Game Design Like a Boy Scout: Week 2 - Jenga

I embarked on a seven-week long journey to teach 20 Boy Scouts about game design, and learned a lot along the way. Our first of four games we studied was Jenga, and it was about as chaotic as you might expect.
Of the four games the Boys voted highest (D&D, 1-2-Switch, Jenga, and Star Wars Family Feud), Jenga got the least votes but still more than several other games. Jenga is a surprisingly simple concept, a sort of reverse Tetris, in which players attempt to both build and destabilize a tower made of tiles. Here’s how Jenga works:

  • Setup: First, shake the Jenga blocks out onto a flat surface. Then, stack the blocks in sets of three until you have built a tower that is 18 blocks high. Each new layer of three parallel blocks should be rotated 90° along the horizontal axis from the last layer.
  • Progression: Each player carefully takes one block out from any level of the tower except the top. Players can push the block or pull the block, depending on the angle and the location in the stack, but they can only do it with one hand. This rule keeps players from holding the tower steady while they pull their blocks. The turn ends when the next player touches the tower, or after ten seconds, whichever occurs first.
  • Resolution: The game ends when the tower falls -- completely or if any block falls from the tower (other than the block a player moves on a turn). The loser is the person who made the tower fall (i.e., whose turn it was when the tower fell).
For each game, we pointed out some relevant terms (the Scouts need to identify five out of seventeen different terms for their workbook). Jenga is a multi-player game and can theoretically scale up to as many players as can fit around a table (probably eight, maximum). Difficulty describes how easy or hard it is for a player to complete a game objective. Jenga gets more difficult the longer you play because it relies on gravity and balance. Jenga is also a reflex-based game, which is to say that it relies on a combination of the player's spatial judgement of where to place a piece and when to remove a piece. But it also requires the player to have a steady hand, because too much movement can cause the tower to fall. This can be a problem for players who have unsteady hands or other disabilities that impair their sight or coordination.

Medium

Tile games are played with a limited set of tiles (usually rectangular) that may contain pips (dots), letters, or special symbols. Play consists of players placing one or more tiles from their hand adjacent to those already placed and then replenishing their hand with new tiles (if available). In Jenga, scoring is usually performed when tiles are played. Jenga flips this model on its head by creating one "hand" of tiles (the tower) and then SUBTRACTING from it instead of adding to it. The goal is to subtract as much as possible from the tower without causing it to collapse.

Player Format

Jenga's process of elimination means that with each turn, the game becomes harder for the player who goes next. This is known as a Predator/Prey cycle. Each player's goal is to remove the tile from the tower as carefully as possible, while making it likely that the tower will fall for the player who goes next.

Objectives

Unlike other games, Jenga appears to build something but in reality is simply shifting blocks around. However, how those blocks are shifted matters. This is called spatial alignment. A number of games involve the positioning of elements as an objective, including the nondigital games tic-tac-toe and Pente and the electronic game Tetris.

Resources

In Jenga, everyone shares the same resources. You are essentially working with the same pile of 54 blocks. The tile that's removed from the bottom is added to the top. There is an intangible resource however, which is risk. The real resource isn't the tiles themselves so much as the stability of the tower, which translates to risk. Each player attempts to increase the risk of the tower falling for the player after them (the prey).

Theme

Jenga doesn't have a theme, but that doesn't mean it can't influence a theme. It definitely creates tension, for example. There is a horror role-playing game called Dread that uses Jenga to resolve mechanics -- this creates a tension in the game, which reinforces the fear and anxiety of the game itself. I used this mechanic in my own D20 Call of Cthulhu game, but the issues mentioned above (players with shaky hands, for example) became problematic because the game punished players with poor hand-eye coordination, and thus unfairly applied tension in a way that was disruptive to the flow of the role-playing game. We gave it up after a few sessions.

Play Value

Jenga is about managing risk – you try to minimize your own risk of the tower falling on your turn while at the same time increasing the risk for the next player. Tension, danger, provocation, and humiliation all are ways that players experience threat. The player format of predator/prey reinforces this, with each player influencing the other. It’s worth noting that unless you’re playing a two-player game, you cannot directly influence the player who affects you. These games are fun because of their heart-pounding action and the enjoyment people get out of crushing their opponents.

We set up two Jenga games and let the boys play. This was a mistake, because with nearly 20 boys the odds of someone jostling a table are high, and then set up can be a mess. If I were to do it again, we would have more Jenga sets, assign an older Scout as table captain, and limit the number of players at each table to four maximum. I made a note about how to manage a large group and adjusted our game plan for the next session.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

darkbard

Explorer
There is a horror role-playing game called Dread that uses Jenga to resolve mechanics -- this creates a tension in the game, which reinforces the fear and anxiety of the game itself. I used this mechanic in my own D20 Call of Cthulhu game
Good write up! And I've heard about the above mechanic before but never seen it spelled out. How have you (and others) applied Jenga to resolution mechanics in TTRPGs? I'm intrigued by the mounting tension of the players mirroring the imagined tension of PCs....
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Good write up! And I've heard about the above mechanic before but never seen it spelled out. How have you (and others) applied Jenga to resolution mechanics in TTRPGs? I'm intrigued by the mounting tension of the players mirroring the imagined tension of PCs....
Simply put, when something risky is being done the GM tells the player to remove a piece. If the tower falls, they die somehow.

The GM has to manage the pacing a bit and you'd hope that players wouldn't fight each other (it did in our one-shot.)

And one-shots is pretty much the game's wheelhouse. I can see that without a PC you have opinions about, the game could be more about the player projecting themselves onto their avatar.
 

darkbard

Explorer
Simply put, when something risky is being done the GM tells the player to remove a piece. If the tower falls, they die somehow.

The GM has to manage the pacing a bit and you'd hope that players wouldn't fight each other (it did in our one-shot.)

And one-shots is pretty much the game's wheelhouse. I can see that without a PC you have opinions about, the game could be more about the player projecting themselves onto their avatar.
This necessitates a very specific kind of TTRPG, I think. I don't see how Jenga-as-arbiter in this fashion could be implemented for a traditional D&D game, for example. Further, I agree that if the tower's fall indicates PC death, one-shots are pretty much the only way to make use of this as a resolution mechanic.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The issue using Jenga in a D20 Modern game was that it was essentially another form of resolution, like dice, but it had player-skill consequences. I could easily see using Jenga to represent picking a lock or something like that, but with Dread it's the entire mechanic, so you know what you're getting into. With Jenga in conjunction with a traditional RPG, it puts the burden on players in a way that rolling dice does not. One of my players' hands shook, so it put him at a disadvantage.

Also, Jenga is super impractical at a table that's not specifically focused on it. We only used Jenga sporadically, and rolling dice (intentionally throwing things at a table) and keeping the Jenga tower stable are cross-purposes. The Jenga tower fell down more than once just because we were more concerned with rolling dice.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
Also, Jenga is super impractical at a table that's not specifically focused on it. We only used Jenga sporadically, and rolling dice (intentionally throwing things at a table) and keeping the Jenga tower stable are cross-purposes. The Jenga tower fell down more than once just because we were more concerned with rolling dice.
In Dread, any fall of the tower causes someone to die, regardless of whether a pull was in progress. The threat of the tower falling is what gives Dread an added measure of verisimilitude.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
The issue using Jenga in a D20 Modern game was that it was essentially another form of resolution, like dice, but it had player-skill consequences. I could easily see using Jenga to represent picking a lock or something like that, but with Dread it's the entire mechanic, so you know what you're getting into. With Jenga in conjunction with a traditional RPG, it puts the burden on players in a way that rolling dice does not. One of my players' hands shook, so it put him at a disadvantage.

Also, Jenga is super impractical at a table that's not specifically focused on it. We only used Jenga sporadically, and rolling dice (intentionally throwing things at a table) and keeping the Jenga tower stable are cross-purposes. The Jenga tower fell down more than once just because we were more concerned with rolling dice.
Ah. There needs to be a separate Jenga table. And players with near the same level of dexterity.
 

Bagpuss

Adventurer
Just to clear up a misconception many people seem to have about Dread. When the tower falls caused by a player's pull it does not automatically mean that their character dies.

First it only ever means they should be removed from the game, most commonly by death, but they might also for example miss a flight that the other character catch, or get an urgent call from a sick relative so they have to leave, before the trouble start.

Second if it happens early in the game when there isn't really a clear cause for the character dying then they can continue as a "dead man walking", meaning they can no longer pull from the tower, so automatically suffer the consequences the GM chooses, which will probably mean an eventual dramatic death.
 

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