“I think most people’s experience of playing trivia is just a stupid feeling, and that’s no way to spend an evening.”
That sentence probably doesn’t describe Ken Jennings, who holds the record for longest winning streak on TV quiz show Danger after a 74-game winning streak (although he still lost to IBM’s Watson in 2011). But Jennings, who shared the quote above in a recent interview with Ars, is smart enough to recognize that most people don’t get the same pleasure from “pure” trivia tests as he does.
“If trivia is just getting knowledge, it’s only fun if you do it right,” Jennings told Ars. “It shouldn’t just be middle-aged dads who trade baseball stats… It can involve deduction and lateral thinking, different kinds of cognition than, ‘I remember this what my 9th grade teacher taught me.’ One is fun, the other is only fun for a very, very small group of people.”
Richard Garfield, the legendary creator of Magic: The Gathering (and, more recently, Valve’s Artifact), came to a similar conclusion after reading Jennings’ book, Brainiac† “I was really captivated by his love of trivia,” Garfield said. “I’ve learned to see trivia as more than just a black-and-white test whether you know it or not. Good trivia questions have an art and a lot more dimensions.”
And so, a little over five years ago, Garfield reached out to Jennings to “create a trivia game that really brought out these elements.” Today, on Kickstarter, they are finally ready to reveal half truththeir attempt to rock the world of trivia games.
Fix a broken design
As a game designer, Garfield’s first job in creating his own trivia game was to focus on the pain points that make standard trivia quizzes so unsatisfactory for many.
“I thought back to my evenings playing trivia games, and I saw that one of the frustrating things was when I got to a long period of time where I didn’t know anything, or anything that wasn’t known by almost everyone out there,” Garfield said. . “When that one question where I was a master of the subject, where I was the only person who knew, that question was put to someone else. So I immediately decided that everyone should answer every question.”
Garfield also decided to run multiple choice questions so that players would always have a potential “hook” that could provide some insight into the answer. However, after testing cards with one correct answer out of six choices, Garfield says he “moved to the much more interesting spot” where three of the six options were correct (or “half” true).
That means that in the worst case scenario, players have a 50% chance of finding a correct answer every time. And even if they don’t know the answer, players can increase those odds by eliminating answers they know to be wrong or looking for patterns and groups in the options.
Garfield gave an example of a test where a card asked players to indicate which of the six options were types of mushrooms. The three wrong answers – Destroying Angel, Blinding Angel and Thallid – come from: Magic: The Gathering cards (perhaps unsurprisingly, since the question was written by Garfield’s wife). “This was kind of an eye opener for me; it was a clever way to make it so that there were more corners in this card. If you know Magic cards really well, you don’t need to know mushrooms at all.”
For the “trivia jocks” who might play the game, there is also the opportunity to try your luck and identify two or three answers. This gives you a small bonus if you’re right, but eliminates all progress from that turn if you get even one choice wrong, and introduces a basic risk versus reward strategy into the design.
Leveling the trivia playing field
Trivia games tend to be skewed based on who happens to know (and can retrieve) more trivial information from their brain. But Garfield says: half truth‘s design “gives you this start on an egalitarian path where everyone has a chance”, but without flattening the playing field completely.
“The people who aren’t that trivia-savvy will feel like they’re more likely,” Garfield said. “Maybe they won’t win, but they’ll have their wins. I often try to make my games so that playing skillfully is an advantage, but it doesn’t mean you win every time.”
The hope is to answer every question half truth a bit of a logic puzzle that can be solved, rather than a pure memory test. “Right in front of you [on each card] there are three correct answers,” Jennings noted. “They’re there… you’re trying to solve the riddle, figure out which one is which.”
Jennings recalled winning the first Half-Truth test game he played with Garfield after a year of development and thinking, “Yeah, exactly, this is how the universe should work. I should win trivia games.” But when they played again, Jennings lost, “and I thought, this is a very smart game, because sometimes the trivia expert has a small advantage, but that’s not always enough… The result is the rare trivia game in which you remember that you feel smart when you play.
“People don’t feel well informed,” Jennings added, explaining the paralysis many people feel around trivia games. “We’re a very information-dense society today. And people feel like they don’t know enough things. We constantly feel bad about the things we know.
“The great thing about trivia is that opposite feeling, when something in your head really pays off,” he continued. “That’s such a great revelation because it’s so rare. We spend all this effort cramming facts into our heads, and then every now and then, on a trivia board, something turns into real points and it’s delicious. half truth is structured to give more people that experience.”