Words by David C. Obenour
While modern gaming has shown no shortage of new ideas for many of the ways we play, group gaming has proved more complicated to evolve. These party style games require rules that are easy to understand and even easier to explain, and then still have to appeal to a wide spectrum of gamers and non-gamers alike. Too simple and what’s the point? Too complex and why bother?
Which all make Wavelength fairly remarkable.
Centered around the game’s large spinning spectrum wheel, a clue-giving “Psychic” randomizes the location of that round’s spectrum, pulls a “this or that” card, and gives a clue that their team uses to hopefully hone in their dial to the then hidden spectrum.
What happens outside of Wavelength‘s impressive components and simple rules is good-natured debate, conversation, joking, introspection and more. Basically everything you could want at your party.
Off Shelf: Wavelength is such a novel concept for a game. Can you talk about the genesis of it?
Alex Hague: I played The Mind and immediately wanted to work on a game with the person who made it. So the same day, I messaged Wolfgang [Warsch] on BoardGameGeek, introduced myself, and asked if he had any interest in potentially collaborating on a project.
Luckily, he said yes! He even had a general concept for a game that he wasn’t sure would actually work. That idea had the rough outlines of Wavelength, and I was stunned when he described it, since we – me plus my Monikers co-creator, Justin Vickers – had been prototyping a game loosely inspired by New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, where you plot something on an X and a Y axis. It was spooky!
But because Wolfgang is a genius, his concept was a much more simple, elegant design that had a single axis. So much of creating something new in games is like that: chiseled simple good ideas out of complicated bad ones. And if you’ve done your job, it looks so stupidly obvious that anybody thinks they could have made it.
OS: Was there any physical object from your life that inspired the hardware of Wavelength?
AH: Tons of stuff! A selection from our inspo folder includes color wheels, BBQ grill knobs, the old Fischer Price record player, War Gases wheel chart,
Kelli Anderson’s This Book is a Planetarium, Dialsmith Perception Analyzer and the dreaded NYT election needle.
OS: The art and design of the game is striking. For being a sort of abstract game can you talk about how you arrived on a look?
AH: Most of it is thanks to the incredible work of Hvass&Hannibal. The cover art alone took a month of back and forth, from early explorations to final artwork.
At first, we were exploring two different directions: one, a purely geometric approach and two, the a “heads” metaphor that ultimately won out. It’s very hard to depict abstract games in a fun, novel, not overly masculine way. And the visual vocabulary for cerebral party games is filled with cliches: brains, light bulbs, lightning bolts, etc.
The inset heads came out of wanting to explore the idea of a shared mental model, and putting them in opposition was just a really literal depiction of the two teams.
OS: Allowing for multiple turns for the trailing team if they can continue to score 4 points, can you talk about what inspired you to want to include the Catch-Up Rule?
AH: In a party game, you should always have a chance to come back, no matter how unlikely. That’s also why the game is short. If one team is running away with a game, let’s get it over with quickly, reshuffle the teams, and play again!
OS: How much playtesting went into determining the rules and suggestions for clue giving? What distinguished a rule from a suggestion in your mind?
AH: A lot! It took us a while to develop the clue giving rules, since in general people don’t naturally look for game breaking exploits in party games. So you really have to tease them out over lots of sessions and groups.
It’s understandable why a game like Codenames settled on “one word” as the restriction. But we couldn’t do the same with Wavelength, since it was about wild levels of creativity. And once you’ve set yourself down that path, you’re going to run into a lot of slippery, gray areas of language where you can never quite create a hard rule. And at some point you’re just going to know it when you see it, which for a party game is fine and maybe even desirable?
The only thing the clue giving rules should do in my opinion is to prevent people being able to hack the system and give overly specific clues. So the suggestions are mostly there to prevent that one friend who gives a clue like “An angry komodo dragon after being woken up.”
OS: Trying to be sensitive toward all gamers who might find themselves around a table, did you find yourself running into any problems designing this many binary option cards?
AH: Finding hundreds of concepts that exist on an interesting spectrum is really hard! Working on Monikers made us really good at creating and testing a huge corpus of cards, but these were definitely more challenging. If one word is off, all of a sudden it’s trivial to guess the exact quadrant of a clue.
The weirdest thing I did in the process by far was reading an entire thesaurus. But it ended up being super useful and led to at least a dozen additions! I think that was the origin of the near synonyms, like “Weird – Strange” which I love as a category.
OS: With such interactive parts and in an internationally sourcing market, how hard was it to ensure that a prototype could be replicated to your liking?
AH: Very, very hard. It took months of back and forth with our manufacturers to make sure the devices could be mass produced in a way that reflected our vision for the product experience. Fortunately, my friend Sarah Pavis is an incredible product engineer and helped create prototype after prototype, and was tireless in advocating for the best solution for scale. We also got lucky being introduced to Strom MFG, who is just the best for games involving plastics.