Trial by Wood

Let’s take a moment and examine Jenga.

The Tower serves two major purposes in the game that are only tangentially related to determining who succeeds, who fails, and who is removed from the game.

The first is as a physical representation of the tension and pacing in the game. The Tower sits in the middle of table (or to a reachable side) and looms over the players. It is an ever-present reminder of the impending doom. Both it’s height and instability are clearly visible at all times. And this is even more evident through the sense of touch. The tactile nature of the tower engages the player on a more visceral level.

The second is to use this physical embodiment of tension and work with the player’s fear. For this to happen, the player needs to be invested in their character (something the questionnaire should help in). But if they are invested, each time they reach for that Tower and it twists or shakes, they will feel it like a shock.

Occasionally I’ll be asked about the manual dexterity involved in the game. Do I ever get someone so good at Jenga, it wasn’t fun? Or do people complain because they haven’t the coordination to keep up?

It has been my experience that Dread and skill in Jenga have very little to do with each other. The aforementioned qualities of the tower overwhelm most confidence people have in their skills. It effectively levels the playing field.

Now, of course, this isn’t universally true. Several people have conditions that may make playing Jenga difficult. When this occurred during the games we hosted at conventions, we would offered to let one of the other players act as a surrogate block puller. The tension was still there, just without the tactile icing on the cake. But if it was at all possible for them to pull for themselves, we encouraged them to do so, and no one complained.
When a player isn’t invested in their character, when they are playing Dread just to show off their Jenga skills, that’s when there is a problem. How you approach this is going to be different for everyone. For some, they just need to reminded that they aren’t playing Jenga, and their character’s inflated bravado is breaking the mood. For others, this might only make matters worse.

Fortunately, in all the games I’ve hosted, I’ve only encountered this in one player. It was a convention game, so I did not get a chance to correct the problem. I suspect it is something of a rarity, and in the end, enough bravado will get you a fallen tower.


4 thoughts on “Trial by Wood

  1. Every Jenga tower eventually reaches a point when there are no easy pulls left, and eventually even the best Jenga player will have to make some hard pulls. I wonder if it would work especially well for players with especially good Jenga skills to play confident, proficient characters? That way, their willingness to take more risks matches up with the character’s bravado. And when the going gets tough and even the brave character is afraid to take a risk, it makes it even more dramatic.

  2. Even the best Jenga player knows that his pull will negatively effect the group and therefore would feel the tension of “killing” his fellows.

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