*Written in 2020*
I’ve been in quarantine for over a month now. My sanity is mostly intact but I have my bad days like anyone else. It’s days like today, when something genuinely breaks up the monotony of living a real life Groundhog’s Day that makes everything feel just a bit better. Last week a neighbor’s house caught on fire, later that same day we put up a screen door so that we can have fresh air coming in without all the bugs. This was a random Wednesday and honestly it was the most exciting day I’ve had in a long while. And then today, I had the opportunity to speak with a legend about his newest creation, the trivia game made for all levels of skill, Half Truth. Richard Garfield is his name.
Sound familiar? It should. He only created one of the most popular trading card games in the world, Magic: The Gathering. No big deal right? Needless to say I was a bit intimidated to talk to someone who has created numerous, world renowned games but also just happens to have a PhD in Mathematics. But, thankfully, he’s a kind soul with what I assume is quite a bit of patience for dealing with someone like myself, Chase. That’s my name.
On top of being a famous game designer, he’s also a father of twins, age two… during a pandemic. Not all heroes wear capes am I right?. Still, he took time out of what I am sure is a busy, hectic schedule to talk with me about his new game. I want to thank him for his kindness and patience as I tripped over my words trying to sound somewhat professional. This is how it went.
In this written form of a phone call between myself and Richard Garfield, I will play the role of Nerd Alert (NA) and he will play himself (RG). Not too complicated I hope.
NA: Good morning, I’m here to talk to you about your new game, Half Truth. Can you tell us a little bit about it and the concept behind it?
RG: Half Truth is a trivia game. It was inspired by Ken Jennings’ book ‘Brainiac’. When I read it about ten years ago I was completely swept up in his love of trivia. He got me to see a lot of things that I was missing about trivia. So I decided to make a game which made those things clearer and much easier to see. So that’s where Half Truth came from.
NA: Well that answers my first and second question so moving along nicely. My next question: You said you wanted to make a game about trivia that could appeal to everyone. How difficult was that process?
RG: Well I think the mechanics I came up with are pretty solid. The first thing was to make sure everybody could answer every question. I’ve had trivia evenings in the past that were frustrating because I would go a long time without being able to answer anything meaning someone else would get all the questions. I wanted to make sure everyone could try to answer every question that comes up. Then deciding to make it a multiple choice game where all the answers are in front of you so if you happen to know the answer you don’t have to remember, it’s right there. And then further making it so that every question had three correct answers and three incorrect made it so your chances of guessing if you’re only going by intuition or you just knew nothing your chances are still pretty good, 50% in fact. As a framework that all worked quite well.
NA: I take it you’ve played this with Ken (Jennings) correct? Does he still win every time?
RG: No. So the game is a trivia game which means somebody like Ken will definitely be favored to win. The first time he played he won the first game pretty handily. Second game he actually lost. We had some solid players there but they were no Ken Jennings. This made him excited that this was a more egalitarian design and the chances of winning are spread out among everyone playing.
NA: That definitely gives you hope if you can beat Ken Jennings I assume?
RG: It’s a feather in your cap for sure.
NA: Beyond the inspiration of his book (Brainiac), in what ways has Ken contributed? What would you say you’ve learned from him?
RG: Oh so much. The game was pretty much fully designed when he came aboard but the questions weren’t made yet. He was in charge of setting the guidelines for the questions and editing them as well. He produced about half the questions. From reading his books I suspected he’d be a really good partner because it was clear he had a great sense of humor and he was really playful. Those are two attributes that I like to keep front and center in my game design. When you read the cards there’s something to smile about and he made that happen.
NA: Does he change at all when he plays? Does he become serious when he plays a game?
RG: He can definitely go into competitive mode but as he’s gotten older he’s been able to control that a little bit more. He’s always fun to be with but he does take the gameplay seriously.
NA: With Magic and RoboRally you went through Wizards of the Coast to get them released. What led you to Kickstarter for this new game, Half Truth?
RG: I was having trouble finding a publisher that was going to take a trivia game seriously. I first started pitching it about ten years ago and at that time a lot of publishers would hear the word trivia and they just weren’t interested. Eventually I realized that these days you can get a game published if you want by bypassing the publishers and going straight to the consumer. I think we’ve got something really special here so bringing it to Kickstarter seemed natural. It was a lot of fun having a user base, an interested set of people who’ve never played the game but were enthusiastic about the concept and were interested in helping it become financed.
NA: With everything going on in the world I’ve definitely been playing a lot of games lately so I’m really looking forward to playing Half Truth.
NA: So you’ve been a game designer for nearly thirty years, in that time how many games would you say you’ve designed? Whether they became a reality or not.
RG: Games designed and unpublished there’s hundreds. I design a lot of games without any intention of publication. Just to see how the mechanics work and to explore different concepts. As far as favorites that’s pretty hard to say. It’s hard not to give a nod to Magic since that was such a crazy, huge success. I think I was lucky in getting a lot of the trading card game mechanics right. I eventually saw things with Magic that I originally saw as weaknesses were actually strengths.
NA: How old were you when you created Magic?
RG: I was in grad school so I was about thirty.
NA: At this point in your career, do you ever get intimidated by a new project? Do you get nervous when you’re releasing a new title?
RG: I do but not in the same way I used to. I’ve had the experience of releasing a game I thought was going to be popular and it sort of fell with a thud. For example Spynet is one of my favorite games that I made and expected a lot from but never really caught on. So I’m used to that. I’m used to not being able to predict how a games going to be received.
NA: So anyone reading this who might be interested in becoming a game designer, what advice would you give them?
RG: Well it’s a really good time to be a game designer. There’s a lot of interest in games, new ones especially. The first thing I would say is play a lot of games. Specifically games you wouldn’t necessarily normally play. So in my background I have this philosophy to take any game with popularity and try to figure out why those who did like it, actually liked it. Once I did that I found either that I liked it or that I found something there that was valuable. I could take that value and put it into other games. That’s where I came up with Half Truth. When I read Ken’s book I realized I had not done that yet with trivia. I hadn’t tried to figure out why trivia lovers loved those kinds of games.
NA: This next question you don’t have to answer, I understand why you might not want to but as a designer are there any games you can’t stand or simply don’t understand the appeal of?
RG: Well I’m never going to badmouth someone else’s game.
NA: That’s fair.
RG: But that does tie back into my philosophy of trying to figure out why they are fun.
NA: So at the very least you give it a chance.
RG: Yeah. There are actually very few games that I don’t like because I’ve got a very broad taste in games. Even in the few instances where I don’t like a game I feel I still understand why people do like it.
NA: Would you say there’s any kind of template for game design? Or does each project require something entirely new?
RG: There’s a lot of templates. I think that’s another reason you play a lot of games. You get a lot of tools in your tool chest. The more games you understand the more tools you gain for creating new games.
NA: So they’re sending me the game as we speak. I’m living with a few people, how do I peak their interest in playing this game? How would I sell it to them?
RG: I think if you just take it out and read the rules which are not that long and maybe ask some questions off the cards that you think are fun and I think the rest will take care of itself. There was a surprising amount you could do with this sort of question framework of three true answers and three false. This was really driven home the first time I played it because my wife made twenty cards and that was the first time I was able to play. Until that time I had made all the cards. I realized you might be able to find the answers or know nothing about the question but you can still find a continuity in the fake answers and can still get the question right.
NA: You mentioned your wife, do you test a lot of your ideas on your family?
RG: Yes, all of them.
NA: Does it ever tire them out?
RG: No. They don’t like everything that they test but they’re always happy to help.
NA: That’s nice. It’s good to have that kind of support.
NA: I want to end this interview by asking what are you currently watching, playing, and reading? Watching can be a television show or movie. Playing can be a card game, a board game, video games and I think reading is self explanatory.
RG: Right now I’m reading The Coldest War which is by a historian I really like, David Halberstam. For playing I’m currently into Factorio which is on Steam. As for board games I’m playing Football Highlights 2052, a new game by Mike Fitzgerald. For watching I’m into Altered Carbon.
NA: How’s Altered Carbon so far?
RG: It’s excellent. In fact, I liked the first season enough that I read the book and I’m enjoying the second season now. I’m also watching Patriot on Amazon Prime.
NA: I actually just finished a show on Hulu called DEVS. I highly recommend it.
RG: I’ve seen ads for that one, how is it?
RG: There’s definitely lots of time to watch right now being incarcerated.
NA: (Laughing) Hahaha!! That’s the perfect word for it. Incarcerated.
NA: One last question, has Half Truth inspired you to make other trivia based games?
RG: Probably not. If I want to continue with trivia I’d stay with Half Truth (expansion). I’ve done other party games, for example one called Hive Mind. So I might do other party games. With Hive Mind it kind of displayed my lack of love for trivia that I had before I had the chance to read the book ‘Brainiac’.
NA: Well I look forward to playing Half Truth and any other future games you come up with. I appreciate you taking time out of your day to talk with me.
RG: Thank you. I appreciate the interest and stay safe during all this. I hope you enjoy the game.
NA: I’m sure I will. Thanks again.
And that’s all she wrote. I hope you enjoyed the read, I know I had fun talking with Richard. He definitely piqued my interest in his new game Half Truth, available on May 6th at studio71games.com as well as retailers such as Target, Walmart, Amazon, and hobby and specialty stores.