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July 30, 2009
In The Village
Seeking answers? Try game
by Orson Scott Card

When I was a kid, my parents got the idea of bribing us to read the scriptures.

No, wait, it wasn't a bribe, it was an "award." Five dollars for each work of scripture, except the Old Testament, which was worth ten.

And remember, this was in the early 1960s, when five bucks could buy, say, fifteen gallons of gasoline. (Not that I could drive, mind you.)

Here's how they tested us to make sure that we had really read and understood the scriptures: They had us answer all the questions in the game Seek.

Long before Trivial Pursuit, Seek was a sort of "Mormon Trivia" self-testing game. There's a set of question cards for Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and doctrine and organization. (Notice, the last one is not Doctrine and Covenants.)

Half the cards in each set are worth five points for the question on one side, ten points on the other; the other half of the cards are fifteen and twenty-five points.

In a good trivia game, the questions should be written in such a way as to make the answer guessable if you know something about the topic.

Instead of a question like, "How many performances did the musical Cats have in its initial Broadway run?" which requires you to guess an exact number that few normal people would have in memory, the question should be, "What musical based on poems by T.S. Eliot ran for 7,485 performances on Broadway?"

Why is that a good question? Because if you know anything about Broadway musicals, you've probably heard of Cats, and while you probably didn't know the exact number of performances, you might know it ran a long time. You have a decent chance of guessing the answer.

Not only that, but even if you get it wrong, you might not have known Cats was based on poems by T.S. Eliot. So the question is entertaining and informative in itself, whether you get it right or wrong.

There's an art to writing good trivia questions, with dozens of ways to ask good questions, and hundreds of ways to ask bad ones.

Trivial Pursuit does this superbly; most of its imitators do it very badly. (Only the questions on Jeopardy are in Trivial Pursuit's league.)

Seek, which was first published long before Trivial Pursuit, had pretty good questions most of the time.

But I shouldn't say "had," but "has." I was recently in Deseret Book and saw a copy of Seek for sale. For old times' sake, I bought it, and we tried it out when we had some friends over the other night.

Having good questions isn't enough to make a great game, however. We teamed up, one adult with one kid (our group happened to come out even that way), and it was obvious that the five-point questions were within the reach of pre-seminary kids, the ten- and fifteen-pointers were fine for teenagers, and only lifers like the adults in our group could readily handle the twenty-five pointers.

So when the results will always be about your age and experience in the Church, is it a game? We decided we'd rather use the Seek questions as a springboard for discussion rather than a game that somebody actually cares about winning.

I wish Deseret Book would reinvent Seek. I know that others have tried to create Mormon trivia games, but they invariably depended on bad questions, as just defined, and so they weren't fun to play. Seek is already better than Trivial Pursuit in one way: It is already ability grouped.

So now imagine Seek played on a Trivial Pursuit board. Take the existing categories, and add two more: Mormon History and Mormon Culture. Younger players would answer the five-point questions, teens and new converts the ten- and fifteen-pointers, and adults the hard ones. Only now there wouldn't be any points -- you just get your wedge/cheese/doober (the name varies) and put it in the wheel. So children would be competitive with adults.

A variation among hard and easy questions is something that Trivial Pursuit only recently introduced in its most recent version, the 25th Anniversary Edition. While we ignore the tedious "extras" that involve moving a second set of pieces around the outside edge of the board, the existence of a range of question difficulty immediately made the game playable by younger kids who don't actually remember all the stuff the adults actually lived through. It is now, at last, a family game.

After many years of buying and trying Mormon games, I'd grown discouraged. Most were very bad, and only a few showed any understanding of good game design. It was kind of ridiculous that the only Mormon game that was truly memorable and had spread throughout the Church -- Seek -- was published in 1958 (created by Elizabeth Schoenfeld and J. Stanley, according to BoardGameGeek.com).

Most Mormon games depend on in-jokes -- and, as with most Mormon movies, once you've gotten the in-jokes, there's nothing much else. Great games have action that is enjoyable in the abstract, regardless of the content.

For instance, the board-game portion of Trivial Pursuit is a variation on Parcheesi. It is playable even if you have no trivia questions. Likewise, Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne have elaborate "stories," but the first is a trading game and the second is a territorial game; you could name the cards and pieces anything and still have an enjoyable game.

The territorial game Monopoly has long proven that it doesn't matter what you buy and sell -- name the squares anything, and the game still works.

But most Mormon games, if you remove the Mormon references, are not very fun.

It's like most Mormons who set out to write a novel. "Mine will be good because it's clean," the writer thinks, or "Mine will be good because it's Mormon." They don't grasp that the story has to be fascinating or it doesn't matter how clean or how Mormon it is -- no one will want to read it.

So you can imagine how happy I was to discover that there is now a Mormon trivia game that is actually fun to play.

When I was picking up Seek, I noticed a game -- also published by Deseret Book -- called Blast from the Past, a game about LDS Church history.

(It was published in 2008, and as far as I know has nothing to do with the University Games game of the same title published in 2004.)

The concept is similar to that of Chronology (first published in 1996). Each card has a date and a description of the event that happened on that date. The players try to arrange their cards in chronological order in front of them, until someone gets ten cards in order and wins the game.

Gameplay consists of one player drawing a card and reading out the event description. The player on the left gets the first chance to guess where the event would occur in his timeline. If he's wrong, the next player gets to make a guess, and if nobody guesses right about where the event comes in their array of cards, the reader gets to add the card to his timeline. Then the next player draws and card and reads it.

This game is almost as tough for experienced Church members as for kids and new converts, partly because some of the events are really obscure (though they're still usually guessable), and partly because it's hard to keep an accurate chronology even of events in our own lives.

How often have you looked back into an old journal and been shocked to realize that two events that seemed widely separated in your memory actually happened on the same day?

Yes, it's easier to play the game if you have a fairly clear idea of the chronology of Church history -- but do you really know when the massive Salt Lake Stake was divided for the first time? I didn't think so. The answer sure surprised me!

While Seek, in its present form, is better for triggering discussions than for playing a competitive game, Blast from the Past is a Mormon game that can be played again and again. It's fun because of what you learn and how amusing some of the cards are, and also because any player might win.

There are some extra cards that introduce further randomization -- stealing cards, giving some away, that sort of thing. We found this aspect of the game boring and we removed those cards from the deck, playing the game in its simplest form.

With both Seek and Blast From the Past, there are cards that raise more questions than they answer. For instance, in Seek, there's a true-false question about whether Lehi's party crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific to reach the Promised Land.

Now, I absolutely believe that the internal evidence in the Book of Mormon, combined with a knowledge of geography at the time of Lehi's journey, makes it probable to the point of near-certainty that it was the Pacific coast of America that they landed on.

However, it is still conceivable that after journeying through Arabia, the ship they built at Bountiful sailed down the African coast, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and then crossed the Atlantic.

What matters for the purposes of the game of Seek is that the answer to the question is not in the Book of Mormon. As far as I'm concerned, that means it should not have been in the game, at least not as a true-false question.

Likewise, Blast from the Past has some iffy questions.

For instance, with the date 17 November 1964, we get this event: "The Oakland California Temple was dedicated, bringing the number of temples in California to three. It is the only LDS temple with five spires."

This is all very interesting, especially when you try to figure out what the two previous California temples were. Los Angeles is easy. But what was the other?

Of course there was no other. Oakland was the second California temple, as those of us who lived in the Bay Area at the time it was built well remember. The card is simply in error, and I'm quite surprised that this error was not caught by the game's editor.

Another card is questionable for a different reason. On 23 November 1843, we have this entry: "On this day, Mrs. Cartwright drowned during her baptism. Weeks earlier, she was so furious at her husband's baptism, she said, 'I hope to God, if ever I am such a fool, that I'll be drowned in the attempt!'"

Cynically amusing as this card might be, I simply don't believe it. Or, let's put it this way, I don't believe that God works this way.

If Mrs. Cartwright actually said what she's reputed to have said, and then drowned during her baptism, I still think it's deplorable to have a card that implies that God would actually punish a woman who was accepting baptism by causing her to drown because of a foolish remark she had made weeks earlier, and for which she had obviously repented!

But I'm skeptical about the anecdote in the first place. I'm betting nobody wrote down what she said until after she drowned, and that her remark grew more accurately predictive with each retelling until it was written.

Frankly, I don't know that she even drowned. She was baptized on the 23rd of November. Outdoor water is co-o-o-old at that time of year. I suspect the shock of the cold water might have stopped her heart, especially if she was already stressed because of a remark she had made a few weeks earlier. There is no likelihood that anyone present on the occasion would be able to distinguish between drowning and a heart attack.

In any event, the card is in such extremely bad taste, with its implication about an unforgiving God, that I'm quite surprised it made it through the Deseret Book editorial process.

But let's keep these errors in perspective. It regularly happens that I find mistakes on Trivial Pursuit cards. I was a professional editor and proofreader for years, and I know that no matter how careful you are, some error is going to get through.

(There is no group of people humbler -- by necessity -- than copy editors and proofreaders, and the better they are, the humbler they get.)

As long as you don't get confused and think that these trivia cards must be true because the Church published the games, such errors do no harm. And since Seek is useful and Blast from the Past is actually a lot of fun, I'd hate to have imperfections like these discourage someone from buying and using these games.


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