Do you play stocks open or closed in Acquire?
And, more to the point of this article – why?
At a gaming convention last month, I sat down to play Via Appia with, among others, Denis Begin. No one knew the game, so we went through the rules, and started to play. Like many games, Via Appia comes with player screens; I left mine unassembled, as I always do when the information hidden is trackable. The other two players in our game followed suit, and we took our first couple of turns, when Denis asked why we weren’t playing by the rules.
This lead to an interesting discussion, continued via email since. Among other things, the discussion helped me to differentiate why there are some games with hidden, trackable information which I don’t mind leaving hidden, while others bother me. It lead to the realization that the approach I usually take to such games, when I’m not familiar with the game, could have unintended, potentially negative effects. And perhaps most importantly, it led me to think about the question of designer intent.
If you look on BoardGameGeek, you can find hundreds of discussions about hidden, trackable information. Some people take the approach Denis prefers, which is to utilize the rules specified. Others – myself included – believe that trackable data should be kept public. But even I would agree that there are games – Memory, to give a classic example – where keeping trackable data public leaves one with no game. I’ve also made an exception for Bridge, with a thought that there isn’t space to make the data public.
But after our game of Via Appia, I realized that there’s actually an easier distinction. What I like to keep public are things that can be counted – such as cash, stocks in Acquire, or victory points in Euphrat & Tigris. Among other things, that’s data that _can_ reasonably be tracked. Further, this is information that – by keeping it public – can only benefit other players. That’s not true in Memory or Bridge; the information, if kept public, could be of just as much benefit to you.
But – while I prefer to play with such data public, I know some folks don’t. So the compromise I usually take is to leave _my_ data public. That’s never caused an issue before – but here, to my regret, it did. We discussed this a bit; I didn’t see leaving my hidden data public as an issue, as it’s my data and my decision what to do with it. But it’s not what the rules state, and I can understand why Denis had an issue with it. We didn’t – and don’t – see eye to eye, but I at least learned to ask before playing it anyone minds if I keep my data public, to avoid unintentional disagreements – at least with those I don’t play with frequently.
The most important questions this brought up for me, though, are – what does the designer intend, and is it important that the designer’s intent is followed? Typically, we have only one piece of data, what is captured in the rules. But even that doesn’t necessarily help. As noted here, the original rules for Acquire don’t actually specify if holdings are open or closed. But Sid Sackson preferred closed holdings – though he saw open holdings as “a perfectly good variant”. This goes to show how designer intent isn’t always captured in the rules. To be fair, it probably is in the majority of cases – but sometimes it doesn’t get captured at all, and likely in some cases it is the publisher intent which is captured, instead.
But – does it matter? If I design a game, it’s likely that I’ll write the rules with trackable data kept public, because that’s my preference. Reiner Knizia has, in interviews, stated a preference for keeping trackable data hidden. But why should you listen to the designer? This is where I have the biggest disagreement with Denis – in my view, it’s easy to determine whether there’s a reason to keep information hidden, while Denis feels that when learning a new game, one should follow the rules as stated. We’ve agreed to disagree on this. From my point a view, a group that plays with trackable data hidden should know to do so even on the first play – and vice-versa. Because – I firmly believe that games should be played so as to be most enjoyable for the players. That doesn’t apply to tournaments, where everyone needs to be playing by the same rules, but otherwise I see no reason to feel compelled to play by the rules as written, even when making much larger changes than playing with trackable holdings open or closed.
So, in the end, it was clear that Denis and I couldn’t both be in the game. Which was unfortunate; while we disagree on this point, I enjoy playing games with him. And even here, our disagreement was extremely civilized. But it does point to an issue with assuming that a rule that you consider – well, not really a rule – will be taken the same way by everyone at the table – particularly those you don’t play with regularly.
Jeff: this reminds me of a news item I read some time ago. It concerned the film industry. Apparently, there was a video store that offered a service to edit any films that were purchased there to make them more family-friendly. In essence, they were doing what television networks and airlines have been doing for years, removing some content that would be inappropriate for children and offensive to some adults. I believe James Cameron led the charge against this on the grounds that filmmakers have complete control over their work, even after someone purchases it for home use.
I would hate to see this happen in the game industry, and as a designer, I generally have no problem with house rules and player preferences. My only caveat is when players may be too quick to try to “fix” a game, then teach it to others and see it fall flat because their variant did not work as well as the game intended by the designer. I’ve seen this happen in forums for my games, and, because of my greater familiarity with the game, it was easy for me to see how these proposed fixes could worsen the playing experience or even break the game. In a crowded market and with the growing importance of online customer reviews, positive word-of-mouth is vital, and these kinds of experiences can discourage others from trying the game. In most instances, then, I would recommend playing the game with the rules as written until one is relatively familiar with it. After all, the designer developed the rules based on multiple plays and test groups.
Joe’s example of open and closed holdings, however, is a more general one and I would place that in a “gray area.”
In any case, I’m not as overprotective as Cameron when it comes to my art, as I want the same thing Joe wants: that players have the best experience possible when playing my games.
Mark Jackson: Just to echo Jeff, I think the freedom to tweak games is part of the fun of what we do… but I also worry that we as a community are too quick to “fix” things that don’t actually need fixing.
Jonathan Franklin: In general, I say ‘tweak away’ My issue is with people reviewing a game based on a modified version of the game. It is unfair to tweak the rules to open holdings then lament the lack of drama or tension in the game. At the same time, I’m not sure most game designers design games with the assumption that some players will have photographic memories and others won’t. Clearly closed holdings adds different amounts of asymmetry with different player combinations.
I think the open-closed debate is a particularly tough one because open holdings reduces memory aspects while increasing analysis-paralysis potential. Sadly, there is no middle ground, so it is really a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, unless you like memory games.
Fraser: To excuse the pun, my rule of thumb is to always play a game with the rules as written for at least the first play. With respect to the hidden non-hidden I generally play by the rules, but don’t mind if people want to “do a Joe”. I have played Puerto Rico with open victory points once only and will never do so again. With Power Grid 95% or more of people I know play with closed money, with Acquire I have no strong opinion and go with the flow of the table, as the question is invariably asked, unlike other games with a hidden aspect.
Larry: I tend to prefer open holdings in games, but I also recognize that there are times when closed makes for a better game. For example, hiding the VP cubes in Euphrat & Tigris was a good design decision IMO because the temptation to use that information would probably add much more downtime than actual skillful play. You usually have a pretty good idea of how everyone’s doing, even without tracking every cube. Then there’s JC Lawrence’s group, which plays Settlers with all the cards exposed. Frankly, that sounds like a horrible idea, even though that information is technically trackable, but I guess it works for them.
As for the larger question, I see nothing wrong with employing house rules. I do tend to have a good deal of faith in the abilities of the designers and publishers, so I’ll certainly want to play the game with the rules in the box for the first few plays. As Jeff mentions, there are some gamers who’ll come up with all sorts of variants after only one game and that’s usually a bad idea. The big proviso is, if everyone doesn’t agree to the rules tweak, then you have to play with the given rules (or just find something else to play). I think that should one of the unspoken conventions that gamers agree to, as nothing else seems reasonable.
Finally, Joe, I’m puzzled by your desire to play with your trackable information open if the rest of the table isn’t following suit. I’m not sure what that accomplishes, other than to loudly announce that you, at least, prefer open holdings. If it’s a pain in the butt to keep your own information hidden (for example, if they’re chits that are kept face down and you have to keep peeking at them to remember your own holdings), then I can understand it. Other than that, I’d think it would be best to get the table to agree to one way of doing things and have everyone follow suit. Otherwise, it seems you’d get the worst of both worlds.
Joe: Sorry to have to jump back in, but to address one thing Larry notes – we play Euphrat & Tigris in 20-40 minutes with scoring open. If it’s adding downtime to our games, I don’t see it. I’d also argue that the issue isn’t necessarily being too quick to try to “fix” games – but rather expecting others to adopt changes that may only be right for one particular group.