Hidden Depth

If you’ve been reading this blog, Jay Treat should need no introduction at this point. He’s my most frequent guest columnist and I’m quite glad for his help. Here’s another great column I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

Hello again, game design friends. Today I’d like to discuss hidden depth in games. All manner of games are purchased for the fun that they promise, but it’s the fun you can’t see until you play that keeps players coming back (and telling their friends). Some of the greatest games come in tiny boxes with short rules, yet offer heaping amounts of rewarding gameplay.

Let me tell you about a pair of very deep games you may not have heard of with very simple rules. So simple, I can teach both games in this post without breaking flow or going overly long.


Hanabi (by Antoine Bauza) is a cooperative card game with a deck made of five suits with ten cards each: three 1s, two 2s, 3s & 4s, and a single 5. Deal four cards to each player (five with fewer players). Here’s the gimmick: You don’t see your own hand. Players hold their cards facing everyone else so that their own cards are the only ones they don’t see.

On your turn, you must take one of three actions:

  • You can play a card to the table
  • Spend one of the team’s 8 starting clue tokens to give another player some information about her hand
  • Discard a card to buy back a spent clue token.

The goal is to build five fireworks displays by playing a 1 and then a 2, and a 3, a 4, and hopefully even the 5 in order for each suit.

It sounds easy, but the game is very tight. So much so, that the goal isn’t really to score 25 points by completing all five piles, just to score as high as you can. Hopefully higher than previous scores. It’s that difficult. 23 is a thoroughly impressive score. The trick is that there’s more information that needs to be given to play correctly than you’ll have the time to give.

When you tell a player about her hand, you can choose a suit or a rank and point out all the cards in her hand of that suit or rank. “This is your only red card.” “These are your 3s.” As such, the game requires some memory (which card in my hand was a non-red, non-blue 3 again?) and deduction (I can see the other 9 yellow cards between my partners’ hands, the display and the discard pile, so I know this yellow card in my hand must be the 5), but the real meat of the game is innuendo.

There’s no table talk allowed, obviously, so the ability to communicate more through your plays, and to intuit other players’ subtle hints is crucial to a successful game. “These are your 1s” means something completely different on the first turn of the game (you should play any/all of them) than it does halfway through (you can discard them …unless we’re still missing a suit). “This is your only 2” is a hint to go ahead and play it when there are four fireworks displays stuck on 1, even if you don’t yet know for a fact the suit doesn’t belong to that fifth stack.

You can misplay, by the way. If you misread a clue and played a blue 3 while the blue fireworks display is still at 1, the card is discarded (you don’t earn a clue token for it) and the team earns a strike. If you get three strikes, the game ends immediately in total failure. That’s bad and to be avoided, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to go for the gold when you have incomplete information on the theory that a third 17 is no better than a 0 and you’d rather have a chance at scoring 18 or better this game.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of Hanabi until I checked while writing this. Looks like the collector’s tin is available right now and I just heard a new edition is on its way.

Kakerlaken Poker

Kakerlaken Poker (by Jacques Zeimet) is a competitive card game of bluffing with a deck of 8 suits, each with 8 rankless cards (each card within a suit is functionally identical but sports different art, which was a classy move on the publisher’s part). You deal the deck out to start, and then on each player’s turn he chooses a card from his hand, plays it face-down in front of another player and names a suit: “It’s a Rat.” (The suits are various pests and insects like spiders and stinkbugs.)

The player can accept the card, declaring whether your assertion was true or not. She reveals the card and if she’s wrong, she keeps it. It goes face-up in front of her for the rest of the game. But if she’s right, it goes face-up in front of you. That’s a bad thing, because the game ends when one player gets four copies of a single pest. At which point that player loses and everyone else wins. Fun, right?

Here’s the twist: instead of accepting the card, she can look at it and then pass it along to another player, declaring its suit again. She can name the same suit you did or another. The player she passed it to now has all the same options she did. The card can continue to be passed until there’s only one player that hasn’t seen it, at which point he must accept it, declaring whether he believes it is the last suit named or not.

Like Hanabi, this game might sound way too simple to be interesting, but it’s not. It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s so much subtle communication, human interaction and good old bluffing happening. When you slide a card at me claiming it’s a fly, my initial response is entirely dependant on the known fly population. If you have three flies in front of you, I will suspect it is not a fly, because you would be taking a huge chance of losing the game if it is. If I have three flies, though, it becomes rather likely that it really is a fly, since accepting the card has a 50/50 chance of ending the game in everyone else’s favor. Unless I also have a few scorpions, in which case you may be counting on my heightened fly-aversion to trick me into gaining another deadly scorpion.

But wait, what if another player has a fly in front of her and no one else does? You probably don’t want me to accept one way or another. You want the card to make its way to Anna through me. I could pass the card along to her and try to get her to keep it …but why should I take the risk you didn’t? So I pass it to Bob, with the understanding that he should pass it to Anna. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. This whole time, people are adding more information to the claim. Perhaps I looked at the card and said “it’s not a fly, but it eats them for breakfast: It’s a frog”, but Bob looked at and said “Don’t listen to him, Anne, it really is a fly!”

What if instead, I passed the card to Bob without looking at it (you can do that) and said “fly.” My claim isn’t based on an actual observation of the card, I’m just preserving your original statement. What does that mean? It could be that I don’t care, or perhaps I’m preventing myself from displaying a tell. Or maybe I’ve figured out some subtle play that you haven’t. Goodness knows that happens often enough in this game.

Cockroach Poker” is also known as Eight Curses, where the suits are replaced with enchantments with the curse subtype from Magic: the Gathering’s Innistrad block. I can’t support playing a game without buying it from the publisher so that the designer is rewarded for his or her effort, but I will grant that Eight Curses is an entirely appropriate retheme.

What’s going on here?

Designers spend so much time crafting rules and interactions (cards, markers, rondels, turns, whoknowswhat). But, so often the real joy of a game is the rich human interaction that you could never fabricate yet falls into place naturally if you leave room for it. Most party games are powered entirely through the intricacies of social interaction. Werewolf and Celebrities are all about subtle communication. Even seemingly mindless games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are fun purely because of the way they cause you to interact with the other players.

So what, don’t all games have this? I would argue that all good games have some hidden depth, whether it’s more social or mechanical. If a player can find a reason to take a move other than those spelled out in the rules or on the cards, she has discovered a nugget of hidden depth. If your game is chock full of such things, you’re offering your players more of the “ah-ha” moments that make them feel clever and enjoy your game.

Note that granting your players more freedom doesn’t usually help the way you might think. Players are often paralyzed when presented with too many choices. For example, I played a political simulation many years ago at Origins in which each player had some global political office and they set us loose for four hours to see what would happen. A few players leveraged their resources, wheeled and dealed, and caused some interesting results. However, the bulk of us just milled about with no clue what to do next. That was too much freedom.

It is when your choices as a player are limited that you are most challenged to play optimally, and it is because of those restrictions that you are forced to think outside the box, prompting you to discover clever solutions.

It’s quite apropos that these few thoughts only scratch the surface of how to add hidden depth to your game, and that I’m quite certain there’s much more to it that I simply haven’t uncovered yet. It’s that inkling that there’s more to discover yet that will keep me thinking about this subject and that’s the exact same motivation that keeps players coming back to games like Hanabi and Kakerlaken Poker.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you gleaned any insights about when a game or mechanic will have hidden depth, or won’t?