‘Like Nick Fury Inviting You to Join the Avengers’: Richard Garfield Taps Ken Jennings to Make a Game
The ‘Magic: The Gathering’ creator brought on the ‘Jeopardy’ star to launch a trivia game that rewards skill and makes room for rookies, too.
Richard Garfield loved Dungeons and Dragons. Though he would later go on to become a math professor, he delighted in the game’s call for collaborative, creative, wily play over cold, hard numbers and rational logic.
“Instead of being about making the best numerical decision, it was often about telling a story,” he says. “It was so different that it made me wonder what other crazy games were out there that I didn’t know about or that no one had conceived of yet.”
So, as he worked toward tenure, he also became a notable game designer. Magic: The Gathering is his best-known title to date, and it’s one of many. Over the last several years, he’s been testing his talents in trivia, contemplating how to incorporate the same we’re-all-in-this-together element that he loved in Dungeons and Dragons and that has guided so much of his work since. Half Truth reimagines trivia as a much more approachable and inclusive experience, ensuring anyone who plays can piece together at least a few right answers. And, spoiler, he got some help from Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame.
Brainiac spurs a bright idea
In 2006, Jennings published Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. Garfield was completely rapt, and the book opened his eyes to a more expansive, inclusive definition of trivia.
“Trivia is sort of like football,” says Garfield. “You watch football; you don’t necessarily think about playing football. It’s more of a spectator thing. And similarly, because of things like Jeopardy, a lot of people enjoy trivia, but they view it as something you spectate rather than participate in. A lot of people don’t feel like they could compete. Brainiac made me think about that a little differently.
“[Jennings] thought of trivia as being egalitarian, as being something which could include everyone, because everybody has enormous reserves of knowledge,” Garfield says. “I realized that the games I had played had focused on a specific type of trivia, and were really made for people who were good at trivia in a traditional sense. But then I also thought about games I had played with, say, my grandmother, where she was not the strongest person at the table, but there would be these questions that absolutely nobody but her knew the answers to — and that was kind of special. So I thought, if you could make a game that really brought that out, it would be a lot of fun.”
Half Truth: for people who half know things
Garfield set to work designing a game. To be inclusive of players with a range of skill levels, he made sure to ask questions that rely on deductive reasoning as much as recall, and to put six answers — three correct and three incorrect — on each card.
“I really enjoyed [Jennings’s] playful attitude on how trivia is not about knowing the right answer,” says Garfield. “A good trivia question is not something you just know or don’t know. The best trivia questions are ones where you have hunches or you can figure it out. I wanted to get that in my questions. Where it wasn’t just a matter of A or B — you know the answer or you don’t — but you could work out something and make guesses.”
It wasn’t a totally new approach for Garfield; well-timed clues and lucky breaks are crucial in Magic: The Gathering, too. “I always attempt to make enough lucky moments in the game that anybody could win or at least get little victories on the way, but I also demand enough skill so that the more skillful player will, on average, win more often. You see that expressed it in Half Truth with the scoring system, where you get a lot of benefit for just getting one of the answers right.”
Connecting with his “other half”
Surprisingly, recruiting help from Jennings, the Jeopardy whiz who won 74 consecutive regular-season games in a row, wasn’t the hardest part of getting the new game off the ground. The pair met shortly after Garfield completed the first rounds of game testing, and Jennings agreed to team up and help develop questions and answers.
“It was all about Richard Garfield,” says Jennings. “When the inventor of Magic: The Gathering pitches you a game idea, it’s like Nick Fury inviting you to join the Avengers. I felt like I could help with the trivia, and he would know about… well, everything else.”
Jennings added to the Brainiac-inspired questions that Garfield had put together. “I always say a good trivia question should be fun even if you get it wrong,” he says. “The process of trying to puzzle it out or the surprising fact revealed in the end is so good that it sticks with you. Bad trivia just makes you say, ‘Who cares?’ What’s the highest mountain in Saskatchewan? How many times did Whitey Ford play in the All-Star Games? Who cares?
Bad trivia just makes you say, ‘Who cares?’ What’s the highest mountain in Saskatchewan? How many times did Whitey Ford play in the All-Star Games? Who cares?
“The trivia in Half Truth is all built around the idea that each card is a little riddle to solve,” Jennings says. “You’re trying to outsmart me and Richard. Maybe you know the answer, maybe you don’t, but the game plays just fine even if you’re using intuition or educated guessing.”
The challenge, surprisingly, was wooing publishers. Despite Garfield’s illustrious reputation in game design, Jennings’s legendary Jeopardy status, and the pair’s nuanced approach to trivia, publishers had trouble seeing it as anything more than “a cliché party game.”
“More traditional publishers were immediately turned off by the concept of trivia, even though I was trying to do something very new with it,” Garfield says. “The Kickstarter route began to look more and more appealing because you could build this community and get direction from them.”
Winning the crowd over
Now, Half Truth has far surpassed its $10,000 fundraising goal — about 20 times over, as of this writing. Being in direct contact with a community of supporters helped them consider how to make questions more inclusive across cultures and geographic spread, and Studio71, a games publisher that’s delivered successful Kickstarter projects like The Binding of Isaac, is prepared to produce the final product.
Their 6,500-plus backers are affirming the appeal and approachability of the game in just the way Garfield and Jennings had hoped. “A lot of people seem to think the point of trivia is ‘the more obscure, the better,’” says Jennings. “That’s not true at all! The fact is, we live in an unprecedentedly information-rich time. We all have heads crammed with information. Some of it is information about things we love — basketball, cooking shows, Pokémon, whatever. Some of it is stuff our teachers crammed in there. But all these facts have one thing in common: We hardly ever use them. That’s why trivia, when done right, should feel good, no matter who you are. Something in my brain actually paid off! It’s an incredible feeling of validation.”