Public Information and You

One of the most important lessons I took home this year was how to properly use public information in my designs. Battle for York is full of public information, specifically, the abilities of your faction and location of your armies.

One of York's greatest flaws is a direct result of this public information, magnified by the number of factions. Players are constantly leaning over the table asking "what can you do?" and then 3 minutes later, "What can you do again?" It's the wrong way to handle public information.

There are some signs of bad public information:

  • The information is critical to all players. If I need to know everything you have or can do, then that info should be in front of me. I define critical as it being something that will greatly impact and affect the decisions of others. For example, abilities for a deterministic battle system (ex: York).
  • There is too much information. If I address the above point by showing you everything...you now know everything. Everything can be a lot. Folks will disagree, but I find Smallworld's reference sheet entirely overwhelming.
pic1731030_md Smallworld

 

  • The information is text and/or exception driven. It isn't just a few facets, but a great deal. Soon, players' cups will runneth over.
  • To complement the above point, the most important thing people need to know IS the text, not other, more easily consumed statistics.

Before I use my own designs as anecdotal examples, I thought I'd point out some examples of good, AAA public information.

Summoner Wars: Basically every card (i.e. unit) has text that grants it a special ability and rule exception. But, there are a few reasons this works just fine.

pic1706462_md Summoner Wars

 

  • A unit's attack power, and whether it's ranged or melee, are easy to see. These are really important regardless of the exception.
  • All similar commons share the same information, which means if you learn it once, you learn it multiple times.
  • Movement and attack rules are, by and large, the same across the board (with some exceptions).
  • The cards are on the board face up when in play, not tucked away in front of a player. This makes them easy to view.

To be fair, the first time or two you play a faction, you'll play a little slower checking things out. But, I do not think that is a problem with how they present the information, but the fact that, hey, it's an asymmetric, faction-based game.

The Speicherstadt: Over the course of the game, players amass many cards (up to a dozen or more) of varying types. This could be very confusing, but it's not.

pic1754949_md The Speicherstadt

 

  • The cards a player has acquired will influence his future decisions, but they won't grant new powers or change the core interactions of the game. A contract might inform you "Grant needs green cubes," but Grant will still interact in the same way (third person apparently).
  • The cards have no text, other than a few numbers. They use very simple, well-designed iconography.
  • Many of the cards, once used, don't matter for the rest of the game. With the exception of one card (the Port), once a player claims a ship, it no longer factors into the game.

The two most important pieces of public information you need to know are how much money a player has, and how many workers he has left to place.

Applying My Lessons

Looking at York as a guide post for something that wasn't quite working (but can be solved), I started applying these lessons to my current games. Mars Rising uses a lot of simple tricks to simplify the fact everything is public in the game.

  • When a defensive ability (like shields) is active, you place a token on the board. The other player can still ask for specifics, but ultimately this informs at a glance "This squadron will be harder to kill."
  • Squadrons that have already attacked (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don't need to worry about them shooting you in the immediate future.
  • Squadrons that have used an ability (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don't need to worry about any funny business in the immediate future.
  • Ship classes generally define behavior. Interceptors shoot fighters. Destroyers are very flexible, but not particularly strong in any one area. Battlecruisers kill capital ships. People can eyeball a squadron and instantly know "they do this" without needing to know, specifically, the stats.
  • Current formations are shown with a token on the board. The rules surrounding formations are very simple. If I see a wedge formation, I know what it means.

Most importantly, your opponent's information isn't necessarily critical to your success. They can't do anything on your turn. The goal is typically to destroy the enemy, with some exceptions for scenarios. Therefore, it's most important to know what YOU can do and decide who to destroy.

Flipped, similarly, has a great deal of public information that doesn't hinder the game. Yes, I see your properties. If I know you're heavily invested in downtown, I can use that information to evaluate whether I want to go there and whether our clients' end goals coincide or conflict. If I can hinder your score, then I might go there. Furthermore, knowing where you intend to develop aids my strategy towards manipulating the contractors. If I know you're developing in downtown, I know whether we'll be jockeying over the contractors and the movement penalty.

The other driving factor is that, in line with many euro games, I can only hinder and affect you so much. Yes, we're vying for properties (timing on acquisition) and trying to support our neighborhood bonuses, but there's only so much I can do in order to ruin your day. The game is about efficiency, optimization, and taking advantage of opportunities. Not hurting others. Therefore, I use your public information to guide my decisions, not to crush you.

Finally, I found it's much simpler to place the cards in front of me so I can plan out my improvement schedule and the work that needs doing. I didn't like holding cards in my hand and referencing them. It was unnecessary secrecy.

In both of these new games, someone with chronic AP could chew on the information for some time. But, that person would do this with a private hand of cards, or even a dice roll. The key in dealing with AP folks is to mitigate their sickness, not seek to solve it. There is no cure, as noted by the World Health Organization and seconded by the UN.

In closing, some good public information tips.

  • Public information works better in games where your decisions revolve mostly around what YOU are doing, not others' decisions.
  • Good public information is simple and can often be represented with symbols. Lengthy text is best left to private information.
  • Use simple aids and reminders to tell people the most important aspects. Often, they don't need to know everything. Think of the attack rating in Summoner Wars, or the defensive marker in Mars Rising.
  • Public information tends to work better with fewer players.

What are some of your favorite examples of good public information? Any additional tips? What did I get wrong? Share in the comments!

Comments

This is a fantastic post. I always try to keep public information in mind when I'm designing games, especially when it comes to text. It's really hard to read text from across the table, but one or two well-designed symbols or numbers? No problem.

Great post, Grant.

Too much public information may become, for practical purposes, private. If there's too much information for the typical player to remember, he may just proceed as if that information isn't available. In fact, that's probably a more enjoyable experience than constantly asking questions.

Put another way, in my experience, is that information you intend players to use becomes ignored. Their brain space fills up and they just start cutting things off.

Which is bad.