LACC: An Interview about Half Truth with Ken Jennings and Richard Garfield

By Jason Delgado

Richard Garfield is the king of nerd games, having created the hugely popular, played into the wee-hours of the morning at comic and game shops, Magic: the Gathering, among others. Ken Jennings is the master of trivia, having won a record 74 times in a row on Jeopardy. These two have joined forces, like the minds of Bruce Banner and Tony Stark coming together, to create the ultimate, fun, and designed to make you feel smart, trivia game Half Truth!

I have to be honest, I wasn’t overly excited when I first heard about the prospect of doing this interview. I’ve never played Magic: the Gathering, and I’m a casual Jeopardy fan. Ken Jennings likes to jokingly say, “I’m the one your grandma dislikes because I should’ve let others have a chance on Jeopardy.” They don’t exactly scream star power. Then I did some research, and found both the game Half Truth and the lives of Jennings and Garfield to be fascinating. I had an excellent time doing this interview with them, and I’m so glad that I had a chance to speak to this dynamic pair!

JD: Tell me about Half Truth and what sets it apart from other trivia games.

Garfield: The origin of Half Truth is when I read Ken’s book Brainiac; he really infused me with a fascination with trivia. I realized that it had a lot more potential than I had originally credited it with in my gameplay, and so I resolved to design a trivia game that made it as broad reaching as he presented it.

Jennings: Yeah, apparently I’m like a trivia evangelist.

Garfield: Yeah (laughing).

Jennings: I left my trivia book in the nightstand of your hotel, and it changed your life.

Garfield: (laughing)

Jennings: Yeah, Richard just emailed me, and said, “Hey, I’m Richard Garfield.” I was like, “Wait, really?” and he said, “I liked your book, and I have a prototype of a trivia game I think you would enjoy because it’s kind of along the lines of what you talked about in your book.” The idea is that it should be for everybody, because we all know a lot of weird stuff. Trivia shouldn’t be the province of a small number of know-it-alls, you know, spouting sports statistics.

Garfield: Right, and that’s what really came through for me in the read was I realized I had thought of trivia, and my experiences with it, as being these know-it-alls basically answering questions for twenty minutes at a time, and then I got a chance to answer and I’m wrong. I realized after reading this (Brainiac), that I thought of the games in a different way and I remembered playing, for instance, with my grandmother, and she was never the winner of these trivia events. But there were times where she would know something that nobody else did, and that was kind of special. And so I wanted to make a game where everybody had a chance to shine during the course of it, like she did on those questions.

Jennings: So Richard had me over for a game night, and we played a prototype of the game that became Half Truth, and I won the first game. I was very excited. But then we ran it back and I got beat! And I thought, “this is great!” This is a trivia game where everybody can play, everybody has fun, everybody plays every question.

Garfield: Yeah.

Jennings: And every card has three right answers and three wrong answers, so you know, intuition, educated guess work, problem-solving, those things can all come into play. Wagering, there’s a risk element. So it’s not just Trivial Pursuit where you’re waiting for people to answer questions, which is kind of the death thing about trivia games.

Garfield: Yeah, yeah.

JD: Do you have an example of one of the types of questions and multiple choice answers? Or not off-hand?

Jennings: Can we do this off-hand?

Garfield: I can, yes. One was, “Which of these are genuine French sodas?” I remember some of the answers. There’s Mecca-Cola, Poisson Boisson, Cola Sabot, Gini, Mademoiselle Pop, and Pssht! (writer’s note: it was entertaining hearing Richard pronounce these with a French accent)

Jennings: Like p-s-s-h-t?

Garfield: P-s-s-h-t. Yes, yes, I think that’s six answers, and I think there’s three correct, and three incorrect. You can eliminate some of them in sort of fun ways, like Poisson Boisson, if you know any French, is fish drink, probably not a soda, so you can cross that off. If you happen to know French sodas you might, but not many people do. The sodas were not chosen to be well-known.

Jennings: Yet the cardplay is fine if it’s a table-full of experts in French sodas, or it’s average folks with the normal amount of French soda knowledge, the round’s still fun.

Garfield: Right, so unlike a lot of trivia questions, because this is multiple choice, and there’s some sort of silly answers and some serious answers, you can get some traction on it. It isn’t like do I know this or not. Even if you don’t know any French sodas, you can make a guess. You may be right or wrong, but you’re going on something, whether it can sound plausible or not.

Jennings: Our pitch for the game was that too many trivia games just make you feel dumb all the time, like here’s another thing I don’t know. I probably learned this in school, but then I forgot. This is a trivia game that should make you feel smart, much more than it makes you feel dumb.

JD: I think that’s really cool that the game is designed to make you feel smart. Could an average person really beat you Ken Jennings? I know you’ve said that Richard beat you…

Garfield: I did not.

Jennings: Who won the second game?

Garfield’s wife Koni: It was a friend of mine.

Jennings: I have lost. I lost my second game to a civilian with no Jeopardy to their credit!

All: (laughing)

Garfield: It’s designed to be a skill game. It is still trivia, so somebody who is good with a broad amount of trivia, and is also good with deduction, will do better. They will have an edge, but it’s also designed so a broader number of people will have a chance of winning, and even if your chances are very low, you’re going to have your little victories.

Jennings: Yeah, it’s hard for a know-it-all smarty pants to run away with it, because you’re tossing in chips to wager on the answers you like. Just knowing one answer on the card gives you the bulk of the…

Garfield: The bulk of the payoff.

Jennings: The advantage.

Garfield: Yeah, yeah.

JD: I’m intrigued by the strategy aspect of the game. How was that conceived, with the wagering?

Garfield: Once I settled on this concept of three correct, and three incorrect answers, I knew that I wanted to make it so that most people, most of the time, were just going for one answer. When we played it, that was all you got to do at the beginning, but then after playing that a few times, people who knew multiple answers wanted to do them too much and so I wanted to make a way for them to capitalize on that, but not make it so they got a huge payoff for it. So you might expect that in a game where there’s three correct answers that you get one (correct) you get one point, you get two, you get five points, you get three, you get a hundred points! Or something like that, but that’s not at all what we did. You get one, you get a hundred points, you get two, you get a hundred and five points, you get three, you get a hundred and ten, so the risk goes up a lot, relative to the reward, which is I think what I was after. So that’s worth doing if you do know multiple answers, or if you’re far enough behind that you feel you really have to press your luck.

JD: So I saw the game was originally titled Inconceivable. Are you guys fans of the Princess Bride?

Jennings: (laughing) I feel like that was part of the problem. Didn’t it turn out there was some Princess Bride game called Inconceivable?

Garfield: There was. I don’t know if that was enough to really kill it, but the people who were not big fans of it used that as a…but yes, yes, I really like the Princess Bride. I don’t think it came from that, but the thing is that it’s so entrenched in my outlook that it might have. I know that a lot of the appeal of the word comes from it, so yeah.

Jennings: I’m sure that we all use that word much more than we would have if Princess Bride had never existed.

Garfield: Absolutely.

Jennings: Because you almost can’t hear it except in Wally Shawn’s voice. (Imitating Shawn) Inconceivable!

All: (laughing)

Garfield: I was actually shocked that we came up with a name eventually that, I mean, Half Truth is such a good name for a game. It’s very rare that the names we settle on, if they’re different than my playtest names, are better than my playtest names. And I would not have bet in this case, but Half Truth is just a really good name for it.

Jennings: It’s hard to name a game, huh?

Garfield: It is. And my names, even though they’re better than what we eventually name them, that doesn’t mean they’re good, they’re just okay.

All: (laughing)

JD: What are some of your favorite movies in general for both of you guys?

Jennings: My favorite movies…I love 2001, A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, any Hitchcock movie, almost. (Turning to Garfield) What are your favorite movies? I don’t know if I know this.

Garfield: My favorite directors are the Coen brothers. I’ve followed them forever.

Jennings: What’s your favorite Coen brothers movie?

Garfield: It’s Blood Simple.

Jennings: Wow. So it’s all been downhill since then.

All: (laughing)

Garfield: No, Blood Simple is a really strange one and my friends have sometimes taken me to task on it, saying that the reason I like it is because it was the first, and sort of I want to get some cred there. But I really like their storytelling that they did with such minimal dialogue. And I think their dialogue is wonderful in all their other films. But the dialogue is not great in Blood Simple; it’s all cinematography, it’s just brilliant.

Jennings: I like the early ones too. I like Miller’s Crossing.

Garfield: Miller’s Crossing is outstanding! Yeah, that’s my second favorite.

Jennings: I want to watch that again, I haven’t seen it in so long.

Garfield: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to watch it again.

Jennings: All right, movie night!

JD: Ken, I’ve heard you say before you’re a Marvel comics fan. What are some of the titles or storylines that you’re into, or writers and artists?

Jennings: Like right now?

JD: Or from the past.

Jennings: I feel like nobody is as into comics as when they were eleven years old. So your formative comics is whatever they were when you were eleven, like that’s the golden age of comics. So for me that was Chris Claremont on X-men, John Bryne’s Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson on Thor. None of this is novel, I guess that’s what everyone would agree. Frank Miller on Daredevil, although at the time, I was like, this is too edgy for me!

JD: (laughing)

Jennings: I prefer the happy, four color world of Power Pack, or whatever. But yeah, huge Marvel fan from back in the day. Now it’s weird that it’s the biggest thing in pop culture.

Garfield: Yeah.

Jennings: Marvel now controls America or something.

JD: So what do you think of the Marvel movies now?

Jennings: They’re all just fine.

Garfield: That’s exactly my answer (laughing).

Jennings: It’s like a power pop group like New Pornographers where every album just makes you happy to hear it (snapping his fingers), and they’ve put out seven in a row, and they’re all pretty good. Not a bad apple in the bunch.

Garfield: I’ve never watched one and been disappointed, it’s just always fun.

Jennings: I don’t like how they’re the only entertainment now (laughing).

Garfiled: Exactly, I really miss the variety that I used to see.

Jennings: I went to Joker, and there’s a lot to say about Joker, but at least that movie takes risks. But in the service of what? The origin of the Joker. But still, I was so happy there was a movie that I didn’t know what was going to happen. Same with the Last Jedi; that’s kind of a weird movie and I was like, finally. It never happens in Marvel movies.

JD: Richard, were you surprised by the success of Magic: the Gathering, or did you know it was a hit when you came up with it?

Garfield: Very surprising. I was not intending to be a professional game designer at the time and I didn’t think Magic was going to change that, but it did. I played plenty of games during my growing up years, which I thought were excellent but were not super popular, and so even though I knew Magic was a good game, and really had the power to engage people, that did not mean it was going to be a super successful game, so it was gratifying and constantly surprising how much influence it had.

JD: Definitely. Ken, do you recall struggling with any pop culture related questions during your Jeopardy run?

Jennings: Pop culture questions, that’s what I always liked on Jeopardy. I’m trying to think. This will be good, there was a final Jeopardy where the category was like comic books. And I was like, “beautiful, finally!” This is my chance to shine. So I bet like some uncharacteristic amount of money, $15,000 or something on a final Jeopardy. And I got it wrong. It was like, “this line of comics ran for twenty years and it’s in the Library of Congress.” There was really no clue, you know, and I could not figure out what would’ve run that long and would be in the Library of Congress. The answer was Classics Illustrated?

JD: Oh yeah, psht (shaking my head, laughing).

Garfield: I read those, those are fun!

Jennings: I love Classics Illustrated!

All: (laughing)

Garfield: But I wouldn’t have thought of it.

Jennings: Yeah, there was no way I was going to get that one. So like the one time I got a comic book question…I lost the price of a new car on it.

All: (laughing)

JD: Richard, I read you designed your first game at age 13. How did you get your start so early?

Garfield: I don’t know what that was in reference to (writer’s note: darn Wikipedia, who knew it had false information haha), but I know what made me a game designer, and that was Dungeons and Dragons. D & D blew my mind; it was so orthogonal to everything I knew about games, and I liked games before then but after playing that it was just like, wow. It was like what other games are out there that I don’t know about, and what other games are possible that haven’t been designed yet. And also D & D makes it so the people who are playing it are really in the role of a game designer in a sense. The person running a game, the dungeon master of course, but even the players, are responsible in a lot of ways for what the game they create is. So that’s what got me into game design.

JD: Alex Trebec recently said he’s “lived a good life, a full life, and he’s nearing the end of that life.” Ken, Do you have any stories about Trebec?

Jennings: I love Alex. I understand he’s doing a little better than the quotes make it sound like; his numbers are good, he’s still happily hosting the show. You know, I grew up watching him. He’s kind of like Walter Cronkite to people my age because he’s like the only person who’s been in our living rooms every night since the 80’s. He’s like a fixture. I think my favorite Alex story was after I lost my final game. I had been on the show for months and months, but you never hang out with Alex, because he knows the answers, so by Federal law you’re kept separate from him. So you never see Alex until he comes out at the top of the show.

Garfield: Is that Federal law?

Jennings: Yeah! After the hearings in the 50’s.

Garfield: Wow.

Jennings: If a game show was rigged, there would be an FBI investigation.

Garfield: Okay. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.

Jennings: Not just the show being in trouble.

Garfield: Yeah, yeah.

Jennings: So If you’re on a game show, you’re sequestered like you’re on a jury and everybody gets trooped around like a chain gang, you don’t get to hang with Alex. And so, after the last show, after I lost, I was like I wonder if he, I don’t know if that guy ever liked me, you know? He’s never had to put up with the same contestant for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time. If I were him, I would not be into that. But he came back out in his shirt sleeves after the show, he came back out in his shirt sleeves, and you never see Trebec without a jacket so it’s kind of like shocking, and he was a little choked up. He was like, “Aww Ken, we’re going to miss you,” you know. And I was like, “Ohhh, he’s such a sweet guy.” You never see it on TV. He’s a much livelier, funnier guy than TV viewers know.

JD: That’s awesome.

Jennings: To me, he’s irreplaceable. I don’t understand how anybody but Alex can host Jeopardy, I hope. I hope he does it forever.

JD: So Richard, your great great grandfather was U.S. President James A. Garfield, and your great uncle invented the paperclip. When you told people that growing up, what was their reaction? Because in my head, I imagine the scenes from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion when they’re telling people they invented the post-it note.

Jennings: (laughing)

Garfield: Certainly it was an icebreaker, and people were surprised by it. I didn’t know that it was unusual, so to speak. You go back enough generations, everybody is related to everybody. So great, great grandparent, how many offspring is that and how many famous people are there?

Jennings: Is it a hit with girls?

Garfield: Not as much as you might have thought.

All: (laughing)

Garfield: Certainly not as much as I thought.

All: (laughing)

Garfield: By the time I met Koni, I stopped leading with that.

All: (laughing)

Jennings: Hey, you want to date James Garfield’s…I didn’t know that about you?! You’re a direct descendant?

Garfield: Yeah, yeah.

Jennings: That’s very cool.

Garfield: My grandfather’s grandfather, right.

Jennings: Wow.

JD: So people can find out more and order the game on halftruthgame.com. Is there anything else you guys would like to tell the Friends of Comic Con blog?

Jennings: If you love trivia, you’ll love Half Truth, and even if you think you don’t like trivia, you might like Half Truth.

Garfield: Yeah.

Jennings: It’s actually full of Comic Con ready cards. I know there’s a card about, “Which of these is an actual member of the Legion of Superheroes?

Garfield: Yep.

Jennings: There’s which of these Star Wars characters actually says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this?”

Garfield & JD: (laughing)

Garfield: There’s a lot of fun questions, and you can find samples of them on the website, which I encourage you to go look. I’m always having fun with it, going through trivia. And you should also read some of Ken’s books!

Jennings: (laughing)

Garfield: It is excellent, I find it always engaging.

Jennings: Oh, that’s so nice! And buy Richard’s games!

All: (laughing)

JD: All right, thanks guys!

Jason Delgado

Jason is a CSULB film school alum and movie guy for Friends of Comic Con. He loves movies, TV, writing, comics, going to Cons, basketball (Lakers), music (all forms of rock + 90's hip hop), football (Chargers), his dog, and most importantly wife and newborn son. He's written a comedy/sci-fi script, and wants to write more in between all of the Cons, concerts, sporting events, and raising a son. He doesn't often cosplay, but when he does, it's as Iron Fist. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDelgado78