Lines of Questioning: A New Variant

Holiday time means time for playtesting. I’ve been fiddling with a promising variant of Lines of Questioning, tweaking numbers here and there to see if I can get it to a satisfactory state. While I haven’t succeeded quite yet, I think it’s getting there.

Two weeks ago we had identified four issues with Lines of Questioning:

1. The lawyer’s tiles are handled differently from the witness’ when lines end; this makes learning the game more difficult.
2. Picking up the lawyer’s tiles sometimes feels bad, as though the player’s effort has been wasted.
3. It’s often best for the lawyer to create a series of brief, two-tile lines, which takes away some of the fun of wrangling a longer line.
4. The endgame often involves the witness stacking tiles in the corners while the lawyer just stays away, having nothing to do but keep her distance.

A rule change addressed number 3:

Check whether the lawyer’s line can continue at the end of step 2. If not, the line ends immediately and the lawyer’s topmost tiles are removed. After this happens, start a new lawyer’s line the next time you reach step 1.

That wasn’t a perfect solution, since it reinforced problems 1 and 2. Lawyer tiles were still being picked up, and their ending was being treated differently from the witness’ tiles. In fact, it doubled down on problem 1 by making the end of the witness’ and lawyer’s lines as different as possible; now whether the line ended was being checked before the witness played and drew, but after the lawyer played and drew. Ouch!

For all its weaknesses that solution did seem to work, so I decided to leave it in place and look for answers elsewhere. If the rules for ending lines had become much more complex, perhaps it would be possible to simplify other parts of the rules. Problem 1 would still exist, but it would be less of a barrier to learning the game because it would be the only barrier; the player could invest all of his energy in learning that one tricky area.

To that end, I’ve been trying out a variant that works like this. Play the game as normal (the rulebook is here), except:

1. Follow the rule change noted above.

2. Do not use the the rules for off-topic witness answers. Just ignore section II.g of the rulebook, and all references to it. Answer tiles are never added to the lawyer’s hand of questions by any means.

Playtesters overwhelmingly cite the off-topic answers rule as the hardest thing to learn in the game. Omitting it cuts the mental overhead required to play drastically.

3. Replace the first two paragraphs of section II.e, regarding how to win, with this:

You win by revealing four key facts. To reveal a key fact, you must build a stack of tiles in a corner space at least four-high, in this pattern from top to bottom:

Answer tile
Question tile
Answer tile
Question tile

It is not harmful to have more tiles in the corner, but tiles outside that pattern do not count toward revealing the key fact. (So, for example, if the bottom tile of the stack in a corner is an answer tile, that tile does not help reveal that corner’s key fact.)

Remember that the normal rules for playing a tile apply in the corners just the same as in any other space. In particular, answer tiles may not be played on top of other answer tiles.

Everyone has an intuitive sense that a question-answer-question-answer pattern is “normal.” The current rules, which allow (for example) an answer-answer-answer-answer stack to reveal a key fact, feel “game-y”–so much so that some playtesters assumed the “normal” pattern must be required, even though it’s (a) harder and (b) nowhere in the rules! This variant brings the game in line with expectations, again reducing the mental overhead involved in playing.

Removing the exception allowing answer tiles to be played on top of each other when the witness starts a new line also simplifies the game. Having the rules regarding how tiles are played apply consistently makes the new line rules much easier to learn.

Last but by no means least, this variant beats the stuffing out of problem 4. The lawyer has to be involved until the very end.

4. Replace the second paragraph of section II.f, regarding starting new witness lines, with this:

If you cannot continue the witness’ line in step 3, begin a new one by placing an answer tile in the first corner where an answer tile can legally be played, starting with the lower left and proceeding clockwise. (Remember that answer tiles cannot be played on top of other answer tiles!) This new tile must follow all the normal rules for playing answer tiles.

This final change brings this part of the rules in line with the previous change: no more stacking answer tiles on top of answer tiles in the corners.

Playing this variant is a very different experience. It’s much easier to keep track of what’s going on; the ministerial aspects of the game are greatly simplified. Winning, however, is enormously more difficult. Keeping control of the witness is a challenge, and the endgame is a tightrope walk, with few spaces available and each new tile critical.

If you’ve got some time over the next few days, give this variant a try. Either way, have a happy holiday!

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