PX 5: Determinism, Information, and Hedging Against the Future

This is the fifth topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. This entry references several key concepts from earlier installments, so you’ll either want to start at the beginning, or else drop back as they’re linked!

Spilled scrabble tray
Scrabble tray accidentally becomes “perfect information”. Photo Credit: Flickr user whiskeytango (CC-BY)

Beyond all the things we’ve discussed so far, players will all be bringing a certain set of gaming preferences with them to the table when they play your game. These may have basis in their personality types, experience levels, or brain chemistry, but these preferences also grow through the types of games they play and the life experiences that they’ve had.

Some players enjoy having perfect information about the game state, while others may have either a tolerance, or even a preference, for hidden information — finding fun in the need to deduce unknown aspects of the game state, or the hidden situations of the other players (think: ‘Cat & Mouse’ mechanics, such as Scotland Yard, Fury of Dracula, or Clue: The Great Museum Caper). Information may become un-hidden in a variety of different ways and rates, making a continuous gradation from “fully hidden” to “fully public”. (e.g.: secret drafting, simultaneous reveal like Robo Rally, or Revolution! in contrast to the trickle of revelation in the cat & mouse games listed above).

Another axis of the ‘unknown’ has randomness at one end, and determinism at the opposite— games with dice, shuffled cards, tiles or pieces drawn from bags, or flipped coins all introduce randomness — while many games provide players with ways to manipulate the random outcome in their favor, no matter what, any random event becomes a singularity beyond which a player cannot perfectly predict, but is only able to estimate the likelihoods of outcomes.

On these two axes of the unknown, players may fall anywhere along either — but in contrast with the spectra of familiarity, there isn’t necessarily a natural trend in any direction over time. It’s easy to begin categorizing games or specific mechanics within games for their management of the unknown, and it’s also easy to start seeing where some games fall on these axes:

Chess is perfect information, perfect determinism. Liars Dice might make up the diametric opposite of chess in the space: complete randomness, totally hidden information. Magic: The Gathering leverages several types of each ‘unknown’ on both sides of the table. Excluding some types of tournaments, a M:TG player has perfect information about what is in his or her deck — but they come out in a random, unpredictable order (and then to willfully mitigate this, players have the option of cards which influence Library order!) An opponent’s deck is hidden information, as is their hand, but one has perfect information about the state of the battlefield, the specific cards they have out on the table.

Polyhedral dice
Singularity generators. Photo Credit: Flickr user belle-etoile (CC-BY-NC-ND)

A game in the ‘war game’ might embody perfect information, with random outcomes — as the board and units are publicly visible, but the outcome of any particular engagement is dictated by the rolling of dice. This might appeal to a player who wants to think strategically, who can map the non-deterministic space of results caused by dice in their head, and attempt to effectively hedge the odds in their favor by playing a more effective strategy.

Chess, or another perfect-information, perfect-determinism game like Go, can be incredibly intimidating to a beginner, with the outcome of successive match ups providing a clear stack-ranking of skill, where a new player will naturally land near the bottom for some time as they learn the strategy.

Low-information, low-determinism games can be a cinch to jump into, without fear of alienating new players, but when players lack a feeling of agency through multiple plays, the allure can wear off quickly — a gamer buddy and frequent play-tester of my games who most often advocates for added randomness, has a copy of “Killer Bunnies” he’s been trying to do away with for years because he’s sick of it and how arbitrary it feels.

A game with some hidden information and low randomness can enable a highly experienced player to spring a final strategy to seal up a win, but may be easily thwarted by a newer player who has been holding on to an “Interrupt” card the entire game. In the right circumstances, this can prove exciting, spiking the adrenaline response, and a lasting memory of the dramatic game occurrence in both players, but the allure can wear off quickly, as with the end of a game of Munchkin.

Intentionality in a design here is critical — asking of a design, broadly: “Who is this targeted to?”, as well as situationally: “Why is there a die roll here?” or “Should the cards a player draws be face up so everyone can see, or face down?” all become incredibly important lines of inquiry for tuning the design to properly appeal across the spread of preferences you’re targeting.

Next, we take a ride with The Doctor, as we explore outside the “time box”, or the specific bounds of beginning and end of a gameplay session!

Don't miss a post in the PX series! Sign up here: