Designing Fun Physical Games for All Ages

When designing Spaghetti Standoff, winner of Come Out & Play 2013’s Best Family Game Award, it was important to create a game that could be played and enjoyed by both kids and adults. Here are a few things to consider when designing physical games that are fun for all ages:

Clear Goals and Rules

It’s tempting to adapt a board game or video game experience to a physical game, but in most cases a game played sitting down at a table is going to be much more complicated than a game played in a field, especially if it’s being learned and played by strangers at a game festival like Come Out & Play or IndieCade.

Physical games should have a goal that you can summarize in one sentence. For Spaghetti Standoff, a game that begins with all the players standing in a circle holding on to a piece of spaghetti in each hand, that goal is “Break all the spaghetti except the spaghetti you’re holding!” There are naturally some additional rules – like “no kicking”, and “don’t let go of your spaghetti” – but the overall win condition is easy to remember.

Using a common object that most people are familiar with, like an uncooked piece of spaghetti, is another way to make the game more accessible to kids. Creating game-specific tools, like a customized goalpost or unique object, adds to the explanation necessary to understand the game. It’s like the difference between using a round ball, which rolls and bounces predictably, and a football, which players must learn how to throw separately from how they learned to throw “normal” balls. Kids already know that dry spaghetti is brittle and easily broken, and that knowledge is used as the basis of Spaghetti Standoff.

Consider Contact Carefully

Physical contact, whether by accident or by design, can be common in field games and sports, but things like duration and location can turn a game from fun to uncomfortable very quickly.

Consider two games that both last five minutes and both involve players touching hands with other players: Game A uses a high five as a game element, while Game B requires players to stand in a circle holding hands for the duration of the game. Most people would feel comfortable performing a high five with a stranger regardless of age, gender, or relationship. But holding hands with strangers for five minutes would feel like an eternity, and will easily be uncomfortable for most people who aren’t family members or close friends. Spaghetti Standoff games often involve physical contact, but it’s usually limited to awkwardly bumping shoulders rather than hitting or long periods of touching.

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Spaghetti Standoff also begins with players standing in a circle joined together, but instead of holding hands, players are holding the end of a piece of spaghetti in each hand, while neighboring players are holding the other ends. That piece of spaghetti is the delicate link that joins players together instantly, forming a physical bond and alliance over their common goal: protect that spaghetti!

Kids naturally gravitate towards physical solutions to problems. While watching people play Spaghetti Standoff, adults often strategize by trying to avoid confrontations with other pairs, while kids play aggressively right from the start (that’s where the “no kicking” rule was quickly born). Winning a round of Spaghetti Standoff requires a mix of the two strategies, which may be why many winning pairs contain both an adult and a child!

Timing is Everything

I’ve been in the position of trying to recruit exactly 20 strangers to play an unknown field game that lasted close to 60 minutes, including 10 minutes of instructions and set-up time. Even at a popular field games festival like Come Out & Play with a receptive audience, this was a huge challenge.

Compare that to Spaghetti Standoff, a game that can be learned in less than a minute, can be played with as few as five players and up to any number the space will allow, and has rounds that usually last less than two minutes. I had a much easier time teaching this game to both kids and adults, and people were much more willing to play if they could easily spectate an entire game from start to finish. This made it a huge hit with families, where parents would otherwise be skeptical of the content or duration of a game without witnessing it first.

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Spaghetti Standoff Rules

All you need to play Spaghetti Standoff is a box of regular, uncooked, dry spaghetti. I strongly recommend playing the game outside, but if you’re playing inside, it must be on a hard surface, since you can expect a lot of broken spaghetti on the ground.

 The rules:

The game can be played by as few as 5 people, but it gets better as it gets bigger. Rounds last only a minute or two.

Everyone starts the game by standing in a circle, facing the center. Everyone is joined together by holding a piece of spaghetti in each hand, held at the end. This means that you will be holding the right end of a spaghetti in your left hand and the left end of a spaghetti in your right hand, while your neighbors are holding the other ends of each.

The goal of the game is to be holding the last piece of unbroken spaghetti. This means there will be 2 winners!

You start off with 2 unbroken pieces (since you are holding two pieces of spaghetti, one in each hand).  If one of your pieces breaks or you (or your partner) accidently let go of it for more than a second, it is considered broken, and you must put the hand that was holding it behind your back. You can’t use your hands or legs to break other player’s spaghetti. It’s useful to emphasize “no kicking!”, especially with kids playing.  You can only use your body, shoulders or head if you’re feeling adventurous. If both pieces break, you are out of the game.

Most games are over in less than a minute. In cases where there is a “standoff” between two pairs for more than a few minutes, if there are a lot of people gathering to play the next round you can enact a “sudden death” rule by starting a new game that encircles the two remaining pairs, giving them less room to maneuver and hastening the end to their round.

For most new players, nobody will quite understand what to do for the first few seconds – this is my favorite part – then once a few pieces break everyone is able to be more mobile and it gets very chaotic.

Major points to hit during the rules explanation:

-Goal is to break all the spaghetti except the ones you are holding

-You cannot use your legs or hands to break spaghetti

-If your piece breaks or you let go of it for more than a second, take that hand and put it behind your back for the rest of the game

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