The Focal Point Game

A few years ago I invented a game that’s become rather popular in some small circles. The game is called Focal Point.

Focal Point can be played with as few as three people, but it tends to be more interesting when more players are involved. The game begins by choosing one person as the moderator. The moderator can be a player as well, but more often they are not.

The game is played in rounds. In each round, the moderator gives the players a stem. The stem is a question or an instruction that prompts the players to give a response. The players then each write down their response to the stem. This must be done without any communication between players, and the written responses must be hidden from view.

The goal of Focal Point is agreement. You get points when you give the same response as other players…but you’re not allowed to communicate with the other players. What makes the game interesting is the infinite regress that this leads to. Your best strategy is to write down what you think the other players will write down. Since this is their best strategy too, this really means you should write down what you think the other players think the other players will write down, and so on.

After, say, ten rounds the game is over, the responses are revealed, and the scores are calculated. The scoring is very simple: in each round a player scores a point for each other player who gave the same response.

The stems can be made up by the moderator on the spot, or can be read from a list prepared ahead of time. A few examples of typical stems are:

  • Name a country in Europe.
  • Name a kitchen appliance.
  • How tall is a giraffe to the nearest meter?
  • Name a planet other than Earth.
  • Name a type of fish.
  • How much does a sandwich cost?

More examples of typical Focal Point stems can be found on this page.

The best stems strike a balance, suggesting a few clear candidate responses, but not one that’s too obvious. Stems like “name an English playwright” usually result in all players agreeing and therefore all winning the same number of points, which is an uninteresting result.

The general strategy is to choose the most obvious or most salient response, but this is not generally an easy task. There are few strategies that work well all the time. This is what makes playing the game a very creative exercise.

“It is the intrinsic magnetism of particular outcomes, especially the ones that enjoy prominence, uniqueness, simplicity, precedent, or some rationale that makes them qualitatively different from the continuum of possible alternatives.”

-Thomas Schelling[1]

One of the most broadly applicable strategies is to keep your response as general as possible. For example, if the stem was “name a musical instrument”, “guitar” is usually a better response than “bass guitar”. If the stem prompts a numerical response, round numbers or powers of ten are usually good responses. Then again, in Focal Point even the best rules of thumb often backfire when you least expect them to.

Strategy in Focal Point is all about context. The more you know about the other players, the more likely you’ll be able to guess what their responses might be. Factors like the location you’re playing at, or the date or time you’re playing can also make one response more salient than the others.

“It may seem ‘fair’; it may seem to balance bargaining powers; or it may…simply have the power to communicate its own inevitability to the two parties in such fashion that each appreciates that they both appreciate it.”

-Thomas Schelling[2]

The common response that players try to find in Focal Point corresponds with a concept from game theory called a Schelling point, named after Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. In his 1960 book The Strategy of Conflict Schelling discussed several coordination puzzles similar in spirit to playing a round of Focal Point. For example, Schelling discussed a puzzle involving two people who have agreed to meet in New York City, but neglected to choose a location. Now the time to meet has arrived, so they must somehow choose the same location, but they are unable to communicate. Schelling posed this problem to some of his students and the most common answer was to meet at Grand Central Station, which makes it a natural Schelling point. Notice that if the two people were meeting in Paris instead of New York, the problem would be much easier to solve.

Many situations we encounter in life could be described as coordination problems, where two people or groups benefit if they are able to make the same choice. For example, it is much more convenient for everyone to use the same system of measurement, a problem for which using the metric system has emerged as a Schelling point. Schelling points also become meaningful in conflicts and negotiations where they make convenient points for two parties to compromise without seeming too arbitrary.

“If one has been demanding 60 percent and recedes to 50 percent, he can get his heels in; if he recedes to 49 percent, the other will assume that he has hit the skids and will keep sliding.”

-Thomas Schelling[3]

Schelling points provide a useful way to think about any situation where two parties must agree but are unable to communicate. If a product designer wishes to make a product straightforward for the user to use, they must think about what the user will expect to be the most natural or obvious way to use it. Conversely, this will seem natural and obvious to the user because it is how they expect the designer would have designed it. The best design is a Schelling point that arises from both parties expectations of what the other party expects them to expect.

Playing Focal Point is a fun way to get an intuitive feel for how these natural points of agreement work, and to practice finding them. With a little practice, players often begin to notice the influence of Schelling points in many different aspects of their lives.

This list of stems can be used to get started playing Focal Point. Once you have a sense for what sort of stems work best, it’s very easy to come up with your own.