Why, Why, Why?! #6: Lots of Open Information is Bad



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.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. Fantastic entry–this is something I often think about when playing and designing board games. One other factor I’d add to the “open information is bad” side is the physical restrictions of having all open information. It can take up a LOT of table space, and it’s hard to see all of the information from across the table. When I played Eclipse a few months ago, we needed two tables to fit everything, meaning that 4 of the players had to get up and walk to the second table every time they wanted to peruse the tech tree.

    I’m curious of what you two think about hybrid solutions, like in Belfort. In Belfort, when you draw a building card, you have a choice: Draw randomly from the deck, or draw 1 of three exposed cards. I think that hits a sweet spot for players who like open information and those who don’t, and it gives all players an interesting choice.

  2. There are a few “open information” games I know of that seem to negate many of your complaints, Jason. Small World is the first one that came to mind – you know exactly how many troops your opponents have, which areas they can invade, what new races are available, and really everything except exactly how many points they have. Even combat is resolved with auto successes (with very minor exceptions) But the decision tree is very simple – you just have to decide how to spend YOUR limited troops, so there isn’t enough to analyze, and your opponents moves aren’t predictable enough to spend time breaking it down. So, it works generally without slowing down much from AP while being challenging and exciting, and definitely doesn’t feel like a spreadsheet.

    Another example is Ascending Empires – again, all resources, tech, etc. are public and combat, when initiated, is always certain. However once again it simplifies decisions (while still allowing choices to be made) so its pretty hard to sit there and over analyze everything. On top of that, the dexterity element adds an element of uncertainty and player-skill-equalizer (as Farmerlenny likes to say, the best players will make bad flicks and the worst will make inspired shots sometimes) that keeps the game energized and moving along and once again, feels nothing like spreadsheeting.

  3. A most interesting discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of open information. I also echo your sentiments on not wanting to play games that remind you of your profession.

    In reply to the previous poster, Small World is one of the few near-open information games that does not suffer from analysis paralysis. This is because the race and power combos force players to be more singleminded in what they want to invade. A player always wants to get more land easily and more land that benefits their power (if applicable). Thus, it lacks the depth to even cause analysis paralysis. There are also times where I feel the game comes down to whoever picks up the most overpowered combination wins.

    While I understand your preference towards games that are more randomized, what are your thoughts on open information games that facilitate the continual exploration of new strategies? Assuming the game has enough depth, one player can find an “optimal” strategy that makes it difficult for other players. This is until another player finds a counter strategy, and so on and so forth. It is the exact way with the development of the modern Chess opening book. Would this suffice as an alternative to complexity being the only means to extend the shelf life of an open information games? Of course, I am making the assumption that complexity only offers a finite amount of strategies to explore, where as a game designed with a changing metagame will not be hindered by that limitation.

    • Jason Meyers

      Yes, Small World is a good example of a decent open information game that does not suffer from analysis paralysis. I like that game and think it’s perfect for kids, as well. I just don’t usually like to acknowledge when Wolfie is right.

      As for open info games with depth to facilitate lots of exploration and experimentation – sure that extends the shelf life. I allude to that concept, but the problem still remains that they are usually heavier games, which means their appeal is limited (which isn’t a problem if the design’s target audience is hardcore gamers) – or it overloads the player with so much information at one time that they’re mentally paralyzed with indecision (which is a problem, IMO). Can a game create multiple possible strategies without great complexity? I’m not sure. Because I think the fact that there are many strategies to explore is part of what makes it complex. For example, using Chess, you have 6 pieces and that’s it. Not very complex rules-wise. However, with the massively deep game play, it is very much complex.

      The other thing is that I just plain like surprises and the unexpected. You don’t get that from open information games. True, your opponent may DO something unexpected, but that’s not really the same thing in the way I look at the topic…I’m thinking more arbitrary stuff.

  4. Wow… haven’t heard anyone hurt on chess that bad in a long, long time! On the one hand, I can see that, ultimately, because everything is “open” in chess (except your opponent’s strategies, mind you), all else being equal, the outcome is almost always predetermined by skill level. So, hey, why even bother playing, right? May the better super-computer win, I always say…

    On the other hand, there’s that one thing I mentioned earlier that isn’t open… your opponent’s strategy to win. Sure, some players are predictable, but that can be a weakness if you figure out a way to exploit it.

    One of the things I like about chess is the fluid interplay between long-and short-term strategies, based on evolving “battlefield” conditions, without overloading you with statistics and units that can sometimes clutter other pure strategy games. I also like excitement and surprises, so I typically don’t mind playing someone I think I can beat, and getting my ass thoroughly handed to me (assuming they’re good sports about it!). It can actually be kind of fun, and I try to learn something from the experience.

    That said, I haven’t played a game of chess in a couple of years now. After reading/writing this, I think that’s going to change soon!

    • You’ve obviously never played anyone with AP. Try playing a game of chess with someone who takes a half hour per turn. Personally, I don’t think that is fun. Which is why he alluded to the fact the games with open information that have complexity lend themselves to analysis paralysis. I guess that is why they invented the chess clock, but the slowest players I know never want to play with a timer, so I don’t play open information games with them.

      • Chris, oh I’ve definitely been there, done that. And, you know what? If I don’t enjoy the experience, I don’t play with that person again. Pretty simple. Does that mean that I don’t think chess is fun? Or that I think it’s fundamentally flawed? No. It means I don’t enjoy playing it with certain people.

        Some people are just more allergic to “AP” than others. For example, I have some friends that refuse to play Settlers anymore because they hate waiting 10 minutes for other players to place their initial settlements. Yes, it’s annoying having to wait (and, to be honest, I have been guilty of it myself on occasion), but do I hate it SO much that it ruins the rest of the game for me? No. But that’s me. You or Jason may feel totally differently about it, which is fine.

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