Encyclopedia Brown and the Company Picnic

Sally Kimball is a martial defender.

Every year, CCP has a corporate retreat.

It’s about the only “corporate” thing we ever do, and it’s mainly to get people on different projects better acquainted. So for four hours a year, we pretend we’re a regular ol’ company and do some team building. After that, it’s games and booze again.

Except… some of us never stop gaming.

Our facilitator (think of her as the GM) decided to start with an exercise (game) called Spy.  She explained the rules like this:

  • You will be divided into two groups.
  • Each of you will receive a slip of paper. It will say “You are a spy” or “You are not a spy.” The total number of spies in the game is unknown.
  • Your group will receive a word problem to complete.
  • A spy must attempt to sabotage the solving of the problem.
  • If you suspect a player of being a spy, you may accuse them. If a majority vote of the group concludes that the player is a spy, they are sent outside.
  • At the end of the game, each falsely accused spy will cost the team 100 points.

That might be an okay game… except that it was given to a group of roleplaying game designers. Both groups finished very quickly. Neither group accused any spies.

The facilitator was floored. According to her, she’s run this game hundreds of times, and there’s always at least one player exiled. She asked us why we didn’t accuse any spies. We kind of blinked for a minute, and then I said that the game mechanics were transparent. Her turn to blink.

You’ve probably figured it out already, but here’s how Encyclopedia Brown did it:

As soon as we were separated into groups, we determined the following:

  • Since there are no other scoring numbers in the game, 100 points is an arbitrary value. It could easily be one point. It’s just supposed to sound big, like damage in a Final Fantasy game.
  • The narrative of a team-building exercise is that we should work together and trust each other. Therefore, there are actually no spies.
  • Even if there are spies, the only mechanic in the game for changing your team’s score is to lose points by making a false accusation. Not accusing anyone guarantees your team’s score stays at zero, the highest possible number.
  • There’s no rule for competition between the two groups, or rewards for successfully solving the problem. Therefore, we’re only competing with ourselves at the game of not accusing anyone.

That only left the matter of the math problem. This was supposed to be the hard bit, but it’s actually just a set of addition and subtraction operations obfuscated by a thin narrative. Sound familiar? Ethan solved it, checked his work and had it peer reviewed within two minutes.

I’ll admit, there were two places where we could have screwed up:

  • One of the players wanted to be exiled so that she could have a smoke.
  • I suggested that we refuse to provide the answer to the facilitator and instead sell it to a rival government.

How could this exercise have been improved?

Well, it’s relatively simple to design a game of paranoia and mob rule. As Eddy pointed out, you can just riff Werewolf (the Andrew Plotkin/Dimitry Davidoff one, not the Bill Bridges/Ethan Skemp one). The mechanics of that kind of game are pretty well known at this point.

That’s a party game, though, not a team building exercise. If you want to keep the central narrative of learning that there are no traitors, your best chance is to obfuscate the situation a little better.

I’m not a fan of this kind of game design1, but there are established design patterns, and they’ll fool people for the span of a 10 minute game.

So, some possible improvements:

  • Present a fictional scenario which encourages the players to think like someone other than an office worker trying to complete (not even necessarily win) a team game. Anything from the Cold War will work, pretty much.This at least suggests a level of distrust that a group of apathetic or analytically-minded participants otherwise lacks.
  • Include more mechanics for modifying the team’s score. You still weight them so that players hose themselves by accusing spies, but you introduce enough complication that the players won’t figure it out quickly, and you deny them access to a clear copy of the rules, therefore creating the possibility in their minds that they missed something.2In this case, it’s actually better to use smaller numbers (for example, one instead of 100) . Use of large numbers creates the impression of large differences between those numbers — that’s why it’s a common device in video games. If you want to fool people into making the wrong decisions, you first want to fool them into thinking the differences in risk between possible decisions are small, but that the differences in reward are large.
  • Use a central challenge which is easier to sabotage than arithmetic. Ideally create a challenge where the group is looking for the best decision rather than an objectively right answer.
  • Put multiple groups in competition. Use time as the primary means of determining the winner. If players think someone else might win by finishing faster, they’re less likely to take the time to analyze the rules.
  • Add some kind of reward for winning. Your target players are assumed to be a group of office workers who are used to doing a regular quantity of work for a regular delivery of reward. Fundamentally, they’re at this exercise as part of that work/reward cycle, so it’s the job of the designer to motivate them to care about the outcome.An immediate reward (candy, maybe) is better than a medium term reward (Target gift cards). If you’re going to fool your players, every element of the game has to have them thinking in immediate terms.

At the end, though, you’re still left with a game that only delivers its intended story (and moral) if the players lose. That’s not going to be a satisfying game. It’s true that it might create player unity against the GM/facilitator, but the GM is there representing the larger authority of the employer. So even if the design brings players together by making them resent the GM, they’re only transferring distrust and resentment onto their own organization.

A better overall approach is to follow the PvE design principles of computer and tabletop games, making the antagonists a part of the narrative (“oh noes, the Soviet Orcs!”) while providing benefits for the players to work together against a real but limited chance of failure.

The facilitator should appear to be a neutral party, introducing challenges that are presented as a part of the game and narrative. Rewards should be offered for success, in order to motivate genuine cooperation, but there should also be a consolation prize, because if you present a chance for failure, people will sometimes fail.

And that’s why team-building consultants should hire game designers.

  1. Design by obfuscation is pretty much always bad, because smart players will sort out your lies, and everyone else will just disengage. It’s also not a good idea to present a GM/facilitator as a friendly or neutral force, then turn around at the end of the game and reveal that they were actually trying to screw you up. That basically just pisses players off, and sets up team-building groups to distrust the facilitator in future games.
  2. This last bit is actually a legitimate tactic in some more adversarial modes of play; see Matthew Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” for a good example. I don’t think those modes of play are satisfactory if the players aren’t deliberately assuming the risks, though.

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