Every game store I’ve ever been to has stacks and stacks of all of the different variations of Steve Jackson’s Munchkin. It’s a perennial seller, one that has spawned countless expansions and legions of fans. And at first glance it looks like a fun game, with amusing rules and funny graphics. And look at all those cards! It’s full of items like “The Boots of Running Really Fast,” which is indeed kinda funny. But for my own part, kinda funny doesn’t really cut it. In fact, by the end of my one and only game of Munchkin, I was irritated at the game’s snarky attempts to make me giggle at all of its in-jokes. It was enough to put me off of playing the game again. Maybe you love Munchkin, and if that’s the case I salute you. I’m glad that you, the hypothetical fan, have found hours of enjoyment and humor from this game. But the jokes wore thin for me, and it made me realize how difficult it can be for a game to actually be funny.
Difficult, but not impossible. I’ve played plenty of games that have resulted in howls of laughter and amusement around the table. I’ve played just as many that were empty and goofy, and whose failed attempts at jokes sank the entire session. How can a game ever attempt to be funny? What does a game need to do to promote that moment where the players leave their inhibitions behind and just cut loose with laughter? And why do so many games that try fail spectacularly?
It’s easy to see why it can be difficult. Comedy is one of those things that happens without planning, and any attempt to coax someone to laughter has the potential to go in the opposite direction. By their very nature, games require rules and structures that can stifle any sort of group dynamic. It’s very difficult to nail the crucial component of timing in a game, where interruptions and slow players can throw off a game’s pace. Add to that the slippery nature of what makes different people laugh, and it’s a wonder that any board game can ever pull it off.
One thing that I’m pretty sure doesn’t work is putting actual jokes on the cards. This is the problem that plagues a lot of nerdy “take-that” games like Munchkin. Setup-and-punchline one-liners have their place, but they tend to rely on surprise to really work well. That doesn’t happen when you spend more than a few minutes with the same set of cards. The pleasure of a good joke is telling it to someone who hasn’t heard it and seeing their reaction. When you print actual jokes on your cards, what is funny one or two times will almost invariably become stale by the end of the game.
But the problem is, a lot of people find those games very funny indeed. Games like Munchkin and Killer Bunnies sell lots of copies every year, and other games try to catch that lighting in a bottle. Here I think we find one thing that take-that games have in their favor, which is pointless aggressive interaction. It’s funny to stick it to your friends, particularly when you have assured them that you had no intention of doing so. It’s not like the game’s jokes are making people laugh. They’re laughing when the guy in last place takes one more hit and tumbles into the abyss of game despair. It turns out that the game isn’t doing the heavy lifting. It merely serves as a way to pick on each other in a theoretically safe environment.
A lot of games tap into that vein, and I think that’s where most of my “funny” experiences come from. It doesn’t even have to be confrontational, but the more people can talk and interact with each other, the more laughs there will be. Cosmic Encounter is one game that has proven to be really effective here, since so much of the game revolves around playing WITH people. And of course, good party games can really shine in this situation. Those are the games that give us wonderful stories that last for years and years. I remember a game of Apples to Apples I played in college, where someone matched up “Manly” and “Anne Frank.” We had to take a fifteen minute break after someone intoned in a deep voice, “It’s not a diary, it’s a journal!”
So if games require some kind of interaction to really lift off, how can a game be designed to really promote those transcendent moments of hilarity? The biggest one for me is to simply get out of the way. By that I mean that a game requires a light structure to really take flight. Process is the enemy of humor. It’s a lot easier to have a funny game of Intrigue than it is to have a funny game of Die Macher. But the key here is not to go too far. You don’t want the game to not add to what you’re doing at all. Let’s go back to Intrigue, the diabolical negotiation game. It’s most impressive aspect is not so much how light it is, though it’s very light indeed. The impressive part is how that simple set of rules still manages to make it impossible to not string people along and break their hearts in a crushing lie. It makes everyone behave like a terrible person. For me, that blunts the sting of being taken in once again by someone’s sweet deceptions. Again, this is where party games excel. When there’s only a page of rules, and they make you play with or against the other people, it’s very easy for that game to elevate to the status of “funny.”
Aside from interaction, one underrated aspect is the removal of agency from the player. There’s something hilarious about a game that has no concept of what’s fair and just makes stuff happen to you. I admit that this is something that might be unique to me, but most of the funniest games I know have a huge streak of luck. The silly racing game Magical Athlete is borderline meaningless in its roll-and-move mechanic, but it is easily one of the funniest games I own. The Sisyphean task of trying to make reason out of what is inherently reason-less is one of my favorite parts of a game. Dungeonquest and Galaxy Trucker both have this quality in spades, where the entire game is an exercise in trying to defy a game that largely wants you to die.
The problem is, that’s mostly something that I personally find funny, and that’s the wall that this conversation keeps running into. What I find funny, you will likely find silly and weird. What you find funny I might find distastefully sarcastic. And it really becomes strange when you deal with an entire group of people. That variability pretty much derails anything I could write here. It’s all well and good that I find interaction and randomness funny, but there’s a good chance that you’ll find it irritating. Heck, for all I know you and your group may have gotten hours of laughter from auctions in Modern Art. And now that I think about it, the idea of a bunch of people howling with laughter at a game of Modern Art is pretty funny.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.