05 January 2022
Take control while taking the stand in this struggle for the defendant’s mind
This article originally appeared in issue 61 of Tabletop Gaming, and was written by Christopher John Eggett. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
Corey Konieczka is travelling the path of the unexpected. After a long history of big box Fantasy Flight classics like Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, StarCraft and Battlestar Galactica, Konieczka created his own studio, Unexpected Games. His first game at the brand new studio, last year’s The Initiative, was an interesting mix of code breaking, spy kids adventures and pseudo-party game The Mind.
His second game from the studio is equally oddly shaped – Voices In My Head is a courtroom drama where multiple players attempt to take control of the (guilty) defendant, while another plays the prosecutor. The choices in the game are about how the defendant reacts to the evidence of the trial, and making those choices means slotting tokens into different control centres of the defendant’s mind. It’s a game that hovers between social deduction and party game, with a hint of dexterity and even roleplaying.
“I’d had lots of ideas for games that were never really a good fit for Fantasy Flight Games,” says Konieczka, “they were either too light or for different audiences – or I knew, for whatever, reason that it just wouldn’t have worked over there.”
“I’d been longing to really focus on doing more unique and experimental stuff. And, I mean, after I’ve made my second or third dungeon crawl, I’m like, ‘I’d rather have somebody else have the chance to make the next one of those’.”
Unexpected Games comes with a remit of creating really interesting games, Konieczka tells us.
“I feel like the industry today is so crowded,” he says, “everybody knows that there’s 2000 new board games that come out every year. I feel like if you want to succeed, you need to do something unique. I wanted to try some things that were familiar, but with a twist and with something that you would never think of.”
“I wanted to create games that add to the experiences on your games shelves – which are probably very full right now – as opposed to replacing something that’s on your game shelf already.”
The Initiative was a game with a family weight to it, something that can be played with players as young as nine in the Konieczka household. While the designer rushes to say that not all of his games at Unexpected will be at this (very pleasant) weight, he can “almost promise,” that he’ll not be making a game with a 48 page rulebook like StarCraft.
Voices In My Head is certainly interesting – designed in the purest pursuit of a social experience at the gaming table. Let’s take it to the stand and work out what its real motives are, or indeed, if it has an alibi.
TRIAL AND ERROR
“A lot of people can design games from different directions. You can design a game kind of mechanics first and build up from there. Or start with a theme first and make a game about that,” says Konieczka, “and this game was really inspired by its story.”
And the story is simple. Guy Johnson robbed a bank, and now he’s on trial for it.
“He knows that he did, in fact, rob a bank,” says Konieczka, “there’s a prosecutor and a jury. But the unique thing about this is that all of the other players in the game take on different aspects of Guy’s personality.”
It’s not that we’re playing a cartoon schizophrenic here, we’re told. We’re playing out the competing thoughts in Guy’s head. These are the roles players take on at the start of the game.
“There’s a part of him that really wants to be honest. He’s got the part of him that is afraid of going to prison. He’s got the part of him that is just selfish and doesn’t want to be locked up for the rest of his life,” explains Konieczka, “and so each player has a different secret role, telling you what your goal is, what you want to do in the game.”
And while each of these roles might have a clear agenda, they are not emotions themselves – which leads to interesting subtleties between players. Your motives are not aligned, but might appear to be at certain points.
“There’s also the prosecutor. They’re always trying to send Guy to prison,” says Konieczka, “in each round the prosecutor’s going to be doing something – they’re going to be calling witnesses to the stand. They’re going to be asking Guy questions.”
In this situation, players might attempt to control the ‘speech centre’ of Guy’s mind – so when he’s asked something on the stand, they’re the ones to answer it. The prosecutor can also add badgering tokens to various parts of the mind, playing out as ‘blanks’ that can knock others players’ tokens off the zone.
“Or you might take the motor skills part of his mind because you want him to do something physical and animated,” adds Konieczka, “you’re fighting over these different regions to try to control the outcome of the trial.”
Depending how you influence the jury, Guy is either going to jail, or being set free. And depending what your agenda was, that’ll be a win for you or not.
THE TIPPING POINT
“I wanted this to also be memorable in a mechanical way,” says Konieczka.
To do this, Konieczka has invented an amusingly physical version of area control in the form of a plastic contraption sitting between the players. For each slice of the brain, there is a section on a raised platform, which players slide their tokens into. There’s only room for four tokens in each, and so any extras you may slide in are likely going to slide those already there, off. For fans of seaside arcade penny machines, you’re well ahead on how this works.
Each token itself has a different value, meaning you can hold on a little bit longer with your high value token despite being ‘outnumbered’. And of course, there’s a tipping point – with some tokens just hanging on the edge – causing a ‘will it fall or not’ anticipatory jolt.
The designer is keen to point out this dexterity element isn’t one to do with your flicking or throwing ability. It’s not a ‘get good’ kind of game.
The story is laid out from the set-up. Konieczka reads us one of the starting cards – where your lawyer is sweating profusely, admitting it’s his first ever trial. Throughout the course of the game there are trial cards revealed that the defendant reacts to. This is what those playing the various voices inside Guy’s head are fighting over.
The prosecutor in the game leads the trial – they get given three trial cards, and slot the bottom part of the card of their choice below their screen. This shows the other players what areas of the mind this round is going to be about. This role, when described, sounds a little like a GM of a roleplaying game.
Once the round is resolved – say motor skills wins – players then get to carry out the resolution for that part of the card. This might be something beneficial, like ‘draw two influence tokens and put one on a juror of your choice’, or it might be less useful, even harmful for their case. Convincing the jury is the tug of war here between the defendant and the prosecutor – it’s just that the defendant isn’t always working in their own interests. This, like any courtroom drama, brings us stories thick and fast.
“I think it’s very difficult to not fall into the story and fall into the roles,” says Konieczka, “if you’ve got the ‘honesty’ persona, all of the actions that you take throughout the game, whether it’s making Guy do stuff with his body or say things aloud or observe certain things, you’re always going to be doing it from the perspective of trying to tell the truth – and the other players realize that.”
There’s this sense that there’s a roleplaying game in here that’s trying to get out.
“You get this fun table talk where alliances will develop – especially if you’re playing a larger game. You see that one person keeps telling the truth and your role is that you actually don’t want to tell the truth. And so you’re trying to find anybody that has any goal that similar to yours.”
“You might have this person who you think is on your team – thinking ‘I’m going to do something to help them take control of her region’. And then they take control and they do the complete opposite of what you thought they were going to do,” he laughs, “and you’ll be like ‘what! you betrayed me?’ And they’ll tell you they didn’t, they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. I think, especially when you’ve got a larger group, you kind of get a fun social game where you’re not just reading cards, you’re not just doing the mechanics.”
Additionally, strategy cards, which can be drawn as part of the tussle for Guy’s brain can lead to impassioned speeches, swinging jurors towards your side of the argument. Winning is all about how convincing you can be – or at least, how innocent you can look.
“It’s trying to tell a cohesive story, painting a picture of who this person is. But human beings are a lot more complex than that,” says Konieczka, “it’s always very fascinating to me to do that sort of stuff.”
“I always try to focus on the story side of things. This is very much an experience driven game. I think we’re going to get a lot of really fun session reports from people where they write up like the twist and turns that their trial took and what happened and people’s reactions.”
Inspiration comes from some obvious places – the movie Inside Out is one that the designer thinks will come up a lot, but the real inspiration comes from the real world crime and courtroom shows his wife watches. While these shows are full of voyeuristic thrills, players notoriously don’t like being put into active situations with moral dubiousness.
“When we were talking about this game early on, there was a lot of questions about how serious should we take this subject matter?” says Konieczka, “here’s this person that’s on trial and they’re going to prison. It can be a touchy subject for some people. Especially when you talk about like the court of law and all the flaws in the justice system.”
“At first we were approaching it with like a very serious lens, but it didn’t feel right. Inherently some pretty silly things are going to happen,” continues the designer, “there’s a little bit of humour to the fact that all of these people are in his head pulling these levers. And so, early on, we decided to really embrace that. And if you look at the artwork it’s got a whimsy to it.”
“There’s going to be things that will take place during your trial that would totally be a mistrial,” he adds, laughing. The game is designed to tease out the nonsense of the emergent situations of the game.
Konieczka talks about the level of polish that comes from his games at our prompting. He suggests that the final 20% of every project is as hard as the first 80% – something we’ve all come across as a philosophy before.
“When I talk about how competitive the market is nowadays, you can’t stop it 80%. If you want your game to be memorable, if you want people talking about it, if you want people to break out regularly at their game table, you’ve got to really go the extra mile and put that extra polish on it.”
Like the Initiative, you can get lost in the weeds of any particular element of Voices in my Head – and in reality, the game is one that lives and breathes on the interaction between players. Describing any one element leaves it sounding like a disparate set of ideas, but it’s all in service of that ‘over the table’ interaction.
“If you focus on winning you’re not seeing the forest for the trees,” says the designer, “there are the prosecutors that play like a GM where they just want to have this game tell a fun story. They’re more likely to intentionally choose the cards that link together for the best narrative.”
This outlook in a board game with what should be the ‘antagonist’ is an odd relationship, but again reinforces what the designer is trying to achieve.
“The reason I play games, because I want to have my friends over, I want to have a fun evening. And this is a vehicle to do that by giving people goals and giving people roles, you get to put people in a different space than they normally would be in,” says Konieczka, and we add, this time without a Cylon in sight.
We’re all looking forward to being in that space. Assuming all goes well with production, Voices In My Head should be available on February 25th 2022.