SIDEQUEST – Hidden Rules

August 2, 2017

Games of deduction and discovery can be fun, but they can also be maddeningly frustrating. Especially since the rules, as I’ve covered before, cover the social contract that allows a game space to exist. Because of this, games of discovery have to have at least two levels of game rules, possibly more.

The first layer is the base layer, the layer that has the name of the game on it and explains how play operates. How many cards you get, what rules you have to follow when playing said cards, when you can move your piece on the board, that kind of thing. This is the social contract, the rules everyone agrees to from the beginning of the game, and it includes a clause that allows for the discovery of additional rules – “There are other valid rules, they are covered by additional rules added or found in play in these circumstances”. These rules are the most important to get right, since they have to both create a comfortable play space and have a system in place to ensure that everyone is following the rules, even the rules that are discovered in play.

So let’s talk about rules discovered in play. The example a lot of people might have experience with is Mao. It’s a game like Uno, but it has a lot of strange and arcane rules that make you draw more cards. Speaking out of turn, not acting fast enough, playing the wrong cards, and not observing certain rituals during play can all make you draw more cards, and these are just the starting rules that aren’t explained. When completing a round, frequently the winner gets to declare a new rule for the next game and the only people who know this rule are the ones who were there to hear it. None of these rules are explained to new players, so it’s a constant game of deduction – watching other players and trying to figure out why they are doing what they do. This is an example of the kind of game that can be extremely frustrating since it’s punishing to new players and the game itself provides you no tools to examine the rules in action. There’s also no part of the social contract that’s explained other than “You draw cards, you have to get rid of cards”.

So if you want to make a game of discovery fun, I think, there has to be a way to interrogate the rules that are hidden. There also should be some mechanic that makes the rules both reliable (in that you’ve seen rules like this before) but also dynamic (in that you don’t see the exact same rules every time you play). So there needs to be a procedural algorithm, kind of like how a Roguelike builds dungeon levels out of similar pieces but in new and random ways. So lets make an example game in broad strokes to examine how this could work.

To be as boring as possible, our game is going to be The United Nations. One player is a judicant for the international body (able to execute resolutions passed during play) and the other players are nation-states that are part of the international body.

The Judicant has a deck of cards composed of two major groups; Bylaws and Resolutions. Playing Bylaws allows them to change how Resolutions can be passed, how they are executed, and what the nation-states are allowed to do in response to them. Resolutions, on the other hand, are open-information rules that change how the game is played. These have to be voted on by the table when played by the Judicant – some may need a Simple Majority, some may need to be Unanimous, and some may only need to be passed by certain people at the table.

The Countries share a deck of cards that are primarily made of two things, Laws and Resources. Countries want to gather more resources (they’re like victory points – the country with the most wins) and they can pass Laws that affect how those resources are used (how they’re scored, how they can be transfered, how things can be taxed, etc). Some Laws are open information rules, some are secret, though even secret Laws are played face-down so people know that they’re there.

So we have our closed-information/hidden-information system now. But how can it be interrogated? How can we know that players aren’t lying? That’s why there’s a Judicant.

Certain Resolutions can reveal laws, and more can be done to examine a country if it’s declared a Rogue Nation by the rest of the body. However, until it’s a Rogue Nation, the country gets to vote on resolutions like anyone else. This means that there’s a game of politics at the table as well, an additional layer of hidden information in promises of support and opposition, as well as overt actions on which policies they support and which they don’t.

This allows players to have their own secret rules, know that there are secret rules among other players, and have a system where everyone has equal ability to examine the rules of others if they are willing to submit to the system and follow rules they all agree on together. All players also have a vested interest in ensuring they have the most resources and that their resources are scored the highest. The Judicant’s goal is to ensure the whole world doesn’t fall apart. So there’s one more thing we have to add…

There are a few cards scattered in the Country deck that declare war. Declaring war on a state in good standing makes someone a Rogue Nation, which can be bad, but if they’ve already been declared a Rogue Nation then it’s fine. They stay in good standing with the Judicant. However, if war is declared 3 times, the Judicant loses immediately and the resources are tallied.

So, it’s not ellegant, but it’s an example of how this kind of game can work (and come up with off the top of my head). I think there is a way to do this and have it be fun but so far most games like this are just frustrating. If you’ve got any insights, I’d love to hear them.


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