Why, Why, Why?! is a series of highly subjective, perhaps personally charged, and often provocative statements about the board gaming hobby. At least they’re always worth debating. Maybe you agree. Maybe you don’t – but that doesn’t mean they’re not true! And because I’m fair and balanced, I also draw upon the diversity of experience that we offer you here at iSlaytheDragon to present the “other side.”
Today we address…
Open Information is Bad – or “Ignorance is bliss!”
Chess. It is a storied game with modern European roots dating to the 11th century, and whose predecessor dates even hundreds of years prior to that in ancient India. It is a game of master strategy pitting mind against mind. It is arguably the most talked about, read about, and written about board game in history. It is still played by millions around the world – face-to-face, human-to-AI, online, and in major tournaments with cash prizes. It has spawned legends and is immediately recognized by almost all cultures. And it is boring. It isn’t accessible. It isn’t attractive. It isn’t casual. And knowledge always triumphs over inexperience. All this because everything about the game is as bare as a newborn babe. I just can’t seem to get into games without hidden surprises or a little uncertainty. Because completely open information is bad for games and here’s Why, Why, Why?!
1. Open information reduces games to math. The negative term often tossed around for games with too much revealed info is, “spreadsheet.” We all know that a spreadsheet is a program to organize and analyze data in cells, rows, and columns. They’re wonderful for the business world as users can easily record, track, and manipulate numbers to observe “what-ifs” and other changes. Designs with near-complete, open information naturally become a mental spreadsheet – hence math. It may be fine for matching wits and going mano-a-mano, but let’s be honest. When sitting down to a game of this type, you generally know who is smarter. And the player with the most experience invariably crushes the others. Caylus presents everything in a visual spreadsheet, demanding that players calculate how placing workers affects not only their turn, but the next turns and those of others and the game itself. Therefore, most designs of this nature are not very accessible and even intimidating to all but the veteran gamer.
2. Open information creates analysis paralysis. By far the largest problem is a deluge of data, which is almost impossible to adequately and efficiently process. There are so many options, so many variables, so many combinations, so many rabbit trails that players invariably freeze with uncertainty and indecision. And while some designs of this nature are more compact, it grows exponentially – the more there is to do and see, the more there is to scrutinize, and the more the game glacially crawls. Downtime is often insufferable. Even if you use other players’ turns to plan your next, the situation is often changed by the time it arrives, necessitating even more analysis. Terra Mystica suffers from this ailment. With everything open from the start, the number of possible actions and means to earn points can be overwhelming. Instead of a focused plan, all of the information crashes in at once. Understandably, most individuals don’t want to make any moves without first chewing on it for a while.
3. Open information just makes for dull play. Games like this are just a puzzle with the pieces laid out and face up. All you’re doing is scanning the jumble to try and put it together. While puzzles may be fun and stimulating in their time and place (although they aren’t), I just can’t get into a game like that. Games are meant to entertain. Sure, they can make you think, too. That’s one of the hobby’s great benefits. But when you’re with a group of friends or in some other social occasion, you really need something livelier and exciting. Open information games don’t provide it. There’s no suspense and no surprise. It’s kind of like knowing the end of a book or movie. Yeah, you may still read or watch it to see exactly how it got there, but it’s just not as exciting when you already know the outcome.
A corollary issue regarding games with lots of open information is that they can be solved. If these designs are very much like spreadsheets and puzzles – and they are – then game play will always favor an optimal strategy. There’s often a formula, route, or equation to follow. Heavier titles with lots to explore may be harder to solve and, therefore, offer a longer shelf life; but those are the really intimidating ones that few but hardcore gamers will gravitate to.
I don’t know, perhaps I don’t enjoy games with lots of open information because I already use spreadsheets, evaluate numbers, and solve financial puzzles during the day. I don’t want a game that’s just more work and analysis. Games that make me think and craft are wonderful – that’s one reason I’m in the hobby. But instead of spreadsheets, I want randomizers to spice things up. Instead of overloading me with info, I want it revealed in chunks to generate suspense. And instead of puzzles, I want some unpredictability even if you can’t account for it. That all creates narrative, which enhances a session’s experience. School is for math. Board games are for entertainment.
For another closely related Why, Why, Why?! discussion, you might want to check out #2 in the series – Games Need Randomness.
And now for another view…
Open Information is Good – or “Don’t keep me in the dark”
There’s a reason why people have been drawn to chess throughout the centuries. Games with open information create the ultimate battle or whits without luck getting in the way. But just because you’re mentally sparing doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun too. Completely open information is good for games and here’s Why, Why, Why?!
1. Open information encourages interaction. Hidden information creates excitement within games through moments when players or the game itself reveals this information. This often drives the game and keeps it moving forward. Games with open information instead rely on the players to drive the action and ensure balance. They are inherently interactive because if the players aren’t paying attention to each other then there is nothing driving the game.
2. Open information doesn’t get spoiled by chance. People are naturally drawn to fairness and dislike feeling like they lost because of bad luck. When information is kept in the open there aren’t any nasty surprises or swings of luck that can unbalance the playing field. Players may not start with completely equal and symetrical positions but everyone has equal footing when it comes to what they know.
3. Open information allows you to see what’s really going on. When everything is out in the open it becomes much easier to wrap your mind around what is happening in a game and where things are headed. You can look at the map or the board or the market and understand the state of game is certainty. One of the main advantages here is that there aren’t surprises that need to be accounted for (or simply can’t be accounted for at all). There’s also no need for any memory elements that can give some players a significant advantage and discourage new players who don’t even know what kind of hidden information could be coming.
There are many games that have proven that a completely open system not only works but can be extremely replayable, fun, and just as successful as ones using hidden information.