This article was written following discussions on the topic with members of the London Friday Daytime Playtest UK group.

It’s often hard to create scoring systems for party games. This may seem counterintuitive because party games are usually very simple.

By their very nature, scoring is almost incidental to party games – after all, playing the game is about the experience, first and foremost. Many people say that they don’t bother scoring at all in party games, preferring to play “just for fun”.

It’s absolutely true that some people play party games without needing to know who won, but this is only part of the function of the scoring system.  Scoring systems in party games have another very important role – they teach us how to play the game. The way you win determines your behaviour within the game… even if you don’t end up tracking points. 

As Doruk Kicikoglu, designer of P for Pizza says, “[Points in party games] do need to exist to give players some direction, I think that’s probably their only purpose!”

Take the brilliant party game Dixit. Dixit revolves around a deck of beautiful cards with surreal artwork. All players have a hand of these cards. The active player says a word or phrase that in some way relates to one of their cards, which they put face down in front of them. Then all other players select a card from their hand that could also fit this word or phrase. The active player shuffles all the cards, then reveals them in a line. All other players must now decide which card belongs to the active player. This is determined with voting tokens that are simultaneously revealed.

The scoring rules are as follows: 

  • “If all players have found the storyteller’s image, or if none have found it, then the storyteller doesn’t score any points and everyone else scores 2 points.
  • “In any other case, the storyteller scores 3 points and so do the players who found his image.
  • “Each player, except the storyteller, scores one point for each vote that was placed on their image.”

So slight ambiguity is rewarded. As the active player, you want some people to guess your card, but not all players. In fact, the best outcome is if only one player guesses your card correctly. Of course, another player may select a card that suits your category better – sweeping all the votes and depriving you of points. Or you may be too obvious – giving everyone else points, but not claiming any yourself. 

If the Dixit scoring were changed, the behaviour of the players would change. If the active player were just to get a point for each player who opts for their picture, with no cap – they would be incentivised to be as obvious as possible. This would be a terrible game. Likewise, if they were rewarded when the spread of votes is as wide as possible (i.e. a point for each different card that has a vote), then they would be incentivised to be as vague as possible – confusing players and spreading the votes. Also a terrible game. 

With Dixit, I suspect the desired gameplay came first, then afterwards, the scoring system had to be constructed to support and reinforce this gameplay. In fact, the scoring is probably the most complicated part of Dixit. It gets away with it, but anything more complicated would probably be a step too far. 

Any scoring system in a party game should be simple: simple to teach, simple to learn and simple to apply. Who wants to play a party game with complicated scoring? Muddling through a complicated scoring system is a party-pooping mood-killer. But the behaviour we want to encourage in party games is often nuanced. Nuanced behaviour and simple scoring are not natural bedfellows. Hence the designer’s party game scoring conundrum. 

What would the cooperative party game – Just One – be like played competitively, or in teams?

Sometimes the desired behaviour within a party game is achieved by changing the mode of play: a competitive game could become cooperative, or team-based, for example. I have a party game where all players are trying to lead the single ‘guessing’ player to a word by giving the best clue.

It started out as a competitive game – with the guessing player rewarding the most helpful clue-giver. But this subjective scoring rewarded players who sidelined others, put undue stress on the guesser and made players feel uncomfortable. By shifting it to cooperative mode, the problems were solved and the scoring supported the behaviour I was aiming for.

Alan Wallat, designer of Aaarrgghh!!! Mutiny! says: 

“I think scoring influences a game similarly to how cinematography affects a film. This is a loose analogy but good cinematography is practically invisible, you don’t notice it. Good scoring just makes sense and contributes towards experience as a whole… Just like bad cinematography reminds us we’re sitting in a dark room watching a film. When there is bad scoring (i.e. it doesn’t serve the core experience well or acts against it), the spell is broken and we are reminded we are playing a game with winners and losers.”

Rikki Tahta, designer of Coup says, “You want to noodle until you find the simple solution that works… [Good scoring] is almost always unitary – i.e. you get 1 point for doing something right. If you have varied scoring it’s the start of the slippery slope.”

I suppose it is the nuances within what constitutes as the ‘right’ behaviour that can make simple scoring not so simple for a designer to achieve.

Rikki also gets the last word… “In a good party game everyone understands how to win but then chooses not to keep score.”