Words by David C. Obenour
It’s why we play. At the bottom of every game. Whether you’re playing to win, playing to experience a world of fantasy or medieval farming, or playing as an excuse to sit around a table with a handful of friends. We play games to have fun.
For Sparks, it’s quite literally at the bottom of the game. After you’ve taken out all of the cards there’s a simple message on the bottom of the box. A reminder for you to “have fun!” There’s more to it than that though.
Inspired by late night conversations under the stars, Sparks is a game that divides thoughtful questions into decks that explore each player’s past, present, and future before bringing it back together for a final sharing and constellation. Be present, be patient, be kind, and be ready to experience a conversation where everyone is the winner from having had it.
Off Shelf: What is it about late nights and looking up at the sky that makes for moments of deeper connection?
George Li: I think it’s two fold. One, I think when it’s late at night there are no distractions and people tend to be completely present in the moment. And then there’s something about looking up at the night sky that fills people with wonder and gets people to let their guards down.
OS: What about gaming and play inspires connection?
GL: It’s so much easier to connect with the people around you when you play games but you’re creating a shared experience together.
OS: What did you find as the challenges in developing a game that seeks to produce genuine moments of deep connection?
GL: The biggest challenge was trying to come up with interesting and thought provoking questions that didn’t feel too invasive or too personal. We wanted Sparks to be a game that people would feel comfortable playing with both strangers and people they knew really well.
OS: Thinking so deeply about it, what would you say makes for a good question?
GL: I think the best questions are the ones that are unexpected and force us to think. I think the best conversation questions are the ones you don’t answer in your day-to-day so you’re less likely to give a “canned” response.
OS: Out of all the questions you came up with Sparks and playtested over and over, do you have any that stand out as favorites?
GL: I really like share something about the “true you” that only your close friends know. I think it’s a great question because people can take it a lot of different directions depending on their comfort level and the vibe of the session. Some people choose to share an unexpected fun fact while other people choose to get deeper and share a deeper personality trait.
OS: I loved the note to “Be Patient.” in the rulebook. Could you talk more about how players can comfortably allow for space and silence while being supportive of each other?
GL: We spent a lot of time thinking about some guidelines that we wanted to put in the game to promote an inclusive and safe environment when playing the game. We found Be Patient is really important because our natural inclination when someone speaks is to start thinking about what we want to say and jump in. But oftentimes we end up cutting someone else from fully sharing their thoughts – especially since different people require different lengths of time to fully express themselves. So we found that not only when playing Sparks, but oftentimes in life, we need to consciously hold back what we want to say to make sure that the other person has said everything they wanted to say first.
OS: Generally, how do you view competition? Why did you decide not to include one for Sparks? Had you ever included one in playtesting?
GL: We explored a couple routes of the game with competition but we found that as soon as we added a concept of “winning” or “losing,” that became the objective rather than actual experience of the game. We like competitive games but for the experience we were going with Sparks, it didn’t feel as appropriate.
OS: Uncommon even with most modern games, what have you found players’ reactions to this to be?
GL: I think the number one reaction we get is that players will tell us they learned something about the people they are playing with that they would have never learned otherwise. Even among people who have known each other for a very long time, people still tell us they learned something new about their fellow players.
OS: Able to accommodate 2-8 players, have you found an ideal number for playing Sparks? What are the considerations for larger or smaller games?
GL: We definitely think there is something magical about playing with 2 people – especially couples – because Sparks broaches topics that you likely won’t discuss in your day-to-day. And then for groups, we feel like 4-6 is a really good number because people tend to bounce answers off each other.
OS: From the words on the box, to the “a note from us…” card on top of all the components, to how the rulebook was written, to the “have fun!” note written on the bottom of the box, there’s a lot of intentionality in how you’ve presented Sparks. I wondered if you could talk more about that?
GL: Of course! Rabble is all about helping people embrace more play in our lives. As a result we try to include moments of surprise & delight in all of our games to help reinforce that message
OS: All of the Rabble games have a beautiful and recognizable look to them. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your design, and also the decision to go with shades of purple and not black or blue?
GL: Thank you! We put a lot of thought in our designs because we want people to be proud to display our games on a bookshelf or a coffee table. For Sparks we wanted to give the game a mystical/slightly tarot vibe so we explored a few different color options in the purple/blue/black realm. We ended up loving the purple because we didn’t want the game to feel too dark or inapproachable.
OS: You encourage people to share how their night went, do you have any favorite moments, surprises, or common threads that you’ve heard back on?
GL: My favorite story is I had one person tell me that they didn’t have the best relationship with their sister, but by playing Sparks during Thanksgiving, they were able to understand each other in a much deeper way. That story meant a lot to me because it’s exactly for those moments that we were inspired to create Sparks.