“Hidden Mechanics” in Video Games — and in Tabletop Games?

Last week, a video game designer I’ve been following on Twitter for a while now, Jennifer Scheurle posted asking game developers to post tricks they use to optimize for fun, versus coding a perfect simulation of an environment:

The responses were great, and the thread is being picked up by all kinds of video game press. Kinda makes me wish I’d chimed in when I saw the tweet come by amidst the political dumpster fire I generally consume on Twitter, though I don’t specifically have my of my own inventions to post about, so maybe just as well I didn’t. Though I have written about a couple related topics here previously.

The thread kicked off a discussion in a FlightlessCo Slack channel as well — my Terraformist collaborator who is taking the lead on game design for that project found it on Polygon and wanted to discuss; this being his first foray into this type of design.

I love these tricks, both as a designer and a player, but I think it’s telling that many of the responses are about single-player games; in a multiplayer PvP situation there are humans trying to have fun on both ends of the equation — and in a direct head-to-head, thumbing the scale for one of them might have a negative impact on the other. For instance, in Terraformist, a player sending a swarm of combat units against another can’t necessarily just result in warning shots ‘across the bow’ to get their attention, because then the attacking player may feel disadvantaged. And likewise with the defending player. But I am now chewing on ways we can use these things to prevent things like the total annihilation of a player by repeated swarms, as our game is meant to be a persistent multiplayer world, and it sucks when you log in and you’ve been irrecoverably smashed to bits while offline.


This thread, and the way it’s exploding also has me thinking about “hidden mechanics” in terms of board and tabletop games as well (I’m not alone in wondering about this, I’ve seen the Kotaku article posted in at least one Tabletop Game Design forum). Can there be hidden adjustments to outcomes that the players cannot see? At first blush, this seems incredibly challenging, because these ‘tricks’ are software algorithms on the video game side — calculations/algorithms/rules run behind the scenes before being presented to players visually.

But in the case of a board game (Disregarding for a moment digitally-assisted games, like XCOM, Mansions of Madness 2ed., etc.), the players are the hardware on which the rules are run, and it’s near impossible to hide any part of the simulation from the hardware (this is even damn near impossible even for a computer, without employing bonkers tactics like homomorphic encryption). In a designers thread where this article was discussed, there were some great suggestions, such as Pandemic’s “Intensify” where discarded danger cards are reshuffled atop the draw deck to adjust the probability agains the players. This feels close to me, but an experienced player, or a probability-minded one can see through this for exactly what it is. It does successfully invoke a feeling of dread as the spreading diseases become “more dangerous” — so it’s a great mechanic, but it isn’t hidden, because the calculation is still being performed out in the open.

Another instance that feels close is the adventure-picking in Above and Below. In this instance, the algorithm of navigating the story tree is run in secret (it uses another person as ‘hardware’) as you choose your actions, but in the end, you’ll eventually have your turn with the book, and you could always pry at any page you wish to see what trickery had been at play. Or you could read the whole book ahead of time.

One-versus-many games (Fury of Dracula, Scotland Yard, Hero Quest, et al.) become another interesting case here, though as with the Above and Below quest book, any obscured mechanic becomes transparent as soon as a player enters the ‘versus many’ seat; since that player needs to understand the game state manipulations they’re making, in order to execute them. And even in this case, they’re not immune from unexpected transparency. In one Short Story RPG story, which, like all Short Story RPG adventures, is a ‘one-shot’, I included a no-fail situation which the Story Master was directed to make the players continue rolling for Difficulty throughout as an attempt to heighten tension. Surely it would be possible to hide a mechanic in a game that was meant to be played only once, right? Unfortunately, one group of testers managed to roll a critical failure right at the outset of the ‘no-fail’ encounter, but of course nothing bad happened, and the magic evaporated. It came close, but ultimately wasn’t able to completely “hide” the mechanics from the players.

In fact, I think without some kind of true black-box component — which a general-purpose computing device provides for video games or digitally-assisted tabletop — “hidden mechanics” are totally impossible (Perhaps some kind of dice tower, which ships sealed in the box, the internal workings of which are unknown to all players). And I think we as tabletop designers are the poorer for it. “Hidden mechanics” are powerful for video games, and we just simply don’t have them in our toolbox.

I’d love to be convinced otherwise — if you believe strongly that some tabletop game displays the type of fun-enhancing “rule bending” described in Jennifer’s thread, or otherwise successfully implements a “hidden mechanic”, please comment!