Online Community Building Lessons From Collaborative Board Games
When was the last time that you trusted your community with the responsibility of collaboration? In this episode of Community Signal, Matt Leacock shares lessons he’s learned while designing popular collaborative board games like Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, and Forbidden Island.
Matt also discusses how he leans on the board game community for his own games. In the pre-launch stages, he has rallied supporters to pre-order his games and prove demand. In the development stages, he’s openly shared rules documents, inviting feedback from fans. After a game launches, he also discusses the role that players have when it comes to helping one another as questions and loopholes arise.
Having a shared goal –– winning the game –– is perhaps what motivates players to come together at all stages of the game’s development. Knowing that your community members also have a shared purpose or goal, are there ways that you could trust them with collaboration opportunities that could lead to positive outcomes for everyone? That’s winning!
Matt and Patrick also discuss:
- Competition within collaborative games
- Establishing norms within games and communities
- The importance of establishing straightforward nomenclature
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Trust as an integral part of cooperative game design (6:54): “In a cooperative game, you can guide people along. You’re all working toward the same goal, so you can help each other out as you go along. I think that does help build trust. Having that common goal really helps. The opposite is true with semi-cooperative ones, or even the ones with the hidden traitor. Most of the game is really about social reduction and trying to guess what people’s agendas are.” –@mattleacock
Getting buy-in on community norms outside of the context of guidelines infractions (8:45): “To the extent that people can understand what the norms are before they exhibit the behavior the better. … It’s not just, ‘Here’s the rules. Follow them.’ It’s, ‘Here’s the intent of the community [and] where we want to go, so that’s why we have these rules.'” –@mattleacock
Board game communities step in when players need help (13:43): “I lean on BoardGameGeek pretty heavily because there’s so many rules questions about so many of the games. Some of them are quite simple and very easy to monitor. Especially when the game is released, I want to make sure that no one’s found any loophole or has any big questions. I look at those [communities] pretty carefully after release.” –@mattleacock
Trusting your community with collaboration (18:52): “We put the rules [for Thunderbirds] up online … in Google Doc format and invited people to edit, which was this leap of faith. People would see the text, and they could make suggestions right in the text. I would obviously monitor this stuff and pull out any abusive language. I was really impressed at how just meeting people with good faith, how far that went, and how much buy-in that created.” –@mattleacock
The upsides and potential pitfalls of crowdfunding (20:25): “There are certain advantages of trying to get buy-in [for your board game] from the community, where you’re listening to them and understanding what’s important. If that’s taken too far, then you get perhaps people that feel entitled to tell you exactly what they want and expect it.” –@mattleacock
About Matt Leacock
Matt Leacock has been designing board games full-time since 2014. He is best known for his cooperative titles, Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, and Forbidden Island, and he has designed and developed over two dozen titles for the international market. He is currently working on Daybreak, a game about taking on the climate crisis. His games have won many awards including four nominations for Spiel des Jahres and the Sonderpreis in 2018. In a prior life, he was a user experience designer at Apple, Netscape, AOL, Yahoo, and the chief designer at Sococo.
- Sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform
- Matt Leacock’s website
- Jonathan Bailey, formerly on Community Signal (three times)
- Board Game Arena
- Stats on Kickstarter’s categories, including games
- Daybreak Overview in 7 Minutes
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Hivebrite, the community engagement platform. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. I’ve got something different for you on this episode. The other day I was thinking about collaborative board games and what we could learn from them. I looked at my board game shelf and picked out Pandemic, an incredibly popular collaborative game released in 2007. The base game has sold were five million copies, plus they’ve released countless add-ons. I e-mailed game designer Matt Leacock, and he joins us today to talk about competition within collaborative games, how online communities support games after release, and the importance of nomenclature that makes sense.
Our Patreon supporters are a great group that finds value in the show and wants it to continue. Thank you to Carol Benovic-Bradley, Heather Champ, and Rachel Medanic for being among them. If you’d like to join, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Matt Leacock has been designing board games full-time since 2014. He is best known for his cooperative titles, Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, and Forbidden Island. He has designed and developed over two dozen titles for the international market. He’s currently working on Daybreak, a game taking on the climate crisis. His games have won many awards, including four nominations for Spiel des Jahres and the Sonderpreis in 2018. In a prior life, he was a user experience designer at Apple, Netscape, AOL, Yahoo, and the chief designer at Sococo.
Matt, welcome to the show.
[00:01:30] Matt Leacock: Hey, thanks for having me.
[00:01:32] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s my pleasure. This seems like a fairly obvious question, but it’s where I want to start and I’m just going to ask it, is there competition within collaborative games?
[00:01:49] Matt Leacock: Well, I think all the players are working together in most classical cooperative games, that are fully cooperative. So on one sense on the face of it, no, but I think when you actually examine people’s behavior, everyone has an opinion and needs to voice it to some extent. Yes, what I’ve seen is that when you’ve got a good group of people you might have a team rivals where a lot of folks are perhaps disagreeing, talking through things. To some extent, you’re competing to get your voice heard and to get your opinion considered.
For the most part, I would say no, unless you look at it from that angle.
[00:02:22] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s interesting, because as I was thinking through what to talk about today, and as I was writing this episode I was talking to a friend of mine, Jonathan Bailey, who has also played Pandemic. He told me about the time that he was playing this five-person game with his family, and there was a disagreement on how to go forward. The way he described it was not only do I want to stop the virus, but I want to be the one that has the idea to stop it. At that point, he could have just gone his own way.
Played out his turn, gone against the wishes of the others, and then let the chips fall where they may. In their case, they decided via a vote. When I think about online communities, I think a lot of healthy ones generally move in the same direction toward a common goal around a shared similar interest, something along those lines. A community might have certain incentives, awards that members vote on. Or people might take pride in being there the longest or making the most contributions or whatever it is.
Then if a member takes those things too far, they can harm the community. They can actually become a detriment to the community and this thing that they once signed up to be a part of. I don’t know, that got me thinking about collaborative games and moving in the same direction, but inspiring healthy competition that doesn’t take away from the goal of the game. Is that a consideration for you? Is that something that you’ve seen in other games?
[00:03:36] Matt Leacock: Well, to make the game interesting it does help that there’s some sort of an asymmetry. I guess the bigger problem is the reverse. If you imagine a game with only one goal and everybody’s super clear and everybody’s completely symmetrical, it might have a tendency to feel like a group Solitaire game. You have this loss of diversity and the game just becomes less interesting. Fortunately, people have different perspectives they can bring those in there, but as a game designer, I like to create some asymmetry.
You mentioned Pandemic. In that game, everyone’s got a different role, so I might be better at some things than someone else. I naturally want to influence my behavior in a certain way that makes me a little bit more powerful and I can bring my skills to the goal in a more efficient way and so on. There’s other games though that are cooperative or semi-cooperative that really double down on this. They might have individual player goals in addition to the collective goal. I think those might be a little bit closer to what you’re talking about.
On a cooperative game, you can have this one single goal that everybody is aiming for, and I don’t think that really reflects reality in some cases, right? Everybody’s got some personal agenda that they bring and these semi-cooperative games model that pretty well. You can go so far as they have like a hidden traitor, one person working against the group and those bring in even more intrigue, but again, a different type of game. That’s not for everyone.
[00:04:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Semi-cooperative games. It’s a whole new genre I hadn’t thought too hard about. That’s really interesting. When you say asymmetrical, you’re talking about, there is an end game. There is a spot to get to, but there’s multiple paths through which to get to that spot. Am I hearing that right?
[00:05:11] Matt Leacock: No, I think it’s more like the players are not identical copies of each other. One player may be better at something than another player. They may be looking at a way to solve the problem in different ways, or maybe looking to see how the different players can play to the best of their strengths. Ultimately, in most of the games that I designed, they’re fully cooperative and they have a single goal. It’s easier to get everybody on the same page as to where they want to head. Where some games like semi-cooperative ones might have goal A that everybody wants to do.
Then there’s a goal B, C, D, and E, where all the players may have some separate goal that they’re also trying to do. That can lead to even more diversion behavior. I imagine that would be closer to what you’d see in an online community, where you’ve got the collective goal of the community, but then also each player has their own private agenda.
[00:05:59] Patrick O’Keefe: When you think about game design mechanics, or rulesets, or anything along those lines, what can you do to establish trust between players? Players come into the game, they’re new to it. They need to trust each other to succeed to some extent. How can you establish that trust?
[00:06:14] Matt Leacock: As far as games are concerned, cooperative games really have a leg up on that. When you play a competitive game, you’ve got a much higher bar when it comes to teaching everybody the rules. You really want to aim for a complete set of knowledge of what the rules are because otherwise, you’re not playing on a level playing field. I think a lot of people would have the experience where you start to teach a game and everybody’s just like, “Let’s just play. I want to get into it. Let’s just play,” and you haven’t completed explaining all the rules.
You start playing and then there’s some situation that comes up and you explain it and it happens to benefit you. [chuckles] Everyone blames you for not teaching that role, and sounds opportunistic, and so on. In a cooperative game, you can guide people along. You’re all working toward the same goal, and so you can help each other out as you go along. I think that does help build trust. Again, having that common goal really helps. The opposite is true, again, with these semi-cooperative ones, or even the ones with the hidden traitor. Most of the game is really about social reduction and trying to guess what people’s agendas are.
It’s really difficult to make a cooperative game with that type of element without that element taking over and being everything about the game. It’s all about trust. Who do you trust?
[00:07:24] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting, the idea of when do rules come into the conversation? What part of the life cycle of a game and what your motivation is for doing that. I was playing a game with my brothers over the holidays. It’s a board game called Eels and Escalators. It’s from SpongeBob SquarePants. It was on the show a decade, 15 years ago, and then they made the game in the last few months. I got it for them for us to play over the holidays. We half-read the rules and then half got into it.
Then toward the last 10% of the game, we found there was a rule that we had not been following and we should have been following. It was just like, “We’re going to go ahead and play as we were for the rest of this game and then move forward.” When I think about communities, there’s a lot of opportunities to expose people to the norms of a community, or the community guidelines, and things along those lines. One of the points where people actually tend to learn about the community guidelines is when they’ve run afoul of them.
You have to point out to them, “Hey, you did this thing. Here’s our guidelines.” There is something interesting there around the way it’s presented, the motivation that you have for doing it. How you explain it and how you present it. I’d like for most members to view it as collaborative. We try to put the tone in the message to be more like, “Here’s the path we all need to get on to go together.” You can’t escape the fact that when we’re bringing it up to you, it’s because you’ve probably done something wrong as opposed to learning about it beforehand.
[00:08:45] Matt Leacock: To the extent that people can understand what the norms are before they exhibit the behavior the better. I imagine it did make sense to package that up. It’s not just, “Here’s the rules. Follow them.” It’s, “Here’s the intent of the community, where we want to go, so that why we have these rules.”
[00:10:09] Patrick O’Keefe: I think there’s definitely something there about messaging that is worth hitting. Let’s pause here to talk about our generous sponsor, Hivebrite.
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I want to talk about the rewards of participation, reward structures. Do you have any tips on building reward structures within games that encourage collaboration? I know we’ve talked about the goal. I guess that is the ultimate motivator, is to come together to accomplish this goal, succeed at the game, and win. Do you have any thoughts on designing healthy reward structures within games?
[00:09:59] Matt Leacock: I almost think in an inverted way where the goal is to win and that’s the ultimate reward. It feels cheap if you don’t have a struggle ahead of it. Much of what I’m doing is just trying to design the appropriate level of challenge so that when you do win or lose it feels fair. A lot of it is around just trying to achieve some balance so that the feeling of victory is commensurate with the difficulty of the climb as it were. When you lose you blame yourself and when you win you credit yourself. Those are the things that I’m typically looking at. I don’t know if those translate at all.
[00:10:31] Patrick O’Keefe: How do you think about the right level of friction? Is that just a lot of playtesting and a lot of time spent just going over and over and over and over again to find the right mode, or how do you find that line?
[00:10:43] Matt Leacock: It’s really an internal struggle. It’s tough. I try to show the games to a lot of different groups of people, and that first play experience is pretty important. Trying to see how different groups of people react to it. Just did they hit a wall, or do they lose pretty terribly but again blame themselves and want to play again because it was a fun challenge. Really just trying to find that balance between frustration and on the flip side which is probably worse which is, “Oh that was so easy. We’ve solved this thing the first time we played it, there’s no need to play it ever again.”
It’s really a lot of brute force and some guesswork really.
[00:11:18] Patrick O’Keefe: When I was talking to my friend Jonathan again, about the game he was like, “Yes, when you win it you have to feel like you did something.” I think that’s what you’re speaking to.
We’re in obviously this COVID-19 loop here, what’s your take on the effort to bring some board games online? I know there’s efforts like Board Game Arena, games are licensed from publishers and people can play games with each other online. I don’t know. Do you feel like that adds anything new to the experience?
I think it’d be easy to look at it as reductive and you’re not in person. You can see the cons there, but is there anything that you’re finding online play is adding to board games?
[00:11:54] Matt Leacock: I think so. I’ve certainly turned to it during lockdown and then with Omicron we’ve reverted back for a couple weeks just to see how things play out. There are certain games that seemed to play better online. One of the advantages is bookkeeping. I’ve got one game it’s a training game where it takes up my entire dining room table, and there’s just a lot of setup overhead. There’s a lot of bookkeeping things, you can erase and so on. When you’ve got the computer mediating, a lot of that stuff it’s just a lot faster.
A game that might take three to four hours, we could conclude by 90 minutes because so much of it is mediated. You do miss a lot of the feeling of being across the table, but things have changed so much in the past few years just because Zoom and other products like it where you’ve got a video and voice connection that’s synchronous along with the game playing. Before that, it was very isolating. You play a game, you chat something, and just was not the same. I think with the combination of the newer platforms which are pretty usable now, they’re not great. They’re not perfect but they’re a lot better than they used to be combined with the interpersonal communications. It’s quite a bit better than it was.
[00:12:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you find yourself participating in board game online communities. I know BoardGameGeek is a really influential community when it comes to— well they dominate Google search results first of all.
Whenever I search for a game I think they out the official site like 90% of the time. There’s a lot of helpful data and metadata there, and ratings and reviews and all sorts of fun things. As a game designer and given your background, user experience and probably were a participant in social networks and online communities prior to building games, has becoming a game designer made you join in more in those types of communities or less? How do you balance it out as someone creating an influential game or a wildly sold game that a lot of people play and talk about?
[00:13:41] Matt Leacock: Well, I do a lot of lurking there. I lean on BoardGameGeek pretty strongly, pretty heavily, because there’s so many rules questions about so many of the games. Some of them are quite simple and very easy to monitor. Especially when the game is released I want to make sure that no one’s found any loophole or has any big questions. I look at those pretty carefully after release. Then there’s other games like the Pandemic Legacy series which is a fairly complicated set of games and there’s just tons of situations. There’s a lot of questions about what happens if when and the community’s wonderful in that regard and that they very quickly respond to questions that often within minutes or seconds.
Basically, I just spend a lot of time monitoring and lurking. Then if people come to an impractical issue, they’ll often either e-mail me or I’ll chime in and try to answer things. It’s a great way that all these folks can help each other that scales a lot better than I can. I can’t answer everybody’s questions.
[00:14:35] Patrick O’Keefe: No, and it’s interesting the way you describe it. It sounds a lot like and this is true for all sorts of products these days not just board games and tabletop games, but if such a thing as customer service for games, the application of games how to play them, how to use them, the rule questions comes into play. It almost feels like this is the first stop because not only are the people who play the game actively, but it’s also people who are aware of official answers that have been given in the past. Then can easily cite them and say, “Hey, Matt said this back in August of 2012,” or whatever, and there’s the ruling audit. Have fun.
[00:15:06] Matt Leacock: That’s exactly how it works. For some of the more complicated ones, we’ll put together an FAQ, or many times, it’ll be a member of the community. We’ll just look through all the threads, find all the commonly asked questions, and put together an answer sheet and then I’ll participate in that if there are official rulings that need to be made. Obviously, when I set out to create a game, I don’t want there to be these questions, but it’s difficult necessarily with, especially the more complicated ones, to nail everything without having a rule book, which is so verbose that you never want to read it. That works really well.
[00:15:35] Patrick O’Keefe: It made me think of a time before that, which I lived in. [laughs] Old enough to have lived in that time where if something would’ve come out and had something wrong in it, especially as a kid, that would’ve just been, “That’s it.” We’d play around that or we just accept that that is it even if– To be fair, when I was a kid, if we’re talking about board games, most of the games would’ve been from the big main manufacturers, things that you’d find at a Toys “R” Us, et cetera. If they happened to make an error in there, it’s like, “Who do I talk to? I’m just stuck with this for now on.”
Where now it feels like every game that achieves– It doesn’t have to be a super popular game. Any game that achieves some level of play where a number of people are interested in it, they’ll be their built-in errata, their built-in customer service to find the little things that maybe aren’t even errors. Maybe they’re just questions they have and can make that game play better for them without ever having to bother anyone else. Which is pretty fun because once upon a time, if let’s say Monopoly had a rule in it and it came out wrong, it’s just like, “That’s it from now on.”
[00:16:37] Matt Leacock: Yes. You’d have to have house rulings and then those would become folk traditions. Those sorts of things happen. People play Free Parking a certain way and that’ll spread. It’s just a little slower. One of the things that I’ve noticed and appreciated is with the rise of crowdfunding through Kickstarter, it’s opened up the ability to share rule books and so on early on. You can get your enthusiastic fans on board, checking things out early and asking questions and even looking at the rule book and see how things play out and calling in to question certain things early. You get more eyes on things. It’s almost like having a certain level of QA prior to release.
[00:17:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Local rules are such an interesting thing too because they’re almost a form of community culture onto themselves. You mentioned Free Parking. My family, we didn’t auction off the properties. We won them. You bought or sold and you moved on. There was no auction around the table. Free Parking, everything you got on a card, you paid to the center, you land on free parking, that’s cash in your pocket. Then, I played Monopoly with someone else one day, I was like, “Wait a minute. This is all wrong. What’s happening here?”
It’s funny because online communities around the same topic around the same subject that you would think be quite similar can be quite different. Can have all the local nuances and language or how they speak to one another or what they think about a topic. Do people have local rules for a game like Pandemic that’s so well defined at the stage?
[00:17:56] Matt Leacock: Not so much. I can think of very small local variations for conventions for how you might stack cubes on the board. It’s pretty small things. I did generally try to have a common way to play. I do shy away from optional rules because I found that it tends to splinter the player community. When you want to sit down at a convention and play a game, it helps if you all are speaking the same language and have the same understanding of how the thing operates. It’s definitely something I strive for is having a single way to play.
If you want variations, certainly grab an expansion, it’s not something I really try to actively promote.
[00:18:32] Patrick O’Keefe: Makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to get questions about a rule that doesn’t exist. You mentioned Kickstarter, have you had a game on Kickstarter before?
[00:18:39] Matt Leacock: Yes, a couple. The one that I think about most is a game based on a 1960s, a marionette TV show called Thunderbirds that was released, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years ago. We did put the rules up online. I actually put it up in Google Doc format and invited people to even edit which was this leap of faith. People would see the text and they could make suggestions right in the text. I would obviously monitor this stuff and pull out any abusive language or whatever. I was really impressed at how just meeting people with good faith, how far that went, and how much buy-in that that created.
[00:19:16] Patrick O’Keefe: What are some of the key differences between a Kickstarter game and a non-Kickstarter game? Obviously, it exposes you to people in a different way, I would think, during the process. I’ve backed some games on Kickstarter. I’ve backed some other games on Kickstarter. People can be quite interesting to interact with. I think when they’ve backed a project and things don’t happen on the timeline, they think it’s going to happen. As a game designer, when you’ve gone on Kickstarter, what have been the key differences?
[00:19:40] Matt Leacock: Most of the stuff I’ve worked on has gone through traditional channels, through traditional publishing through graded distribution that way, but I have done a little bit on Kickstarter. Typically, things are put on there because the company’s smaller and you raise the capital. There are also advantages. You get to interact with the player community, you get a better sense of the extent of which something funds, what kind of demand you’re going to get.
It’s great for essentially, a lightweight pre-order system and demand estimation system. You get a good sense for what the players value. I think some of the pitfalls are that your backers feel a certain degree of entitlement and when you can see that or not, I think to some extent. I’m not a real expert in this area, but I do know that there are certain advantages of trying to get buy-in from the community, where you’re listening to them and understanding what’s important. If that’s taken too far, then you get perhaps people that feel entitled to tell you exactly what they want and expect it.
Then suddenly you find yourself in these impossible situations where you’re trying to meet community demands that you can’t meet, or that feel unreasonable. I’ve never really looked forward to waiting into that too much. I do like the ability to interact with the community. I haven’t been on the front lines of having to do that.
[00:20:53] Patrick O’Keefe: I can remember a time, again this isn’t being that old, but it’s being old enough to remember a time where Kickstarter was really novel, right, as an idea. It felt like board games, tabletop games, or at least for me, one of the areas that were most exciting or made the most sense were some of the earliest things that I backed. What did I back on there? I backed Tesla versus Edison, I think. I backed the Ghostbusters game, which seems weird because it’s a big IP to be on Kickstarter, but obviously, they’re different from the board game company.
I backed the Ghostbusters game. I backed Tesla versus Edison and probably a couple of others. It felt so natural. Now it feels so commonplace. I wonder what percentage of games come out of like crowdfunding these days? Maybe I’m just in the ad loop actually. I’m getting algorithmic sponsorship loop from having backed so many games that most of the Kickstarters I see now are in fact board games.
[00:21:42] Matt Leacock: Well, it is the biggest category on Kickstarter. I don’t know the latest stats, but I think, I shouldn’t say stats because I don’t know what it’s, but I know it’s the biggest category. It’s a very big part of Kickstarter and Kickstarter games are a very big part of the games that you see every year. There’s somewhere between 1000-2000 titles coming out each year and there, ain’t no way, that’s all coming out of traditional publishing.
[00:22:03] Patrick O’Keefe: I was reading through your blog. You had a blog post in September where you said that, “No small part of game design involves figuring out how to best explain your game. An old adage of software design was write the manual first, as this forces you to think about how the end-user will experience your product. This carries over into game design as well. If when writing the rules or teaching a game, you find that you can’t explain it, it’s time to have a hard look at the underlying design.”
I found that really interesting and applicable in ways to our work in community. I wanted to ask you to expand on it a little bit, if you could, maybe with an example or two that you’ve run into.
[00:22:38] Matt Leacock: I spend so much time these days thinking about, what I call everything in a game, both the verbs and the nouns and just trying to have a real economy there. Trying to keep things really simple, specific, and consistent, I see it play out in the playtesting. If you’re wobbly about a certain term or you use multiple terms, or what have you, it really shows up on the video. I do a lot of remote user or playtesting where I watch people on video. I was just doing that before we talked, actually.
I paid attention, not only the terms that I put in the game, but also how are those resonating with people who are playing it and are they using other terminology for what they’re referring to. Then train my ear to that and it just makes the stuff so much easier to play and understand quickly. If you can tie it to the theme so much the better, because there’s fewer cognitive leaps that need to be made, you understand the rules because something’s called a certain way and it acts a certain way in the real world.
It comes back to user experience design and affordances, just the world behaving the way you expected to.
[00:23:41] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting, you mention being on video and a simple way to walk through an explanation is to just say it to the air. Just talk to yourself for a minute and just explain something. If you find yourself struggling to do that, to even record a video for yourself, you may need to adjust it. That’s a really good thing to try for– People always talk about the elevator pitch, right, or the 60 second pitch, or like, how can you explain your thing? I don’t know that it needs to be the quickest possible thing.
I don’t think that’s the goal of most of the things that we try to create, but just practicing, telling people about it and seeing what their face looks like, and seeing if they’re able to duplicate what you just said.
[00:24:21] Matt Leacock: Another adage is really trying to tie any of the rules really to a goal so that there’s motivation so you understand the motivation kind of thing. I’m working on a game about the climate crisis right now called Daybreak. We found consistently over and over again, that the game’s much easier to teach if we talk about the second half of the round before. That’s when you, the carbon emissions happening and you’ll see your people going into crisis and so on. It’s very clear then, when it’s time to explain what actions you can take, why you’d want to do these things, right?
You want to do this because you’re going to have this problem later in return. That motivational angle or lens is really helpful as well.
[00:24:58] Patrick O’Keefe: The cutesy language point, how I took what you said like the words that you write for something, I think sometimes in communities, in any type of platform we get so like wanting to write things in a way that I term as cutesy. Just like not saying what the thing is or not having a consistent theming in what we’re naming all the things. I can think of my own example and it’s a very tiny micro example. On one of the communities that I manage, we have a section where all the removed content goes. When you’re a new staff member coming in, you see that section’s name and the name of that section, I don’t mind saying here, is Mr. Clark’s Room. The reason it is Mr. Clark’s Room is because 15, 18 years ago, there was a user who came in and posted terrible things and his name was Mr. Clark. We changed the name of the room to Mr. Clark’s Room. If you’re a new staff member joining in 2021, if you look at that section and what it is there’s explanation, you can get it, but from the first glance, that’s not a helpful name for that room.
We have no other consistent naming of other, sections of the staff area. Everything else is like very cut and dry, what that section is titled that way but this one section has this folksy name, that’s Mr. Clark’s Room, because once we had some junky post made by some user, like two decades ago. That community is two decades old, so it was about two decades ago.
[00:26:16] Matt Leacock: I could see how that could be useful though. It certainly breaks the pattern and so it grabs your attention. In so doing probably communicates that this is important and you should learn about it. That can be a useful technique when you’re running rules is to interject a little bit of humor or a little bit of discontinuity. Or break the fourth wall a little bit, just to say, “Hey, you know what, this is something you should really pay attention to.” I think of one example that co-designer Rob Daviau put into the Pandemic Legacy rule books, where we consistently saw people moving across land using a sea-going action.
In the rule book, we just said, “You can’t do this and we hope that you would understand why.” By adding that simple phrase in there, by breaking the wall, we got people to chuckle and they actually remembered it. We saw that error go way down. It was just a simple phrase where we weren’t trying to be consistent necessarily or logical. We were just interjecting just the smallest bit of humor and it seemed to really like stick out in people’s minds.
[00:27:17] Patrick O’Keefe: Mr. Clark’s legacy lives on, wherever he is and whatever he is doing, I don’t know. It’s funny, I think the last thing I wanted to throw out there, it might be a little out of the blue, but you just mentioned seeing the error go way down. Maybe it’s not so out of the blue, but as I was thinking about board games and online board games and people playing them online, even though most folks probably still play offline. I think online play lends itself to the thought of analytics sometimes, online, anything is very tied to data.
If you were able to get analytics for one of your games that would give you insights into how efficiently players were collaborating and feel free to ground this in a specific game if it’s helpful. What analytics are helpful or what analytics would be insightful that would show you, hey players are working together, they’re moving in the direction. Success rate obviously comes to mind if they win the game, but like beyond that, were there anything that you would find interesting?
[00:28:04] Matt Leacock: I don’t know if interesting is the right word. Generally, the analytics are really helpful on the balance side. If I take the Daybreak example, the climate game, we’ve got plus to 200 cards in that game and they represent the myriads of different strategies that you can put into effect to try to deal with the climate crisis. You don’t want there to be a dominant strategy, so what would be really helpful for me is to watch a couple hundred sessions and see, oh, wow, okay. Where did people win and what strategies did they take. What cards were employed.
The more ethical stuff like watching people’s interactions and the emotional engagement, all that. It’s a much slower process. Again, I do it on video because I can see the emotional reactions and so on. It doesn’t scale terribly well, I can get a good beat on it after watching like a half dozen of these videos per– Well, certainly after a half dozen on a single version, I get a good understanding of it. It’s very different qualitative data than, rather than quant. I guess I just choose the right technique for the type of information I want.
I don’t have an AI robot-like that I can run or analytics from a server to get that data. I’d love to have that but generally, it’s just too much of an investment for a board game to do it.
[00:29:15] Patrick O’Keefe: In that example of the Daybreak 200-card game, if you were to find that people weren’t using 50 of the cards, what would that mean to you? Would that mean that you could cut those cards or they need to be your factor there’s bloat in the game or how would you interpret that data at a high level?
[00:29:29] Matt Leacock: All of the above. Basically it’d be like if it’s a real solution that we want that has a place in the real world, and it is an interesting aspect or different facet that we want to a percent in the game, we want to refactor it so that they could be put into use. Or we might find that people are really using this one solution and it’s working really, really well. Then we look in the real world, we’re like, well, that’s actually marginal and we’re teaching the wrong thing.
We don’t necessarily want people to be winning the game every time by doing direct air capture, because it’s on the fringe, this kind of solution. That would be one example.
[00:30:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Matt, this was not just any excuse to get you to want to talk board games. I really have enjoyed the conversation and I think that a lot of really interesting stuff, when it comes to collaborative games, how they work, the mechanics within them. The messaging of them and how you get people to work together that we can really take away from and apply to community moderation, trust, and safety work.
Even if you don’t feel that way, even if it’s hard to see.
I’m grateful for the time. Thanks so much for talking with us today.
[00:30:26] Matt Leacock: That was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:30:29] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Matt Leacock, designer at Matt Leacock Games. You can find Matt at leacock.com. That’s L-E-A-C-O-C-K.
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