|Wits & Wagers Family (2010)
|Meeple Like Us
I have a kind of seething resentment for the enduring affection people have for of trivia in popular culture. The popularity of trivia games and game shows seems like a constant rejection of the true importance of knowledge. It’s a focus on the inconsequential and memetic rather than on anything as gauche or sordid as genuine understanding. I’m an old curmudgeon and as such I spend a lot of my time railing against the evils of modern society. Mostly it’s tongue in check but not so with trivia. I think our cultural fetish of trivia is genuinely wicked because it makes us all seem smarter while encouraging us to become dumber. It’s all surface, no substance. We know many more things, but we can situate very few of them within genuine meaning. Information becomes knowledge only through praxis – without application and context you have little more than an assemblage of data. Cats are mammals. Fish are delicious. Humanity is obsolete and soon to be destroyed by the AI that has been birthed our own unconscionable arrogance.
Hello everyone. Today’s review is about Wits and Wagers – Family Edition. I’m saying that up front because otherwise the first half of this entire thing is just a repeat of the story ‘old man yells at cloud‘.
You can imagine then how I feel about games like Trivial Pursuits where the name alone is a damning indictment of the activity. Games that reward players for their broad command of truly useless nuggets of pointless facts. People feed their brains with ephemera for the rare circumstance that someone asks them a question for which they are uniquely prepared. When do they get asked for the data? 95% of the time it’s as part of a trivia question. By their very nature trivia questions need to be boring, because the deeper inquiries into meaning don’t fit well into a question card.
In the case of those with genuine deep understanding of a topic, trivia can occasionally be frustrating. Experts often know more than the question setter and as a consequence each question becomes a riddle. Do those asking want the right answer, or the answer that someone that doesn’t know much about the topic might think is the right answer? When they ask how many megabytes would fit into a ten-gigabyte hard-drive do they mean megabytes as defined by hard-drive manufacturers (1,000,000 bytes) or how they’re defined by much of the rest of the computing world (1,048,576 byes)? The entire process can be shown to be farcical merely through the act of requesting important context. It becomes obvious that the only relationship the asker has to the question is as a medium through which it passes. It’s clear no genuine knowledge is being requested when the questioner is asked to clarify the meaning of the inquiry.
Sometimes too there’s a temporal aspect. ‘What is the world record for attaching clothes pegs to a face?’
‘I don’t know – from when are you drawing your figures? The record changed a couple of weeks ago – are you confident in the time-frame of the answer?’
Sometimes genuine knowledge is a terrible barrier to trivia effectiveness.
As a result, trivia games tend to be as interesting as their source material permits them to be – which is to say, ‘not very’. The fundamental flaw in a trivia game is that if you don’t know the answer to whatever tedious irrelevance is slung your way, there’s nowhere to go. You can’t really get better at a trivia game. You can just fill your head full of random nonsense in the hope that you increase the chances of juxtaposition. You want to dial up the odds of the question on the card matching an answer in your head. To become good at trivia games means to become good at trivia – it’s an act of study with none of the real lasting benefits that learning should bring. Even ‘high end’ trivia shows like Mastermind or University Challenge expect nothing more than the dull recitation of dead facts linked to a specialist subject area. They act as if the facts were what made a topic actually interesting, rather than the context in which those facts are situated.
Trivia games, for all their pomp, glamour and circumstances, are funerals for knowledge.
What if though a game approached this in a slightly different way?
If there’s a television quiz show with which I can make some measure of peace it’s perhaps ITV’s Pointless. There, contestants are asked to give the most obscure answers to questions. An unnamed and suspiciously dense audience is polled at some point in the past before the question is asked. Contestants then grapple with the intersection of question, expectation, and rightful cynicism at the wisdom of crowds.
‘Name an A-Side Beatles Single’, the host might demand.
‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, someone might respond to find 88 people also named the same obvious song.
‘Rain’, replies another – counting on both the obscurity of the song and the fact it was one of the double A-side singles released by the Beatles – not the first thing that would often come to mind. 22 people in the polled audience came up with that answer, so the second player wins the point.
This is more interesting to me because it’s not really a question about trivia, but rather a kind of psychological treatise on trivia itself. You get points not for knowing an answer. Not really. You get them for dredging a suitably unusual answer from the depths of your mind and then comparing it against its obscurity within the context of an unknown surveyed audience. It’s metaphysical. It’s epistemological. It’s interesting, and it’s interesting because fundamentally it’s more about people than it is about facts.
I promise you, this is all important to setting the context of this review.
Wits and Wagers does something similar. It moves away from being a game that is purely about giving answers and becomes one that is more about gambling on which of your friends is most likely to have access to the correct answer. Every player in a round of Wits and Wagers can earn four points from a question. Only one is available for answering a question correctly. The rest come from the wagers everyone makes.
The questions within Wits and Wagers are unfortunately pretty USA-centric, at least in the edition I have, but it doesn’t really matter. As I say, this isn’t a game about knowing things. It’s a game about knowing what your friends know. Let’s say the question is ‘In seconds, what is the world record for solving the Rubik’s cube?’
The interesting thing here is that Wits and Wagers isn’t looking for a right answer – it’s looking for the closest without going over, Price is Right style. You can do a kind of loose deduction and base your answer on that. Maybe you’ve seen Youtube videos of talented savants flicking their wrist and solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle. At least it gives you a date to which you can anchor your answer – 2012. You’re sure you’ve seen someone doing it in under five seconds – it was a viral video on your Facebook wall at one point. But was that a world record attempt? Surely there’s some kind of standardisation there that wouldn’t be present in a random video? Who knows. You guess 12 seconds. Everyone else makes equivalent guesses.
The next part of the game is taking your big meeple and little meeple and placing them on the sorted and arranged answers. You’ll get two points if your big meeple is on the winning answer, and one for your little meeple. You can put them on your own card if you feel confident, both on someone else’s card, or split them between the answers. Here you’re trying to work out which of you knows better than the others. Someone, somewhere probably knows the actual answer to the question but are any of them in the room with you? Which of your friends is most likely to be able to give a realistic answer to the question. If it’s you, how confident are you in your own answer?
It turns out in 2012 the record was 5.66 seconds so green wins with the guess of four. Black gets two points for going big, and you get only one. You shouldn’t have bet so heavily on yourself when you knew full well you were a disassembling shuckster with nothing but an overly confident guess to your name.
Wits and Wagers continues in this vein until someone fills up the score board. It’s really a very straightforward game.
Is it fun though? Well, sort of.
Wits and Wagers skirts a lot of the common problems with trivia games. It gives you room to guesstimate. The questions are so finnicky and precise that it’s relatively unlikely that anyone will have the right answer but everyone can come up with a supportable answer. You’re never left saying ‘I don’t know’, but often the replacement is a gesticulating uncertainty that never resolves into confidence. That’s good, because it means everyone is uncertain when it comes time to make the bets. It’s also bad, because it means everyone is uncertain when it comes time to make the bets. Often there is no link between competence and scoring well.
Here, it’s not really useful to be a trivia buff because even with the frivolous specificity of your average nugget of trivia there is a obscurity here that often doesn’t ground itself in a bedrock of knowledge. Similarly when it comes to judging your friends – it’s not as simple as ‘Which knows the most about sport’, but rather, ‘Which is best at estimating this answer based on the fundamental assumption necessary within this context’. You might have a friend that can tell you who won the world cup in 1954 but they might not be the one most likely to estimate how many conventional refrigerator units would fit onto a football pitch.
As an example of where this can often break down let’s say the question is ‘In hours and minutes, how long did Neil Armstrong walk on the moon’
You might be a real Apollo 11 buff and know this one. It’s certainly possible. If you’re not though… how do you even contextualise the length of an EVA on the moon? It’s so outside the common experience that you often don’t have the necessary fundamentals to even put a proper net around the answer. I mean, he played golf and planted a flag so it must have been at least… ten minutes? But he was there for a while and maybe there was more than one expedition? How much oxygen does a suit carry? How much oxygen does the landing module have? How many EVAs would you normally expect? And what were they hoping to accomplish on the journey? You wouldn’t go to the moon and only spend an hour there, surely? It’s the moon it’s not Milton Keynes. You’d want to get your money’s worth, right? So maybe you guess… six and a half hours.
Does that strike you as a reasonable guess?
Yeah, I have no idea either.
The good news there at least is that you don’t need to know any answer to win – you just bet on the player you think is most likely to know the answer. When you consider in the context of the kind of questions you get asked ‘most likely’ is a guess in and of itself. But that’s where the fun comes from, right?
The fun in a trivia game isn’t in guessing which of your friends is smarter – it’s in having a good, honest stab at coming up with the right answer. People rarely watch a trivia show on television without yelling out the answers they know. Trivia is just not a great spectator sport. All the action happens inside the human head, and the only head to which you (presumably) have access is your own. You might well win Wits and Wagers with betting savvy by itself but I’m not sure you’d feel as if you ever earned it or that you’d had a passable amount of enjoyment.
That said though, the questions are mostly fun for a family and the deduction process ensures that everyone is at least in with a chance of coming up with a good answer. There’s a highly variable quality in these though, with some questions offering open ended guessing and others bunching all the sensible estimates together. The bidding process, arguably the most interesting thing in the whole game, is pretty tame and doesn’t really offer players a lot to dig their teeth into. It would have been nice to see it explore a more Dixit style system where convincing guesses could earn points on the basis of who bids on them. That said, we’re reviewing the family version here and it’s entirely possible that the full-fat version does more with the mechanisms.
Wits and Wagers doesn’t change my view fundamentally on trivia games – I am still not a fan. However, it does show that there are approaches you can take that permit knowledge more of a role in the process than mere factual accuracy. That said, if you’re hankering for a good trivia game why not try real life? If you don’t find a role for the data with which you have stuffed your head, it’s a good hint that maybe it wasn’t much worth accumulating in the first place.
He spent two hours and 32 minutes walking on the moon, BTW.