The Many Faces of Knee-Jerk

The work on my context-switching party game, Knee-Jerk, continues. Since its inception, the game has been simple and fun. In short, it’s been good, but not GREAT. For the uninitiated, the game revolves around randomly-generated situations such as, “I Feel Nervous At The Bakery Because I See…”. Players are then tasked with supplying endings to the situations. Anything in a player’s imagination is acceptable as an ending. This core mechanic has always been successful, but the surrounding rule set has never felt quite right. Like most games in development, each iteration has fixed old problems while causing new ones. Hopefully (!) I’ve found my near-final iteration.

Here are descriptions of some different Knee-Jerk variants I’ve tried chronologically, along with their pros and cons:

 One player finishes as many situations as he can in 1 minute. The other players act as a peanut gallery, laughing at the endings and making sure the acting player finishes endings sensibly.
Pros: Fast-paced, exciting gameplay. Laughs.
Cons: Only one person plays at a time. Little player interaction.

Desc.: After a situation is revealed, each player takes a turn to announce his ending to the other players. The judge picks his favorite answer, and the player that created the answer earns one point.
Pros: Familiar gameplay. Everyone gets to play. Players get time to think.
Cons: Too much waiting time between players’ answers (not everyone is ready on their turn). Players feel like opponents before them “take” their answers. Only one player gets a point each time, so players rarely feel accomplished, and ties happen often.

Desc.: The judge reads the situation. All other players answer simultaneously as soon as they have an answer. The judge awards 3 points distributed however he chooses, and he doesn’t have to wait for all players to answer before giving out points.
Pros: Everyone gets to play at once (exciting for all).
Cons: Other players feel “buzzkilled” after the first answer is said — they often feel like their answer won’t be as good as the first answer. This leads to players taking longer to come up with new answers so they can (perceivably) “beat” the first one in terms of hilarity. In turn, this pattern leads to a declining player interest curve every time.

Desc.: Each player finishes the situation’s ending in the form of a drawing. Players shuffle the drawings up and re-deal them. Each player shows a drawing to the judge and verbally interprets the drawing as an ending. The judge picks his favorite ending and that team (drawer and interpreter) receive points.
Pros: Varied gameplay. Funny, absurd interpretations of terrible drawings. Cool makeshift team dynamic.
Cons: Less excitement than past variants. Loss of knee-jerky spirit. Absurdity of interpretations may wear off in time.

Desc.: This is the best one. The host reads the situation, and the first two players to provide answers receive points: 2 for the first answerer, 1 for the second. Quickly, the host moves on to the next situation, until all situations have been answered. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
Pros: Excitement. No down time. Hilarious, fast answers (great for spectators in- and outside of the game). Punchy, 5-minute games quickly lead to more and more rounds (i.e. the PopCap effect). Little pain for players – if you don’t answer in time to get points, there’s another opportunity to answer coming up in a few seconds!
Cons: Introverted players win less often than extroverted players. This may be addressed with future rule tweaks, but it may also just be a matter of player-preference. After all, it is a party game.

What I Learned: When people have clear goals and time is on the line, they lose their inhibitions and go for the gold. In the case of Knee-Jerk, players blurt anything out of their mouths in exchange for points — as long as they are not being judged. This means we see the funny, “knee-jerk” answers I’ve been trying to encourage. In most of the other variants, players felt an impetus to take time to create “good” answers. One might think this would lead to higher quality answers, but in reality, the best answers are always the ones that come immediately after the context of the new situation is revealed (i.e. the quickest answers). Now the game properly incentivizes that behavior. In essence, it’s like the Clay Pot story — the way to make a perfect clay pot is not by setting out to make one perfect one, but rather by making as many pots as you can, eventually crafting the perfect pot through practice. Players are now incentivized to quickly create endings – or “pots” – instead of setting out to make the perfect ending — and they’re better for it.

Now I leave you with my latest playtest pictures, from family and friends to new acquaintances at the Game Developers Conference:

(Note: You might be thinking that a dominant strategy to the final game mode would be to blurt out any answer, i.e. “BLAH,” but if you do that then you’re immediately kicked out of the game. It’s not elegant, but it’s a small rule that players can get behind. Luckily, people are good sports, so it hasn’t been much of an issue.)