Words by David C. Obenour
It’s not easy to be honest with ourselves. To really think about the things, ways, and reasons why we like certain things and dislike other certain things. Sometimes there are obvious reasons. Sometimes it’s tied to something from our past. But sometimes you just don’t know other than “nope, don’t like that.”
Even harder is sharing these feelings with each other. With those we live with. When you occupy the same space for most waking hours, politeness is shed pretty quickly. Open and honest communication doesn’t always fill that void either.
For Décorum, a team of – famously passive aggressive – Midwestern game designers came together to turn these conversations (and lack thereof) into maddening and insightful tabletop fun.
Off Shelf: Décorum is a fascinating concept for a game, can I ask how you first started thinking about it?
DD: We participated in the Global Game Jam in 2019, a weekend long game jam where teams make games based on a shared theme. The theme for the jam was “home”. We knew we wanted to make puzzles so we started with moving objects around a house. We reminisced about doing the rule based “Einstein grid” logic puzzles in school. We also thought it would be fun to do a play on being “passive-aggressive” since our home is Minnesota, which has a reputation for being passive aggressive. That’s where the limited communication came in. We originally set out to make a video game, so we’re as surprised as anyone to have created a board game that weekend.
OS: Communication is incredibly complex but you’ve distilled many things about how we do – and don’t – communicate into an easy to understand game. Were there elements of play in earlier versions that didn’t make it into the finished game?
DD: Honestly we didn’t change much from the original version. The layout of the home, the three object types, the four colors, and the four styles, even the title – all of these were in place that first game jam weekend, and haven’t changed since. We made a simple logic puzzle for the main mechanics, and the communication rules have only become more loose as we went. The first few times we played we tried only thumbs up and thumbs down, we tried one word answers only, we even thought about using emojis. But in the end we wanted the flavor of decorating with your partner to be stronger so we allowed for a little more choice in what you say.
OS: When you were designing the game was there anything you found yourself having to be careful about? Making sure that there wasn’t behavior that was being rewarded that goes against its spirit?
DD: We always wanted Décorum to be uplifting. It feels like you aren’t on the same side, but you are! And we want people to feel closer and satisfied when they win. Because of that we tried to limit how often people would completely lose a puzzle, or become so frustrated they quit. That’s why the Heart-to-Heart is so important. It helps with pacing and frustration, but it also is integral to the theme we’re going for.
OS: Can you talk more about the value of the Heart-to-Hearts and House Meetings – both as a mechanic and a reflection of real world communication breakthroughs?
DD: The Heart-to-Heart and House Meetings let players air grievances and finally tell the other player why they are frustrated. This breaks up the mid-game flow to redirect both the gameplay style and narrative, allowing players to shift their focus off their own requirements, and to each other’s needs. That release of pressure really makes you appreciate the clear communication. It reminds you you’re on the same side and makes you feel closer. It’s the heart of Décorum.
OS: Do you think there’s any value to passive aggressive communication? From a gaming sense, outright and open communication would make for quick resolution – but is it not so simple in reality?
DD: I think a lot of people don’t even realize they are being passive-aggressive, or that there’s another way to say what they need. If everyone had super clear communication all the time that would be great! But unfortunately not every situation has a logical solution like a Décorum puzzle.
OS: Did designing the game give you any new insights into how you communicate with others?
DD: I think it’s made us more aware of our communication styles for sure. Once you start seeing how a bunch of different people approach communicating the same information, you notice patterns, and you notice where you fall on that spectrum.
OS: Have you gotten any feedback from players about what they’ve learned from playing the game? Do any stories standout?
DD: We did! We’ve had multiple people tell us we should be putting this game in couples therapy offices. We even had someone reach out to us and say our game helped them realize they weren’t being clear with their partner about what their needs are, and how what they say could be misinterpreted.
OS: Has there been any interesting feedback that shows differences in how a player’s culture and background can inform how they communicate and approach conflict?
DD: Absolutely. All of your communication styles show up in gameplay. Power dynamics in couples. People playing with a friend vs a stranger. Players who will say, “Oh I can make that work,” even when it is completely against their requirements tend to be conflict averse in real life, same with players who will immediately undo their partners moves if it goes against their requirements before trying to make it fit first. You can learn a lot about someone’s communication style by watching them play.
OS: There are two primary ways to play Décorum, as a 2-player campaign game or as a 3-4 player stand alone game. Were they designed congruently or did one spawn out of the other? What do you like about both ways?
DD: We designed the 2 player game first and sold it to our publisher in that form. But as we were finishing our puzzles we just had so many requests from playtesters for 3 and 4 players that we had to add it. Décorum has never been a game about solely romantic partnerships, so it made sense to add roommates to the game for 3-4 players. The 2 player was always our vision, but the added fun of players teaming up and being each other’s confidants, or everyone being mad at the same person has been so great to play with.
OS: If you were to make an expansion to Décorum, what else would you like to explore with the game?
DD: We can’t say much right now, but you’ll know the answer to this question soon!