Vision Quest: Transparency vs. Opacity in a board game

by Gil Hova

One element of board game design that I’ve recently felt I’ve had more control over is the visibility of the game state’s future. Put simply, it’s how possible it is for a game’s players to figure out what will happen next.

If it’s possible for players to figure out what will happen next, it’s transparent. For example, chess is a perfectly transparent game. There’s no hidden information or randomizing mechanisms to veil the game’s future, and each player only has to account for one player’s actions. Therefore, it’s possible (albeit difficult) for a player to work out how the next few turns will go, especially if she understands her opponent well. In fact, one of the things that makes a good chess player good is the ability to exploit chess’ transparency.

If it’s impossible for players to figure out what will happen next, it’s opaque. For example, poker is an opaque game. Looking at Hold ‘Em as an example, at the start of each hand, players only have two cards and their opponents chip counts as information. Information only appears in small increments: players ante, raise, and fold, and the players see the flop and the turn. By the time the river comes out and the game becomes perfect information, the hand is over. What makes poker challenging is that it forces players to calculate odds and read their opponents to make the most advantageous move with their limited information. Just as transparency defines chess, opacity defines poker.

So neither transparency nor opacity is inherently a bad thing. They’re both tools a good game designer will use to make the best possible game. But it’s quite possible to make a crappy game if you’re not careful with opacity or transparency!

There are many games – race games, especially – where the game’s winner is blindingly obvious in the last few rounds. This isn’t a showstopping problem; many good games can have this problem. But it’s an indication that there’s too much transparency in the game. 

There are other games where what will happen next will be a complete mystery. While this is good in small doses, if you have too much of it, players will have no idea what effect their actions have on the game. This is frustrating, uninteresting, and Not Fun. Some early games of Battle Merchants ended with the sentence, “Wait, how did he win?!” It took some time to work the game into a condition where players could understand why a given player did better than another.

Adding opacity

There are four elements you can add to a game to increase its opacity (and of course, you can remove them to increase its transparency).

  • Randomizing mechanisms. No one knows exactly what the dice will give you. If a game is feeling too transparent, forcing a player to roll successfully or draw a particular card from the deck will inject some uncertainty into the game. Or, you could have the random element appear at the start of a turn, and force players to deal with its consequences. Either way, you draw a veil over the future of the game and force players to work out what’s happening.
  • Hidden information. Perhaps one player is holding onto a card that will catapult her into the lead. Perhaps another player knows where the MacGuffin is from one of his tiles, and isn’t telling anyone. Eliminating perfect information means that players have to guess what the other players’ capabilities are.
  • Player interaction. This is the most organic “randomizer” of them all. Sure, you know the player to your right should ship her goods, but will she? Will she do something suboptimal? Will she do something that seems suboptimal at first, but turns out to be an ever better move than you expected? Furthermore, if players can interfere with or attack each other, you now have to work out how you can achieve your plans with a reduced ability.
  • Complexity. This means that some players will be better able to predict the future game state than others. While chess’ perfect information is a model of transparency for the experienced player, it is difficult to grok for a new player, and a rookie unable to read his position will flounder in a scenario where a veteran will deal with easily.

Complexity is an interesting issue that deserves a couple of more paragraphs. You see it in other games as hidden trackable information (HTI), like hidden victory points that are theoretically countable if a player records it, but are too burdensome for most people to remember. Or card counting in a trick-taking game, which some players can easily do and others not at all. Or eliminating turns and going real-time, which means players can’t take forever to figure out the game state.

These mechanisms are polarizing. Some players detest HTI in games, and insist on playing with those elements open. Others will not play a game that encourages card counting. Real-time is a definite turn-off for a bunch of players. If you put these things in your games, be prepared to defend them!

Complexity gets Really Bad if it obscures exactly what a good play is. In early versions of Battle Merchants, I recorded the losing race of each fight. The races that did worse in battles grew desperate and tended to pay more than races that did well. 

It turned out to be one of those highly-thematic mechanism that worked out better in theory than practice! Players had the opportunity to make one race do better than another, but had to go through a series of numbing calculations to figure out if it was worth it, and the end result turned out to not be significant enough to make a difference. It was theoretically transparent, but only with a slide rule. It was awful, and when I ditched the mechanism for something less thematic but easier to track, the game improved by leaps and bounds.

Adding transparency

On that note, let’s talk about increasing transparency in a game. If your players are struggling to figure out the implications of their actions, and finally leaning back in their chairs and saying “Screw it, I’ll do this move because I don’t care”, then you’ll want to introduce transparency. Here’s how.

  • Reduce opacity. See those four things I listed them? Cut them out. Get rid of randomizers, hidden information, player interaction, and/or complexity. It will streamline your game. Of course, you don’t want to eliminate too much. There tends to be a baby among all this bathwater.
  • Eliminate minor endgame scoring. This is a recent realization of mine that greatly improved my current design, Prime Time. I used to award one point at the end of the game for every $10 a player finished with. But that seemed fiddly and anticlimactic; players were putting a lot of time and energy into decisions that only resulted in a delta of a couple of points. I tried awarding 5 points for the player with the most money at the end of the game, but that lacked pop too. Eventually I pulled out scoring for money at the end of the game altogether, and suddenly the endgame scoring got a lot more dramatic.

Why? Because without those small scorings, the game got a whole lot less opaque. Everyone’s scoring marker moves once for big endgame scoring, and a small amount for a mechanically important minor endgame scoring (unattached Stars). It’s much more transparent, more final, more dramatic, and more fun. It also incentivized players to spend money during the game and walk the razor’s edge, which ends up more thrilling for everyone. 

  • Make players’ performance easily audit-able. That’s big game-designer-speak for “put in a scoring track”. Put as much scoring as you can on that track. The recent game Francis Drake does some interesting things here; most scoring is recorded on a scoring track, and that drives turn order from one round of the game to the next. But one scoring mechanism is HTI that only gets scored at the end, meaning that players who score that way aren’t punished in turn order. It’s a nifty blend of transparency and opacity.

This is a good time to mention as any: do you have a scoring track in your game? Good. Please follow these two simple rules: Make it a circuit instead of a serpentine (people will always move a marker the wrong way), and if you loop it, loop it on a multiple of 100. You can loop on 50 or maybe even 25 if you must, but never an oddball number like 80 (Bruxelles 1893, hem hem, or Alhambra, which loops at 120 and serpentines, cough hack). This will make player performance audit-able at a casual glance.

How about you? Do you have any experience with opacity or transparency in your games?