Ken Jennings is sorry about how things have gone since he officially became the greatest Jeopardy! player in history, and he’s hoping a board game can make it at least a little better. Jennings was crowned the Jeopardy! GOAT in the Greatest of All Time tournament in January, and though it was filmed in late 2019 it still stands as one of the rare positive things about life in 2020.
“It was fantastic winning the Jeopardy! tournament,” Jennings said by phone in March. “I didn’t know that was going to be the last good thing that happened in 2020, though. I feel bad if that’s the highlight of the year.”
He’s joking, of course, but with both of us locked down — Jennings in Seattle and myself in Boston — it was inevitable that life in quarantine came up. And Jennings does have something he thinks may help with the doldrums of social distancing and avoiding contact with others: a board game designed to make even the most trivia-averse players feel smart. Enter Half Truth, a game designed by Jennings and legendary Magic The Gathering creator Richard Garfield that aims to address many of the problems that often come with traditional trivia board games.
“The core reason I love trivia is because it makes me feel smart. For something in your head to pay off in a game,” Jennings said. “But that’s the exact same reason why people dislike trivia. It makes them feel dumb or anxious. And what I really loved about Richard’s pitch for this game is that you feel smart the whole time. You’re always playing, you always have a guess or an intuition. You’re never waiting for somebody to bang their head on a table and remember an answer.”
Rather than taking turns, Half Truth is a game where everyone (2-6 players) answers every card, which features a question and six possible answers. Three are right, three are wrong, and it’s your job to pick the right answer with a press-your-luck twist — if you know more than one correct answer, or even all three, you can get bonus victory points in addition to moving spaces on the round marker.
It’s a mechanic that both designers played a part in, even if Jennings wasn’t aware of it at the time. The two teamed up after Garfield read the Jeopardy! champion’s book, Brainiac, and reexamined a genre of board games he largely dismissed in his lengthy career.
“Usually with games I try to learn what makes people like them, and that usually makes me like them. It certainly makes me understand the game better, and I realized I had not done that with trivia,” Garfield said, recalling the lessons he learned from Brainiac that made him call Jennings and pitch what became Half Truth. “What I in particular responded to is the idea that trivia doesn’t have to be super specialized. It can be really egalitarian. Everybody can participate because everybody has these wonderful bits of knowledge that other people don’t, and getting a chance to show those off is fun.”
Garfield recalled playing trivia games with his grandmother growing up, and though she may not have always won there were certain questions that — due to her age or expertise — only she could answer. It also helped inspire a quirk of Half Truth that it loosely borrows from Jeopardy!: good questions often have clues in them that make finding the answer more like solving a puzzle than merely recalling information.
“The other thing he showed me is that trivia wasn’t just black and white, it was’t whether you knew the answer or not,” Garfield said. “A good question often involved some intuition, detective work, meta gaming. And that was really what made questions great.”
In Half Truth, for example, a question about poisonous mushrooms may have three incorrect answers that are all something else entirely, like Pokemon or carnivorous plants. Jennings equated it to the wordplay categories on Jeopardy!, which he happens to excel at, and said it offers another layer of gameplay to some astute gamers: if you know what the wrong answers are, you can work out which ones are actually correct.
It works just as well in practice as it does in theory, too. I played with both trivia fans and those not very into board games, and it wasn’t just the ones missing bar trivia nights these days that did well. There were a wide enough range of topics that everyone found a card on which they did very well, and the strategy of when to reach for extra answers and points kept games interesting right down to the end. The game was also written to be as future-proofed as possible, a difficult feat with trivia games that often have an inherent shelf life and tap into a knowledge pool that can change over time.
“Most trivia is pretty evergreen,” Jennings said. “The memory fades slowly enough that most things don’t become wrong overnight. It’s just gradually. You play Trivial Pursuit from 20 years ago and go ‘why is there all this boomer stuff about Howdy Doody?’”
Jennings said in writing the cards — he wrote about half and edited the rest of them — he tried to capture the “good feeling of knowing an answer” while not pitting others against their friends as much as the cards themselves.
“Every card in that deck is lying to you three times,” he said. “So what you’re really trying to do is outsmart that card. Figure out what’s really going on with it and stay a step ahead. And I think that’s a lot of fun and I think it’s a lot of fun in a communal setting where you can see how you stack up against others as well.”
Jennings raved about Garfield’s design expertise, which combined with Jennings’ writing is an attempt at something fairly unique in trivia games. Half Truth adds to a genre where titles like Trivial Pursuit immediately come to mind, which in recent years has adapted and morphed into a game that’s actually more like Half Truth in some ways. Newer, quicker versions have you bet coins on whether someone gets a question right or wrong, and you can use that currency to buy wedges you’re missing. But in Half Truth you’re only betting on yourself, which is a far less vindictive mechanic that creates a much more satisfying result.
“Making a game more broadly competitive, that is to say more people feel like they have a chance at it, is a matter of making it so that you reward the right things in the game,” Garfield said, noting that the luck of a die roll in Half Truth regulates the value of getting an answer right. “My goal for using luck in a game is that it should make it so everybody has a chance — at least to have small victories — but it doesn’t overwhelm the game so the best players will still more often win.”
The game originally launched on Kickstarter in 2019, where it was quickly funded and made a reality. Later this week it officially hits stores, entering the market at a fascinating and harrowing time. Jennings and Garfield both know their name recognition give them an advantage in a crowded field full of diverse options, but they hope the design and potential of the title speaks for itself.
“In some respects I feel bad about it,” Jennings said. “Because I don’t think the best thing about the game is that you might have heard of the names on the box. But I like that gaming has got to a point where there are auteurs of gaming. People have designers they like and designers they don’t like and people consider it like an art form.”
Jennings spoke of growing up in a time where board games were more product than art, and Garfield raved about the “marvelous” diversity of gaming concepts and genres emerging in recent years that helped him get interested in trivia games. Seeing the father of Magic and King of Tokyo take to trivia may be a change of pace, but the result is certainly something worth giving a chance.
“I hope that people trust Richard on games if they’re fans of his. And I hope people trust me on trivia, and obviously that makes it easier for us to sell the game,” Jennings said. “I kind of wish that everybody had that opportunity, but I don’t think we’re going to lead you astray. I don’t think you’ll be lied to if you got the game because our names were on the box.
Half Truth does lie to you. Three times every card, in fact. But once you play a few rounds, you start to see exactly what Jennings really means.