Interview with Richard Garfield and Ken Jennings for Half Truth

It isn’t every day you get a chance to interview the creator of one of your favorite pastimes, or the ultimate champion of trivia. That’s why I jumped at the invitation from Studio71 to interview the likes of Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: the Gathering and many other games) and Ken Jennings (the 74-time winner of Jeopardy!).

These two geniuses are working together with Studio71 on a brand new trivia game called Half Truth,  a trivia board game currently looking for funding on Kickstarter. The project reached its goal in a matter of hours and has since blasted past it, but the campaign is still ongoing. No, it isn’t a video game, but this isn’t the first time I’ve covered something a little different on TVGB.

I took this awesome opportunity to ask the game’s masterminds about the game itself, how they came to work together, and what we might see from them in the future.

TVGB: Were you familiar with each other’s work before you started on this project together?

Richard Garfield: I only knew about Ken from his Jeopardy accomplishments until, about 10 years ago, I read his book Braniac. This opened my eyes to what the joys of trivia were, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I immediately wanted to make a game that highlighted the qualities he talked about. I tinkered with some designs for a while then a couple years later got in contact with him to see if he wanted to be a partner in the game.

Ken Jennings: I had a brother who was a Magic: The Gathering obsessive, and it was an iconic part of my generation’s geek culture.  I remember being very proud, as a Seattle native, that Wizards of the Coast was local.

TVGB: How did the two of you end up working together?

RG: He said ‘yes’.

KJ: Richard’s first email to me was one of the biggest highlights of my post-Jeopardy! life.  Not only did he say he liked my book, he said it had helped inspire a new game idea…and he wondered if I would collaborate with him on it!  Having Richard Garfield tell you he wants you to help him with a game is a real high. It’s like Nick Fury recruiting you for the Avengers.

TVGB: What sort of experience can players expect in Half Truth?

RG: Half Truth is designed to be a trivia game which is inviting and accessible. Each question has 6 answers, 3 true and 3 false. Players are tasked principally with finding a single correct answer. Because of this structure, players will have a good chance (at least 50%) of getting some credit for the question – but one’s chances can be improved a lot by eliminating answers that are wrong. Player’s are also able to press their luck when they are pretty sure they know a second or third answer – or feel like they need to catch up. The rewards for going ‘all-in’ like this can make the difference; but it is risky because one incorrect answer and you get nothing for the question.

KJ: I think we’ve all played trivia games that were frustrating because they just remind you of how many things you DON’T know. Half Truth is that rare trivia game that actually makes you feel smart.

TVGB: What aspect of Half Truth have you been most excited to reveal?

RG: The more we worked with this form of question, the more interesting we found we could make them. I am excited to share these questions with players – I think there will be a lot of amusement, deduction, and surprise as the game is played. One question that illustrated that for me was one my wife, Koni, came up with. Her question was “Which of these are real mushrooms?”. Looking at the list I was pretty sure of Destroying Angel, but the rest I was cautious of – several looked familiar but I wasn’t sure they were mushrooms. After the answers were revealed I found that all the false answers were Magic cards, so for example, while Destroying Angel was correct, there was also Blinding Angel – which was a card from Magic. This was exciting – because it gave players an extra ‘way into’ the question even if they knew nothing about mushrooms!

KJ: To me, the trivia questions are the heart of the game, and I love that the game plays really well (and is fun!) whether you know the answer right off or just want to take a guess. I just want to go around the country and sneak into people’s homes while they play the questions. I’d be like, “Did you like that one? I wrote that one. Did you like it?”

TVGB: What might the future hold for each of you? Do you think you’ll work together again at some point?

RG: We will continue to work on Half Truth, as needed. Ken has been terrific to work with, he is hard working, smart, and funny, He is also interested in almost everything – so I wouldn’t be surprised if the future held a project that put us together again.

KJ: My book about comedy, Planet Funny, just came out in paperback, and I do the Omnibus podcast twice a week. But thanks to Half Truth and getting to know Richard, I’m now plugged into the gaming world much more closely now. We’re already talking about expansion sets for Half Truth, and probably an app version. My kids don’t think anything I do is that cool, but I bet I could get them to play Half Truth if it was on their phones.

TVGB: For Mr. Jennings, is this your first foray into game design? If so, what has surprised you most about the project?

KJ: Game design is NOT my field, so I’m endlessly impressed by how seriously Richard takes every detail. I had never really thought about how demanding every design choice is, since games have to work as a competition and as a social event AND as a beautiful physical object. How heavy should the chips be? Do they stack or not? If you toss them in, could it jar the board? Do we need felt? You wouldn’t believe how much thought goes into details like this in really good games.

TVGB: For Dr. Garfield, you are of course best known for creating Magic: the Gathering. How has that experience affected your design style for a different sort of game like Half Truth?

RG: I am interested in all games – in fact – I co-wrote a book Characteristics of Games, which deals with games in general. Each game form brings its own challenges, and I find fascinating to explore. With Half Truth one of the challenges was to make the game support my goals of making the competition feel inviting to a broad range of players, and yet make it not steal the spotlight from what is most important – the trivia itself.

TVGB: Is there anything else about yourselves or about Half Truth that you would like our readers to know? 

RG: One of the reasons we are working with Studio 71 and doing this through kickstarter is that we believe the community around this sort of game can help make the game even better. We are hoping that in the month the campaign is up we will get a lot of suggestions as to what sort of questions people would like to see in the future. We have worked hard to make the questions as broad as possible for breadth there is no substitute for lots of voices.

KJ: Richard and I both choose yellow tokens when we play board games, it turns out, so it’s always a scramble for yellow when we go head to head. Please choose yellow when you play Half Truth with your friends, we think it will bring you luck. Tell ’em Ken sent you.

Half Truth is still up on Kickstarter for those interested in backing the project.