Lines of Questioning: Behind the Rules

Although Lines of Questioning looks like an abstract, it was inspired in many respects by my experiences in and around the courtroom. Both in overall structure and specific rules, it seeks to put players in a lawyer’s shoes, bringing out the excitement–and the challenge–of examining a witness. In particular, Lines of Questioning asks players to confront a key courtroom dynamic: the attorney’s limited control over the witness’ answers.

(Before going on, I just want to offer a reminder that nothing here is legal advice. I’m going to talk about some legal principles based on my own experience, but that experience does not extend across, and is not applicable to, all jurisdictions and issues. If you have a question about how the law impacts your own life, absolutely do not rely on what you see here! Contact an attorney who can help you directly; the disclaimer page has more about how to get started.)

When a lawyer questions a witness, she generally has a set of goals. These might be facts for the witness to admit (“yes, I took a bag of money in a dark alley”), opinions for the witness to give (“the probability of that happening is less than 10%”), or just statements for the witness to make (“anteaters are weird”). Each of these goals is a brick the lawyer plans on using to build toward the desired outcome in the case.

The difficulty is that the witness is not a puppet. Witnesses have their own goals. They might want to hide embarrassing facts, or at least be uncomfortable addressing certain issues in public. On the flip side, they may want to help–and be willing to depart both from the questions asked and the rules of evidence to make sure the jury hears what the witness thinks they really need to know.

More subtly, witnesses may shade their answers, trying not to lie but also not telling the entirely unbiased truth. Even a witness who considers herself an honest person knows that she has been called by a side, and the psychological urge to help that side can be difficult to resist. One of my law school professors, a litigator of great accomplishment, opined that “every witness lies;” in his view, the adversarial nature of court proceedings almost compelled witnesses to adopt a fighting-for-my-side mindset, and to answer questions accordingly.

Even a completely honest witness can present challenges. Fading memories may undermine witnesses’ recollection of vital facts. Attempts to recount stressful or frightening situations are made more difficult by the emotion of the moment. (Studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, scary situations are not “etched into” memory; we tend instead to focus very specifically on the danger, and our unconscious minds manufacture other details later based on what we think must have happened.). Sometimes witnesses just misspeak, get confused, don’t understand a question, or otherwise throw up roadblocks even though they are making a good-faith effort.

I chose Lines of Questioning’s play-both-sides structure because I feel that it captures the interplay between attorney and witness. Skillful questioning gives some control over what the witness says (represented by allowing the player to choose the witness’ tiles), but can only get responses that the witness is willing and able to give (represented by the limited choice of tiles available at any particular time). Just as would be true in the courtroom, LoQ’s players set goals and attempt to direct the the witness, but have to be ready to work with what the witness gives them.

Currently the available “question” tiles are also limited. This is a departure from Trust Me, which made all question pieces available for thematic reasons; if the player is the lawyer, why shouldn’t she be able to ask any question at any time? I went in this direction for two reasons:

1. It led to better gameplay. Trust Me devolved into an exercise in finding the optimal choice. By having only a limited range of options, and being uncertain about what options will be available in the future, it is enormously less likely that there will be an identifiable strictly-best move in Lines of Questioning. The choice of what to play now involves a complex weighing of competing factors–the desired length of a line of questions (or answers), how the tile moves the line relative to one’s objective, whether a placement will run the answer tiles out more quickly, and more–all in a constantly-changing environment. It’s extremely difficult–perhaps impossible–to sort that out so as to be able to say that one option is clearly better than the others, and so the decisions are enormously more interesting.

2. It’s not strictly true that a lawyer can ask any question at any time. From a rules-of-evidence perspective, some questions are disallowed except under specific circumstances. From a strategic perspective, jumping from topic to topic will quickly frustrate the jury. Limiting the available question tiles seemed like a good way to represent these contextual restrictions on what question a lawyer can ask next.

So far I’ve been satisfied with Lines of Questioning’s overall structure. It both plays well and feels right. The mechanics and theme reinforce each other, and the experience is stronger as a result.

Of course, that structure needs to include an end point–and legal realities impacted Lines of Questioning in that area as well. Victory, in the game as in the courtroom, requires the lawyer to meet her goals by building up to and getting key statements. The vertical aspect of LoQ’s play was directly influenced by the “building up” metaphor, with the lawyer getting more information about a topic until finally the key fact is revealed or the critical statement made.

Sometimes the attorney never gets there, however, and LoQ needed to include the possibility of defeat. A lawyer in the courtroom might fall short because because the witness doesn’t have important information, or because the witness is avoiding questions and otherwise being recalcitrant. The judge might simply decide that the amount of time being spent is not commensurate with what the witness has to offer, and tell the attorney to wrap it up. These possibilities are reflected by having the player lose when tiles run out; if the witness tiles are exhausted she has nothing more to say, and if the lawyer tiles are depleted the questioning has taken too long and the judge instructs her to move on.

LoQ’s strangest rule–drawing witness answer tiles into the question tile hand–also got a lot of thematic input. A product of both gameplay and thematic requirements, this rule solved two problems in a single blow and has turned into something pretty neat.

From a gameplay perspective, LoQ benefits from giving the player more control over the course of the game. It lends a good narrative flow; the player starts out weak but with lots of time, and ends up strong but needing to hurry. As I worked on the game I was looking for ways to ramp the player’s capabilities up as the game went on.

From a thematic point of view, I wanted to capture the push and pull between lawyers and reluctant witnesses. When witnesses evade questions, they deny lawyers the information they’re asking for. However, they risk giving lawyers power; a lawyer who needs help getting straight answers can appeal to the judge for assistance, and the judge can require the witness to respond accurately and concisely. Ironically, then, evasive witnesses can end up admitting more than they would have if they had just been frank, since lawyers may end up asking them pointed questions with the judge’s backing. This dynamic is interesting and in some respects counter-intuitive, and I very much wanted to represent it if I could.

Putting answer tiles in the “lawyer hand” addressed both needs. Giving the player-as-lawyer the ability to use answer tiles builds up the player’s control by making it easier to direct the line of questioning, to play over existing tiles, and ultimately to claim the objectives. Having the player gain those tiles only when the witness tiles are being placed far away–conceptually, when the witness is off-topic–enabled this mechanic to represent a lawyer’s ability to get a damaging admission out of an evasive witness.

Admittedly, not every rule in LoQ is driven by theme. There’s no thematic reason why hands are three tiles, or why the board is four squares on a side–those are driven strictly by gameplay needs. Still, I’ve tried to pack the game with the feeling of the courtroom, even in its small details. (Don’t get me started on the back-and-forth I’ve had with myself over whether it’s more or less thematic for question tiles to be removed when a line of questioning ends. 😉 ) If you get a chance, give it a try and let me know what you think. An updated PDF is below.

Lines of Questioning – 10-14-14


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