Disorderly Conduct Part 2

In case you missed part 1, you can read it here. A friend and design peer suggested I write a part 2 that covers the impact on simultaneous turn taking and private versus public information. Here it is!

Simultaneous turn taking is not to be taken lightly. I have only briefly dabbled with it early in the development of Empire. The idea was bad and only partially simultaneous. Players would decide what to do at the same time, but the execution would be sequential. Nevertheless, I feel I'm up to the task of providing some quick analysis and suggestions.

Simultaneous turn taking is the optimal place for perfect pacing. Wonders is a 7 player game that plays in a blistering half hour. It almost takes longer to setup the game or tally the score! Simultaneous gameplay also flips the traditional notion of reaction versus dictating terms to other players. Let me elaborate.

Typically, the first player can either claim a scarce resource, which denies it from others, or take an action to which other players must respond. Players with initiative can therefore dictate terms to others. However, players who go last have the opportunity to react. They may get resources at a lower cost, take the road less traveled, or take advantage of a flank. This is a key element of Empire and other war games like 1812: The Invasion of Canada. With simultaneous turns, you lose this element, but at the same time you force players to take an educated step in the dark. What do YOU want? What does your opponent want? How can you stop them?

Ca$h 'n Gun$ is a game full of simultaneous choices. So is The Resistance. The simultaneous actions in this game provide great tension and enjoyment. Holy crap you're going to shoot him? What! You didn't vote for my mission? Whereas in Wonders your neighbors' choices rarely raise an eyebrow, the sudden, jolting nature of the actions in other games can be thrilling.

With simultaneous actions, you want to be careful to not harry and rush some players. With group think, most people will make a choice and be ready to "go go go." But, the group can only move as fast as its slowest or most analytical member. This means you run the risk of greatly frustrating the speedy players (who get bored and pull out smart phones) or the more thoughtful player (who is flustered and frustrated). There are ways to mitigate this!

Reducing the amount of text on a card greatly helps here. If players need to read a large amount of text, you then throw slow readers into the group of slower-minded players. A focus on icons or really simple functionality (like all 3 games mentioned above) greatly help here. Find a way to simplify actions during the game or break them into pieces. As you play 7 Wonders, the number of cards in your hand are reduced. The cards you can play are reduced. And your strategy is more focused. With Ca$h 'n Gun$ you begin to notice who is in the lead, who is dead, and you have fewer bullets.  Pros for Simultaneous Action
  • Best pacing possible!
  • It's a thrill ride as the great reveal occurs!
  • Reduced AP potential -- there is less information to which one can react.

Cons for Simultaneous Action

  • You lose react versus dictate gameplay.
  • Less information to make decisions.
  • Speedy players are impatient. Slower players are flustered.
  • There is a greater burden on the designer to simplify content and cards.

Private versus public information is something I should have considered for this discussion. Alas, my pal Eric was required to bring it to my attention. I love cards. They are easily my favorite game component. One of the primary reasons for this is that cards allow for private information.

There are a few things you may not have considered when deciding how to factor private versus public information into your design. When I tested Empire at GenCon this lesson was brought home to me. Players all have 3 pieces of information they must consider at all times:

  1. Their hand of cards. These are very simple, but a player still has 5 of them.
  2. The status on the board. Unit positions, fortresses, scoring, etc.
  3. Their options on their Reference boards. Cards are used for these.

I watched player after player frantically look at their cards, then the board, then cards, then reference boards, then cards, then cards, and so forth. It was exhausting for me and my players. Some of this can't be avoided. Some of it, however, is greatly resolved by improving the presentation on a player's reference board. Now, actions are broken into sections based on a phase. Players can look at their hand and the pertinent section of their reference board. This should greatly reduce the amount of eye strain and analysis paralysis.

To summarize: reduce the number of places a player must look. Try to focus the vast majority of your action into one place.

Another thing to consider is the social impact of private versus public information. Board games are special because they bring players together for true, honest socialization. The more private information you force players to consume, the more time players will  tend to be head down, reading card text. This is time not spent talking trash, drinking wine, and telling jokes.

Public information lends itself greatly to group think (in co-op games) and analysis paralysis in more competitive games. To solve the former, more and more co-op games give players private hands of cards lately (see: The Lord of the Rings: The Living Card Game) to prevent obnoxious group think. "This is my hand...it's my choice."

For the latter, there isn't much you can do with certain personality types. One group of my testers for Empire at GenCon debated literally every decision of every player for every turn of every round. The game took them 2.5 hours! If you force players to roll dice (randomness) or flip a card (unpredictable element), they'll move on at some point. After all, luck is luck.

One more comment on private information is that players love having a secret. It lets them feel special and devious. When a player's turn comes around and he is able to reveal his trick, there's an adrenaline rush for him. There's also enjoyment and surprise from the others. Many will argue, however, that they hate surprises in games. Some people crave perfect or near perfect information. "No random!" they cry. I don't agree with this school, but it's key to note.

Pros for Private Information

  • Players love having a secret in their hands. Players love hearing a secret.
  • Reduces group think.

Pros for Public Information

  • Players focus on a common focal point.
  • Players have a greater opportunity to socialize as they look up from their cards.
  • Fewer surprises appeal to some players.

You should be wary of...

  • Spreading information to too many places. Eye and neck strain abounds.
  • Too much text on cards.

What are your thoughts? Did I miss anything? As always, please join the conversation (or write a guest column!).

Comments

I would argue that the greatest benefit to private information is the ability to bluff. That I can leave a Forest and an Island untapped in Magic to make you wonder if I've got a Giant Growth or Mana Leak to foil your plans is a big part of what makes that and most games with private information fun. Indeed Poker and Blackjack wouldn't even qualify as games if not for bluffing.

Somewhat ironically, this also forces invested players to spend time speculating what their opponent's might have and that adds time to the game.