game that helped provide variety and more common language. 

    Bad: Proper Nouns
    Other party games hinge on proper nouns to tap into our society’s current targets of humor. In Knee Jerk, however, I found it was useful to stay away from these directly (especially people). Because Knee Jerk contains just 55 cards (and not ~1000 like Apples to Apples), terms come up much more frequently. It was important to create flexible terms that wouldn’t get stale from overuse, and instead of stating famous people outright, design the terms to imply to players where pop culture references could fit in. 

    Luckily, all of these lessons I’ve learned have really been for the best, and playtests are going better than ever :) Gameplay feels much smoother now, with players rarely hitting roadblocks. Situations are no longer difficult due to term disagreement, which used to make the game’s interest curve flounder. Challenging terms still exist in the game (such as “Because Someone Made A Rap Like This:”), but they provide for a bigger payoff. Also, they are few and far between – the “make a rap” term is just 1 of 55 terms in that category.

    That's all for now! Time to start prepping this Kickstarter page and getting the game to reviewers.