Interview: Bob Kamp, Designer of Choice Words

Bob Kamp 1One unfortunate aspect of the board gaming culture of reviewers, BoardGameGeekers, and so on, is that when interesting things are happening in the “mass market” as we call it, we often miss it. I had never heard of Choice Words, a new party game from MindWare, but designer Bob Kamp approached me about giving the game a look. We’ll have a review in a few weeks, but in the meantime, check out this interview with Bob on the game’s long and winding history!

 

Tell us a bit about yourself: your day job, other hobbies, how you got into gaming, any quirky facts you want to share.

I am 48 years old. I am originally from the Chicago area, but now live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I grew fond of Grand Rapids while doing my undergraduate studies at Calvin College. GR has all of the amenities of a larger city, and you can still get just about anywhere in 10 to 15 minutes.

I am a big backgammon player. I play in a weekly league at a local pub, and I have done so for 10 years now. There is an American Backgammon Tour, which features many weekend tournaments held throughout the U.S. Michigan boasts the largest backgammon tournament on the roster. It is held in Novi each 4th of July weekend. It attracts close to 200 players and the winner typically garners more than $10,000. The tournament is run by Carol Joy Cole in Flint, MI, and her Backgammon News newsletter is in its 37th year in print.

The game is played as a match involving several games, typically an odd number. There is a doubling cube. Much skill comes from adept movement of the checkers, but even more skill is required for the doubling cube – – when to double, when to accept a double, and when to drop a game instead of accepting the double. High level players study with the aid of computer programs.

The game is a great metaphor for life. You don’t control your dice rolls, but you must use your rolls, especially the bad ones, to your best advantage. It is very much a skill game. The skill is in minimizing the luck.

I serve as an in-house attorney (DePaul University College of Law grad 1991) for Auto Owners Insurance.

I have always loved to play games. As a kid, we played cribbage a lot and also many of the traditional American games such as Sorry and Monopoly. Michigan Rummy (Tripoley) was a favorite!

 

choice-wordsHow’d you come up with the idea for Choice Words?

Let me first describe the game and that will help explain how it came to be. Choice Words features two ways to play. In Scratch Play, players have one minute to write all the phrases they can think of that involve the root word. Players earn one point for each phrase they have that no one else has. For example, for the word CENTER, answers might include center stage, centerfield, front and center, and shopping center. You take the root word and go in any direction you want. In Match Play, players choose single one-word answers to fill in the blanks on a card in an attempt to match the answers of other players. Figuring out what is likely to be the most popular answer is the key here. Players earn points equal to the number of players that they matched. For example, for ___HOUSE, will most players write “poor house,” “out house,” “greenhouse” or something else?

When first married, my wife Jill and I would spend time over dinner working word puzzles in the newspaper – the Jumble and crossword puzzles. This activity likely contributed to the idea for the game. I can remember driving home from a restaurant and remarking to my wife that a contact lens, a contact sport, a contact person, and contact paper are fairly disparate items, yet they all share that common root word. I wondered if there was a game in that concept. This was in summer 1997.

A co-worker mentioned that she like to play Tri-Bond, which requires player to determine a common bond between three items. I thought, if that’s a game, then I probably have a game too.

I starting by going through the dictionary word by word. I soon realized that it would be interesting and more fun if you could generate terms and phrases with words not just after the root word, but in front of it as well.
Alphabetically the dictionary will give you “cut-rate” and “cut throat,” but you need to do some thinking of your own to come up with “haircut,” and “shortcut,” and “cold cut.” The idea expanded to include phrases too, such as “cut and dry” and “cut-and-paste.” In a few weeks I had finished with the dictionary.

I was familiar with Scattergories, but felt that this root word concept allowed for so much more creativity and variety of answers.

On the way through the dictionary I discovered some root words that really too few associations to be used for Scratch Play (where you scratch out the ones in common with other players), and I thought what if there was another type of played where you tried to accomplish the converse?, ie, match other players’ answers. Thus, Match Play was born. CANDY is not a Scratch Play word because there are too few associations, but CANDY___ works great for Match Play. In a recent game I answered CANDYbar and was shocked when every other player had written CANDYcane. A candy cane is a seasonal item, which is brittle and sticky. Candy bar is a year-round tasty snack with filled with chocolate and peanuts and . . . well, I rest my case. The candy bar is a far superior item and answer, but on that day, with those players, I failed to score while the other 5 players each earned 5 points.

The game includes 200 Scratch Play cards featuring root words that are prolific in terms of their ability to generate lots of answers. As for match play (another 200 cards; 600 fill-in-the-blanks), the words chosen are intended to suggest several quick and ready answers, and then the trick is to choose which will be the most popular answer among the particular players at the table.

 

How’d you get in touch with MindWare? Did you shop around to a lot of publishers or did things just work out?

choice-words-cardsOnce I had the written content, I made a not-so-fancy prototype, and I met with some game agents in October 1997. I called the game “ROOTIMENTARY” – the game of common parlance, because the game is really a measure of what phrases we all use and accept as common terminology. While the agents did not like the name, (I soon changed it to “Offshoots”), they thought the game was terrific. They warned, however, that the game may be missing some plastic extruded gizmo or gadget that bigger manufacturers seem to like (since they are also toy makers as well). The agents presented the game to the several biggest names in the business at that time. This was spring 1998. The agents were unable to place the game, and then I shelved the idea for 14 ½ years.

We had played “Offshoots” at Thanksgiving with my extended family in 1997 and 1998. My wife and I then switched to spending Thanksgiving with her side of the family for many years. In 2012 we spent the holiday with my side again. Some of my relatives recalled the game and asked about it. I reported that I had given up on it.

At their urging, in 2013 I made some better prototypes and threw in a buzzer. A player may object to an answer (typically arguing the term or phrase is not common), and if a second player joins in the objection, then the answer is scratched immediately. There is no interminable arguing. The buzzer gave players the opportunity to reject answers by using the buzzer.

In November 2013, I attended ChiTag, an annual toy and game industry event in Chicago. MindWare invited me to send them a prototype, and within a few weeks they advised that they wanted to produce the game, but without the buzzer (as it should be). MindWare also preferred one of my alternate names “Choice Words” over “Offshoots.”

MindWare was my first choice for the game. They make Qwirkle, after all, which is a game my family loves. MindWare’s slogan is “brainy toys for kids of all ages,” and I think that Choice Words harnesses your brain power.

Incidentally, another game company had accepted a prototype, but they thought the magic of the game was in the buzzer (which they said was too expensive to include with the game). I think that they did not really “get it.” The magic is not in some gimmicky novelty item. The magic is in the stimulating and fun exercise involved in the game and then in measuring your performance against other players.

 

Choice Words is reminiscent of a lot of classic games like Scattegories. What makes Choice Words unique?

CHOICE WORDS is unique in that it features a 2-player objection rule. This ensures that arguments do not overstay their welcome. The game is well-paced. While typically there is debate over some answers, anytime 2 players object, then the answer is immediately scratched and it’s time to move on.

The acceptable answers are those acceptable to that particular group of players in that game. A player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge. For each Scratch Play root word, there is a nucleus of acceptable answers for that particular group of players. For the word BAND, my peer group will accept the J. Geils Band, but my children will not.

CHOICE WORDS features root words that are basal, building blocks of our language. This means that the game gives wide berth for players’ creativity. Players are not stifled into providing answers that must fall into defined categories or that require answers to start with a particular letter.

Because there are no right or wrong answers, the game stays fresh. One hundred years ago we had BLUE ribbons and BLUE prints, but today we have BLUE tooth and BLUE ray. Earlier I had mentioned the Match Play example of CANDY___. In 1997 when I first conceived of the game, there was no such thing as “Candy Crush,” but now of course that is wildly popular and might be considered a very strong answer today.

CHOICE WORDS features a knock-out mechanic for scoring, but that’s because it’s an intuitive scoring system that makes the most sense. If you have 10 answers, but I also have 8 of the same ones, then it’s simplest and best to count that as 2 to 0 in favor of you. Of course, the scoring mechanic is not the game itself.

 

One difficulty with selling party games is that it’s often easy to play with homemade components; I have friends that know Telestrations as the “notecard game” and Time’s Up! as the “fishbowl game”. What are players missing out on when they don’t experience the whole package of Choice Words as the published version?

CHOICE WORDS isn’t easily fashioned by the casual observer. The Scratch Play words have been carefully culled and pared down to the 200 most playable. This tedious and painstaking process involved not only a quantitative analysis but a qualitative one as well. Scratch Play does not work well with just any old word. It’s no fun to think and think and not come up with any answers. The pre-selection of the base root words ensures that they are prolific and support a large number of answers. In addition, the selection of the root words is based also on the quality of them in terms of producing interesting answers. The word TREE is not included because mostly it tends to generate a list of tree types (not very interesting), whereas the word STRING is in the game because the answers it generates are more interesting. A shoe string is a very different thing than a hamstring, and you would find a string quartet in a totally different part of town than where you would find a string bikini. So too, the Match Play words have been carefully selected and even placed on the cards in a particular way so that each card is designed to generate some matches. It’s no fun if everyone matches, and it’s no fun if no one matches. Care was also taken to ensure that each fill-in-the-blank stands on its own merit, meaning that no other word on the same card suggests answers to any other (or that’s the intent at least). WHITE___ and ___HOUSE do not appear on the same card, lest players simply answer “white house” for each.

 

As a college professor, I’m always interested in ways games can be used to learn both academically and socially, regardless of discipline. I know you view Choice Words as having educational value – can you expand on those aspects for our readers?

CHOICE WORDS encourages a different style of thinking. I call it “auditory recall.” You have to hear the references in your head. If you think strictly about a CAT, you won’t probably think of a catwalk (an elevated walkway) or a cattail (a marshy plant) because they are not directly related to a cat itself. You have to hear these references in your head. Similarly, with BED, there’s a bed time and a bed spread, which are directly bed-related, but also bed rock and flower bed, which are not. You have to think beyond the literal word itself.

For the Scratch Play word BIG, I recently wrote “BIG salad.” My opponents rejected the answer, and I could not defend it. Although the reference was up in my brain somewhere, I couldn’t remember where I had learned it. Later some other friends advised me that there is an entire Seinfeld episode [episode 88] that is entitled “The Big Salad.”

A related point is that it’s not a trivia game, where you either know the answer or you don’t, which isn’t much fun in either case. Unlike trivia, the more thinking a person does in this exercise, the more loose bits of information surface. The game is great for English-as-a-Second-Language students, stroke victims, or folks suffering the onset of dementia.

CHOICE WORDS exposes differences in our vocabularies. I know that a PAPER tiger is an idle threat, but my kids may not. While the answer may not count, the cool thing is that we all may learn something new from each other in the process. “LONG in the tooth” means that someone is old. Who knew?

 

To me, some aspects of the rules seem to be inherently unfair as they can allow meta-gaming, such as two players teaming up to shout down other player’s answers even if they’re probably legitimate. But you view the game as inherently fair.. What levels the playing the field in the game and how do you deal with “meta-gaming” like the situation I described?

The game is inherently fair from the standpoint that a player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge which only that person knows. If 2 players haven’t heard of that term or phrase, they can and should object. It doesn’t matter that the term or phrase actually exists; if 2 players at the table are not familiar with it, they may fairly object.

The rules specify “Objections must be fair. For each Scratch Play word, there will be a solid core of clearly common/acceptable answers, and then some that are less common.” Where the perimeter of that core lies is for the particular players in the game to decide. For the word CUT, certainly there can be no debate, a “haircut” or a “shortcut” are common/acceptable answers. If a player is objecting to those answers, then the player is either from Mars or the player is a jerk.

At times, no matter what game we are talking about, incessant arguing can bog down an otherwise good game. In fact, the inclusion of the 2-player objection rule is to stymie such bad behavior. Of course, 2 jerks can use the rule to their advantage. Solution: Don’t play with jerks!

 

Sometimes, the reading of the rules of the game make the fun seem impossible to understand until you sit down and play the game. Until players get their hands on their own copy, they might be wary – can you express just what makes Choice Words fun?

Everything counts! . . . words, terms, titles, phrases.
Everybody plays . . . every turn.
Everyone contributes . . . regardless of age or education
Easy . . . you already know all the answers.

The banter is generally good-natured and tends to be either congratulatory – “Good answer! I didn’t think of that” – or critical – “STRING theory? . . . sorry, I’ve never heard of that; it doesn’t count.”

The universe of answers is so broad, that usually every player will have a couple answers that no one else did. The game makes everyone feel good; like they contributed. I am reminded of the story of the 6 blind men who feel the elephant. Though each describes a different feature, each one is correct. Each has found a piece of the truth.

CHOICE WORDS provides a pot, a burner, and some broth, and the players bring the peas and carrots, so to speak. Because people have differing ages, educations, and life experiences, the gumbo comes out differently depending on who’s playing. Fun!

 

What have you been reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?

I have been attending my weekly backgammon club, of course. I have also been enjoying The Resistance and Skull and Roses when I’m not trying to introduce new players to Choice Words. [Editor’s Note: Great taste!]

 

What’s next for you in game design?

I have been working on a trick-taking game for the past 6 months that I am really excited about. I know that you are a fan of trick-taking games, so I’ll have to send you a copy.
I also have a tabletop dexterity game that am sure will be coming to market in some form or fashion in the near future.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Choice Words supports large groups, which makes it a great game to pull out on Thanksgiving with the extended family!

 

 

 

Thanks again to Bob for taking time out of his schedule for the interview. If this sounded interesting, go give Choice Words a look!

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