Who am I to judge?

gaming, writing

In a game like Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples, should cards be judged against a set criteria? Or should judgement be left to the Judge?

I recently played a game called Awkward Moment. Gameplay-wise, it’s very similar to Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples–on each turn, there’s a Judge, who draws one card (in this case, a Situation), and the other players submit a card from their hand (a Reaction), and then the Judge decides what Reaction card best suits the Situation card. The player who submitted the card the Judge picks gets a point, then a new player is the Judge, and so on. The winner is the player at the end of the game with the most points.

The difference between Awkward Moment and CAH or AA, however, is that there is a third type of card–a Decider. The Judge draws this card with the Situation, and it contains the criteria by which the Reaction should be judged compared to the Situation. For example, I draw the Situation “You’re picked last for the dodgeball teams” and the Decider “Most terrifying.” The other players then try to pick the “most terrifying” Reaction to the Situation, like “Howl at the moon” or “Give them a piece of your mind.”

This is a significant departure from CAH and AA, where the judgement criteria is left entirely up to the Judge. Awkward Moment is a transformative game intended to get its players to think about bias and appropriate reactions, which is why Deciders like “Most practical” are mixed in with “Most ridiculous,” but CAH and AA, as games with no ulterior motive besides entertainment, have no need for such guidelines.

…Or do they?

CAH and AA are both games with no ulterior motive besides entertainment, albeit for very different audiences. (I describe CAH’s tone as “edgy humor for adults,” while AA is “silly humor for high schoolers.”) The criteria for judgement is left entirely up to the Judge, who could, in theory, pick a card for any reason from “it makes the most sense” to “it makes the best band name” (both real rationale people I’ve played with have used). However, I’ve noticed that even within this theoretically boundless freedom, players consistently submit cards and judge them based on which is the funniest. Even without official guidelines for judgement, players ascribe their own.

“Funniest” is the guideline that CAH and AA’s tone pushes gameplay towards, but it’s notable that when judgement deviates from “most funny”–and sometimes even within it–it has a noticeable effect on play. In my experience, if someone’s not judging by “most funny,” it’s difficult to know what they’ll judge by, which makes it hard to submit a winning card unless you know the player really, really well.

This is all well and good when I’m playing with my family and friends, but if I’m playing with people I don’t know that well–as I did when I was playing Awkward Moment–it makes it very difficult to win. Anyone who knows the judge has a significant advantage over the relative strangers, unbalancing the game.

On top of that, if a Judge isn’t judging by “most funny” response, it can be difficult for the other players to shift their mindset from “pick a funny card” to “pick a logical card” or “pick a card that makes a good band name.” This can often lead to a mishmash of cards that land in the valley between “funny” and the new criteria (or the players’ guess at it), creating a round where, rather than laughter, the response is just… meh.

Of course, there’s always the strategy to submit a card that doesn’t make any sense and hope the complete nonsequitor wins the Judge over–but there’s no way of knowing if it will. Sometimes, the Judge doesn’t even know what they’ll look for in a card until they’re in front of them, and sometimes the Judge will truly pick a card at random.

Without Decider cards, CAH and AA run the risk of creating an unbalanced–or worse–unfun game, as players struggle to discern the Judge’s unspoken rationale for their choices. With Decider cards, everyone knows how the Judge will pick the card, which will keep the game balanced and at a consistent tone… right?

Even within a single guideline, different Judges can have different standards. When players set the unofficial guideline of “most funny,” a mismatch of player humor can create, well, awkward moments. When I first played CAH, I was much less willing to find offensive stuff funny than my friends, which meant I passed over many cards in search of the least offensive one until my friends figured out my threshold for awfulness. So having a set criteria isn’t a guarantee that everyone will be on the same page.

Even then, when playing Awkward Moment, I noticed that sometimes the Judge would flat-out ignore the Decider card and pick the funniest Reaction anyway. I don’t think they ever made the conscious decision to do so, but when faced with a collection of nonsensical responses and feeling the pressure to choose, they went with the one that made them laugh. After all, the point of a game is to have fun, regardless of ulterior motives.

Just then, I said “nonsensical responses.” Which brings me to another, significant problem with Decider cards–too often, the Reactions didn’t match both the Situation and the Decider. It was easy to have a hand full of cards that didn’t match the Decider, and in that case, the player would put down the card they thought was funniest, ignoring the Decider just like the Judge sometimes did.

If not having Decider cards creates too much freedom for players to judge, then having them creates too many limitations. Players complained that they felt forced in their judgement, having to pass over cards that they actually liked when it was their turn to Judge. And with the set Deciders, they said that gameplay quickly became repetitive, since there was little room for players to change their playstyle or debate the appropriateness of certain cards (debate being a significant part of the fun of both CAH and AA).

On top of that, players said that Awkward Moment still required you to know the Judge–you had to guess what they thought was “most logical” or “most ridiculous,” and sometimes, “least likely for the Judge to do.” Even still, maybe with Decider cards they didn’t have to know the Judge as well as in CAH or AA… or maybe they had to know them better, since guessing what someone will find funny is often easier than guessing what they are likely to do.

We still liked Awkward Moment and found it fun; we even played it more than once. But that one addition of Decider cards significantly changed the feel and balance of a game that is otherwise mechanically identical to CAH and AA. Maybe the next time I play Cards Against Humanity, I’ll try convincing my friends to play a round with the Decider “least offensive,” just to see what happens. Who knows–maybe they’ll finally learn my standards for judgement.

TL;DR: Games like Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples requires players to judge cards without a criteria, which can unbalance the game and make it less fun. But adding a judgement criteria, like in the game Awkward Moment, restricts players and can also make it less fun. Is it better to have a set guideline for judgement or not? Who am I to judge?

Thanks for reading!

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