Anatomy of a Game: The Mole
by Shannon Appelcline
Following the debut of Survivor in the summer of 2000, any number of reality-tv-show wannabes charged out onto the scene. Many of them were the twenty-first century equivalent of Candid Camera, featuring no real gameplay, just "hilarious" reactions. However there were also the Big Brothers and The Amazing Races; though often low-brow, they've provided good grist for this column on game design.
This month, largely thanks (one would guess) to the TV writer's strike earlier this year, one of the earliest reality TV shows returned. The Mole was in production internationally prior to Survivor, debuted across the world in 2000, and came to American airwaves in January 2001. However, it's never been particularly successful in the United States. Before this year there were only four seasons, one of which was almost immediately canceled (and then run out in summer) and two other of which were "celebrity" editions--the last resort of any reality TV show. This new fifth edition of the game will probably be the last one in this country.
Just before this season of The Mole came on the air I watched the first season on DVD, and this has given me the opportunity to both think about its gameplay and consider how it's changed over the years.
The Mole is a standard mission-based game. Players tend to engage in two missions each week. Successful missions put money into a pot which will eventually be taken home by the winner, while failed missions add lesser amounts or nothing to the total. The catch is that one of the players has actually been hired by the producers as a "ringer"; it's the goal of this "Mole" to stop the players from winning money, but to do so without revealing themselves.
The show's inevitable elimination mechanic centers around the Mole. Each episode players take a quiz that asks not only who they think the Mole is, but also questions them about what the Mole did: did he participate in certain missions? Did he go certain places? Did he make certain choices? Whereas the question of the Mole's identity is very specific, the other questions have answers that could each apply to a multitude of people. At the end of each quiz, the player who answered the most questions wrong is eliminated.
All told victory in The Mole thus depends on one part excellent deduction and two parts careful observation and memory ... or at least they do if you presume the game's simply about answering the quiz correctly.
However, like Survivor, The Mole has a very open-ended structure, and thus players very quickly came to develop strategies to increase their likelihood of surviving the quiz ... without necessarily increasing their likelihood of knowing who the Mole is.
In The Mole the biggest danger to an otherwise clever player comes in the early rounds, where there's so little information about who the Mole is that a bad guess could put a player out. Thus players immediately started talking (in private diaries) about how they planned to split up their answers in early quizzes. If they answered their quiz in such a way as to finger two or three different players as the Mole, they were more likely to stay in the game than someone who made a selection for the Mole, and answered all their questions in that manner, but was wrong. Depending on the quiz structure there might also be options where you could make the selections that fingered the most players, and thus statistically make it the most likely that you stayed in.
Such a solution is pure gamesmanship, and the sort of thing that you should expect in any game. The players who adopted this strategy figured out how to manipulate the mechanics of the system without necessarily sticking to its spirit, at least in these early rounds.
(Expect your players in any game to do the same.)
However it was the two finalists in the first season of The Mole that showed off an even more clever strategy that probably gave them the game. These two players made a secret "coalition" among themselves, then made more public (but less faithful) alliances with other players. They then fed their fake alliance partners incorrect information about who they thought the Mole was. They sometimes pointed to each other as the Mole. When they figured out who the Mole actually was, they took another step in their devious plan and did whatever they could to shield that person from scrutiny. This resulted in their fake alliance partners answering questions wrong and getting eliminated while they stayed in.
It was an unfair strategy full of deceit and backstabbing that was probably exactly how such a game should be played. I'd also suspect it was largely unexpected by the producers, and that's a good lesson for game design in and of itself: if you design a good enough core mechanic, your players will figure out strategies on how to play it all their own.
Another aspect of The Mole that I find interesting is how much the designers influenced the "feel" of the game. They decided that their game was about trust, or the lack thereof, and so they've done what they can to increase paranoia among the players.
They kicked this off right at the start of the first season when the producers "kidnapped" one of the players, then made it the task of the others to find him. From there onward, players were often split up for missions, limiting their information on what other people were doing, thus giving them more ability to suspect malfeasance over incompetence, and also giving people more opportunity to sabotage sub-missions.
By the end of season one, the producers were giving players the opportunity earn "exemptions", which kept them from taking the elimination quizzes. The mere existence of exemptions made people doubt motives even more. This has been made even more notable in the newest season, where exemptions are given out increasingly for doing things that harm the team.
All of these elements show off how much a designer can influence the feeling inside his game by steering its gameplay in a specific direction. The mere existence of a Mole in The Mole creates paranoia and doubt, but the designers have increasingly done what they can to ramp up that feeling as well.
Flaws of the Form
Though I've enjoyed watching the one-and-a-half seasons of The Mole that I've seen, I do think that it has some severe flaws both as a TV show and as a game.
The biggest problem in The Mole as a game is its lack of feedback loop. A player can't easily figure out if he's doing well. Elimination in the quiz is binary: you're in or you're out. Thus you never know if your guesses were good, and you're in for the long haul, or whether you're way off, and you're thus the next on the block.
The problem is worsened when viewed by the public. Not only do we viewers not know how well the participants did, we also don't know who they thought the Mole was--or even how good they were at answering the questions. Worse, we don't get to see a lot of the machinations, as players try to convince each other about who the Mole is. It would all give too much information, and thus hurt the center of what the producers think the appeal of their show is, which is the secret of the Mole's identity.
I suspect that some of these issues relate to why the show hasn't done too well on the American market--and I bet they're pretty frustrating for players too.
Evolution of a Game
Reality TV shows are a really weird form of game because they're shown large on the TV screen to millions of viewers. This has resulted in two types of evolution.
Second, the players start to develop ideas about how the game works based on how they've seen it played in the past. In the world of board games this would be called "groupthink", and it might effect only a single playing group, but in the nation-wide community of a TV show, everyone might be effected by these preconceptions about how to play a game (and thus the player who's able to break out of those ideas might be at a supreme advantage).
The Mole doesn't seem to have evolved much over the years, perhaps because of its limited number of US editions. I was expecting to see some changes in how the quizzes worked from 2001 to 2008, since I found the mechanic somewhat unfulfilling in the original, as I've just noted. However, it's pretty much the same. The only real changes that we've seen so far from 2001 to 2008 are an increased number of exemptions and an increased emphasis on pitting the group against itself.
(Of course I'm writing this only halfway through season 5, so that may still change.)
I actually think the show may have evolved more over the course of the 2001 season itself, where it seemed like the producers weren't ready for the players' tactics, and may even have been unaware of the idea of exemptions before it was suggested by players.
However, what we have seen in the newest iteration of the mole is an extreme calcification of how the game is played. Players went into the game already talking about "real coalitions", "fake coalitions", and how they were going to trick people into thinking someone else was the Mole. It was the brilliant strategies of the first season made entirely common-place.
And perhaps there is another warning for game designers. Though board games and RPGs can avoid global groupthink, other mediums can't. Season five of The Mole points out how this can be a problem in a TV show, but online games are another place where you might face the issue. That in itself is sufficient reason to change up and "evolve" your game, to keep the players on their toes, and thus not bore them (and/or viewers) with the same 'ole same 'ole.
The Mole is another one of the "good ones". A reality TV show with sufficient mechanics that you can look at it as a guide to how game mechanics work in the wild: how they're interpreted by players and how they evolve.
And it gives you a great excuse to watch some brain-candy TV.