Friday, July 24, 2009

Playtesters needed for a new and improved trivia game

Playing trivia games has always reminded me of listening to a badly scratched CD, or the worst parts of taking the SAT. All three experiences serve up lots of disconnected fragments of something that ought to be big and meaningful, but ends up just coming across as frustrating. Trivia games are history at its reductionist, one-fact-after-another worst.

There are two main symptoms of this fragmentation. First, for any given question, you either know the answer or you don't. Who was Speaker of the House in 1810? Beats me. And if you don't know, there's nothing else to discuss. You bubble in your guess and move on.

Second, there's no element of collaboration or coordination within teams. Trivia teams don't really work together. You just hope your teammates know the stuff that you don't. Practically speaking, this means that most players are not participating most of the time during most trivia games.

Onwards and Upwards
So instead of just griping, I decided to strike back at bad trivia games and do something about it.

I started by writing a web spider to crawl over wikipedia's list of historical anniversaries and pull out dates and descriptions for events in history. For example, according to wikipedia, on May 10, 1801, "the Barbary pirates of Tripoli declare[d] war on the United States of America."

I cached about 15,000 such events in an xml document. Next, I did some text processing to clean up unecessary tags, links, etc. and used XSL-FO scripting to format the events as printable cards. This is all technobabble -- I just want you to appreciate how hard/nifty it all was.

The upshot is that I've created a deck of random historical events, suitable for playing trivia games. They range from the well-known (July 4, 1776 -American Revolution: The Declaration of Independence is adopted by the Second Contintental Congress) to the hopelessly obscure (Nov. 14, 1923 - Kentaro Suzuki completes his ascent of Mount Iizuna). The cards are in .pdf format -- just print and cut along the dotted lines. Depending on your printer, you might want the .pdfs with separate fronts and backs, or you might want the every-other-page version.

Of course, cards alone do not make the game. Here's my attempt to improve on the obnoxious fragmentation of trivia games. The rules are based loosely on an older game called Chronology, but trust me, they're an improvement. I call the new game Chronologic.

Chronologic Rules:
Object: As a team, score the most points by placing events from history in sequence.

Setup: Divide into teams. A few (2-5) teams of a few (1-4) players are good. Choose a target score -- the score where the game will end. For me, 100 is a good target for a ~30 minute game. Decide on handicaps and time limits if necessary. Place the event cards text-side up somewhere where they are easy to get at.

Game play: Play proceeds in rounds. In each round, each team constructs and scores its own timeline.

Building timelines: During each round, your team will construct a timeline by drawing event cards and placing them in sequence one at a time, until you decide to pass. Don't look at the backs of any of the cards until you move to the socring phase! The first event is easy to place in sequence -- there are no other events, so you get it right by default. For every subsequent event, you must decide exactly where it falls in the sequence of events already on the table. If your team doesn't know and doesn't want to guess where a given event belongs, you can pass. Once you pass, you are done for the round.

Every team constructs its own timeline, but they do so simultaneously. So all teams draw their first card together. Once those cards are played, they draw their second cards at the same time, and so on. If your team has already passed during a given round, wait for the other teams to finish their timelines. When all teams have passed, proceed to scoring.

Scoring timelines: Once you finish building your timeline, you get to score it. Timelines are an all-or-nothing proposition. If all of the events in your timeline are in order, your team scores the number of events in the line, squared. If a single event is out of order, your team gets 0 points. So if you have 3 events all in order, you score 9 points. If you have 4 events all in order, you score 16. If you have 4 events but one of them is out of order, you score 0. If you're having trouble remembering your square numbers, they go 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, 100, and up from there.

After scoring the timeline, add each team's points to their running total. Discard all the cards in all of the timelines. Move on to the next round.

The last round: Once a team reaches the target score, the game goes into a final round. Every team except the one that reached the target gets one last chance to score some points. The team with the most points after the final round wins.

That's all, except for the obvious: discussion, synthesizing sidetracks, and fact-finding trips to wikipedia in the course of the game (after timelines are scored) are encouraged. The whole point is to make sense of how things connect.

I've had a lot of fun getting this game ready for play testing. I'm hoping you'll enjoy it, and I'm open to feedback and suggestions for improvements, extensions, and whatnot.


Erin said...

Testimonial: I played Chronologic recently and had the timeline of my life!

Ben Peters said...

brilliant, man! i love the point, the method, and the content--i love it all! can't wait to try this out.

Matt said...

Man, those took a long time to cut out. They look really nice on glossy cardstock, though. Thanks for the game!

Abe said...

Matt - yeah, scissors are a pain. It goes much faster with a paper cutter.

Matt said...

I used a paper cutter, but I couldn't do more that one sheet and still get a clean edge.

Janssen said...

Very cool. My family loves Chronology - I should have known you would have known it.

Dave said...

I'm so excited to try it out! [After all we were big fans of Pork (TM)]

Margaret said...

It's on the docket for our next game night - I'm excited to try this sucker out. And thanks for doing the super-cool work on getting these pulled together.

Dave said...

Thanks again for posting chronologic online we had a great time playing it last night. We only have two suggestions: 1- Just to shake things up we think it would be interesting to have a handful year cards (eg 1700, 1850, etc) that would force you to decide not just the relative placement of events but their position relative to a known date. Obviously you wouldn't want very many of these (even having one drawn every round would be too often) but it might be a nice additional random element. 2- As you already know, might want to trim some of the more obscure events. However, how to define what constitutes an "obscure event" sounds crazy hard to me. Some of the details of British history were unknown to me but Erin Cowles knew them all so I was glad they were in there.

I'm of the mind that if all the players think a card in your deck is too hard just throw it any so you won't have to use it again.