Quiz Quiz Bang Bang

mighty fine trivia by James Callan

How to write a quiz: Easy questions first, then hard questions

After February’s quiz, Mehal chatted with me for a minute. Then he mentioned that his team (Annyong!) had collapsed in the second half.

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It's a pressure cooker! (Get it?)

Yeah, I said. The second half was harder than the first — but that’s how I like it. (OK, truth be told I don’t like teams to collapse.) I think a good quiz should get more difficult as you go along.

“Why’s that?” he asked. Which is a good question.

Apparently some hosts like to lead off with a difficult round. Players haven’t had as much beer, the theory goes, so they’re sharper.

But most games start easier and get harder as they go along — and pub quiz is a game. It’s more satisfying for players to ease in, get comfortable with the rules, and then start spraining their brains.

Compare with game shows: Jeopardy! is easier in the first half than in Double Jeopardy, and Final Jeopardy is in theory the hardest question of the show. Cash Cab starts with easier $25 questions and builds to more difficult $200 questions. And you don’t your shot at becoming a millionaire until you’ve answered 14 easier (but progressively more difficult) questions.

And at pub quiz, the first round should be easier than the last round.

At the Old Pequliar, the first round people see is actually round 4, the first picture round. They get to work on that through the entire first half. And they see round 8, the second picture round, in fifth position, at the second half.

So this is what I shoot for: Round 4 as the easiest round, round 7 (the movie round) as the hardest round, and the ones in between getting more difficult as you go.

In practice, it’s difficult to gauge things that precisely. I can make the movie round the hardest round, no sweat. And I can pull off a pretty easy picture round. But placing the other rounds exactly in order of difficulty? Tricky. (The infamous round 1 poetry round was within the last few months, after all, and that was murder. I’m still learning.) I’ve gotten better at ensuring that the first half is easier than the second half, though.

I also try to do this within individual rounds. Again, look at Jeopardy!: the easiest questions in each round are at the top of the board, and they get harder as you go down. So in an ideal pub quiz round, question 1 should be easier than question 10.

I find this especially important when it’s a high-concept round with unusual rules, like triangulation or “complete the set.” The first one or two questions, being easy, help people understand the concept and build confidence; the last couple of questions make them sweat.

(Side note: This is one of the reasons I wasn’t fond of geography as round 1. For most teams it’s one of the harder rounds.)

Escalating difficulty is less of an issue for regular teams — if you play the quiz at the same pub every week, you get a good sense of what’s asked and how hard it is and how everything works. But I think it’s vital for making sure new teams have as good a time as possible. Make it too hard too quickly and you spur walkouts, or at least inspire people to give up after one round and vow never to return.

And I find that it’s more satisfying to build up players’ confidence before you smash it.


  1. Crap…now you’ve got me rethinking my round ordering for tonight.

  2. James Callan

    16-February-10 at 3:34 pm

    Don’t overthink it.
    I probably spend way too much time thinking about round and question ordering.

  3. We try to tone down the difficulty later in the quiz on the presumption that drunk people aren’t thinking as quickly as sober ones.

  4. I wonder if there’s an academic reasoning behind this. I mean, it makes sense from a practical point of view, but I wonder if anyone has ever studied order in this context? I think my next documentary should be about pub trivia.

  5. James Callan

    16-February-10 at 5:54 pm

    @David: The important thing is, you have a theory.

    @Dom: My game design books (all 2 of them) are currently packed away, but I’ve heard the notion of starting easy and getting more difficult as you go mentioned by game-design-geek friends of mine numerous times. When I can track down a more authoritative quote (that is, not my own ass) I’ll let you know.

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