Laughter is the best medicine, they say. I mean, it’s no mRNA vaccine but it’ll do, y’know? And I have found over these past five hundred months of insanity that sometimes laughter is the only way to lift myself up when I’m feeling low. My favorite kind of humour tends to be character-driven. It’s a very satisfying feeling to anticipate how well-fleshed-out characters will deal with situations and conflicts. But I’m also a sucker for conceptual humour in the vein of Steven Wright or James Ancaster.
Humour in Tabletop–as in any cultural pursuit–doesn’t always arise from anything intentionally put there by its creators. As anyone who watches MST3K knows well. Lots of boardgames have been designed which offer up precisely zero laughs after (and sometimes during) the first play–especially since the rise of Cards Against Humanity. (And if you’re interested in learning its origin story you can click here to tune into the podcast I did about it.) The point of this article, though, is not games that are laughably bad–but here’s a pro-tip: if the game-box uses the words “funny”, “wacky”, or “zany” anywhere, chances are the game isn’t.
Tabletop games that make me laugh out loud generally arise organically when the people I’m playing with come into conflict–regardless of how “wacky” the game itself is. That means they’re heavy in negotiation and player interaction.
I’m The Boss is typical in this respect; when everyone’s got a mittful of cards the negotiations can become epic see-saws as people muscle their way into deals or are unceremoniously kicked out of them. Or both. So yes, tears of frustration may also ensue. I’ve also laughed out loud playing Neue Heimat (new version The Estates) for similar reasons–but only when playing with people who truly ‘get’ it. One time I taught it to four new players and it was played mainly in silence as some clearly did not understand how to bid and others checked out early on.
Skull and Cockroach Poker bring the funny by using bluffing and push-your-luck instead of negotiation. There is something satisfyingly humorous watching someone bluff their way to an impossible-seeming bid in Skull and then actually bring it off, or watch someone psych out someone into accepting a card you know they know is a cockroach.
I’ve definitely laughed my way through plays of The Resistance (click here to listen to its origin story). With the right group, hidden role games provide just the right environment for the emergent development of character-driven story arcs that make for hilarious confrontations. But, like I’m The Boss, it can also go sideways.
Toon and Paranoia were pioneering examples of TTRPG’s that wanted you to have serious fun, and I loved the rulebooks (which were also quite funny). There was also a Bullwinkle and Rocky RPG that came with a plastic hand-puppet; to my everlasting sorrow I traded it away and wish I hadn’t even though I never played it.
There really aren’t many games at all on the longer/heavier end of the spectrum that provide poop and giggles, and that’s not hard to understand really; meatier games require serious commitment to learning the rules, serious amounts of attention to play, and serious amounts of time.
Clank! In! Space! has great Easter Eggs and genre-referential shtick. I usually get a fair amount of yuks out of Twilight Struggle but I’m a history buff and I also enjoy doing the voices of all the historical characters. And Galaxy Trucker or Space Alert are a pair of Vlaada Chvatil designs whose humour arises from the impossible situations you find yourself in trying to keep alive in the cold, cold vacuum of space.
In the end, any game can provide fodder for laughter. Almost every gaming group has running jokes that bubble up randomly in any game. One group I belong to coined the term “Bump the Dunc” after playing through the Charterstone campaign. It just became a thing when someone placed one of their workers on a building that displaced one of Duncan’s. I’m sure you have examples, too. Share them in the comments below and we can turn them into an article!