Designer Intent

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.

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23 Responses to Designer Intent

  1. Hubert says:

    My usual rule is that the first time I play a game, I try to play by the rules. Because well, sometimes its hard to see what a rule does for the game and doesn’t if you haven’t played it. After that though, I’m fine w/ trying to tweak things, though I usually only tweak minor things (playing Tichu clockwise, not mixing homeworlds into the Race deck, etc).

    As for open vs. closed for information tracking, I usually go with who’s the loudest at the table b/c I don’t have any strong opinions on this. Agree w/ Larry though, Settlers with open cards sounds weird and Tigris w/ open cubes would also be bad.

  2. John says:

    We typically play by the rules as written. Our base assumption is that if the designer made the holdings closed, the designer intended for us to pay attention when money / resources / points are collected. Opening up that may make a game a little more friendly but takes away something I believe the designer wanted in the game.

  3. Ben (chally) says:

    In general, my rule is simple: I play with open information in games where I would be inclined to actually track the information. For example, I have played Power Grid with closed money many times (at the request of others), and nearly every time I make a conscious effort to remember other players’ cash holdings. I do this because I want the information in order to make my decisions, and because it is easy enough to track that the effort is worthwhile. Consequently, my preference is to simply play with the money open.

    In other games, however, I either don’t care enough about having the information to expend the effort or I find that the information is too hard to track. Palaces of Carrara, for example, is a game that I quite enjoy. But even in the two-player version, I would struggle to keep track of what is behind my opponent’s screen. I found that losing track of that information heightened my experience with the game because it added certain risk/reward trade-offs that would not exist otherwise. I have tried playing with open information and found the game was worse because of it.

    In this regard, the question of designer intent is largely irrelevant to me except that, on the initial plays, I tend to trust the designer’s conclusion about the better way to play. That is, I will rarely learn a new game with open information when the rules specify hidden information. I assume that the designer’s choice was a conscious one, and thus I want to attempt to discern the basis for that choice before concluding that I disagree with it.

    Lastly, I find it mildly amusing that this conversation is always a one-way translation. That is, players often debate whether to leave trackable information hidden, but I have never seen a player suggest the opposite–hiding information that the rules specify should be open. My guess is that the unidirectional nature of the debate suggests that “improvements to the gameplay experience” is (at best) a weak argument in favor of hidden information, and certainly subordinate to “designer’s intent” arguments.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      I happen to do exactly what Ben does. If it’s hidden trackable information that I’d be inclined to realistically want to track then I just prefer to play it with it open, but if it’s hidden trackable information that I don’t think I’d bother tracking then I keep it closed.

      So for instance, I always play without the player screens in Dorn’s Arkadia because I think knowing what color seals people have is crucial. I also play with money open in 2-player Goa because it’s essential to know how much money your opponent has and would be easy to track, so might as well keep it open.

    • Mc Jarvis says:

      It’s worth considering hosting a game day with mandatory blindfolds. With all the tension and enjoyment hidden information is supposed to have, not being able to see the pieces themselves would likely create the best gaming experience ever.

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    Joe, if everyone at the table is familiar with the game, then Larry’s suggestion seems the only logical solution. If everyone wants to play with the same house rules, you don’t have a problem. Otherwise, play the game as written.

    The problem is, with so many new games coming out every year, players often don’t take the time to explore a single game enough before coming up with their own house rules. Some people even post them on BGG before testing them! And in my experience, there is usually at least one player new to the game.

    The only time I might play by house rule my first time is when I see a strong online consensus over a substantial period of time. And sometimes, the designer will even give his/her blessing to the variant.

    So I don’t see these as separate issues. The existence of house rules encourages people to come up with their own house rules (which is fine), but the nature of a saturated market encourages “quick fixes.”

  5. Steve Walker says:

    As part of the playtesting of Snowdonia last year this was one of our hottest debates. Tony’s initila design had contract cards taken move to be hidden information and the testing debate was whether the game should punish players who potentially struggle to track many cards that can impact at every stage of game play. The sacrifice was to remove a couple of cards that were intended hidden information drawn blind off of the deck to maintain open information. It certainly greatly improved my enjoyment and skill at the game as I was able to quickly risk assess any worker placements rather then waste effort trying to remember who had what and could play it when. Ultimately I think open information here was the right design choice despite the small sacrifice.

    I also think there is another side to this debate – which is should closed information have an open option in app implementations of board games. The prime example for this for me is Stone Age – if I sit down to play stone age at the table I have no problem keeping boat cards taken hidden as all I need to track is who is concentrating on which end game scoring options.

    However on line I usually have 6 or 7 asynch games on the go and I struggle to keep track as to who has what cards – especially as the games feature several permutations of the same players. In the app I would very much like a setup option of enabling this information to be visible just to aide tracking.

    Finally i think in the real world as well as on line this should be a consensus amongst the players to ensure the game is enjoyable.

  6. Joe Huber says:

    Thanks all for the comments! It appears that in viewing open/closed holdings not as a rule, but as a suggestion, I’m clearly in the minority. Not a shock – in the gaming world, this often seems to be the case – but it is fascinating to hear the different perspectives.

  7. peer says:

    I rarely play open when the rules call for hidden information. And frankly in 90% of the cases I dont think an information is trackable by anyone safe the rain man perhaps. Yes, in THEORY you could remember every card in say Settler that everyone was holding, but I never met anyone who could do it (for everyone? the whole game? Youre kidding yourself!). So it becomes a game of “What is important to remember?” and thats a complete different game than with open cards.
    But maybe thats the Skatplayer in me…

    • Tom Rosen says:

      But the robber steals a random hidden resource in Settlers and only 2 of the players at the table know what it is. This means that opening the card info in Settlers is a fundamental change to the rules of the game. It’s not just revealing hidden fully trackable information; it’s un-hiding a previously hidden piece of information. That seems like a much bigger change to me than what Joe’s talking about here.

      • peer says:

        OK, it was just an example of something that you can track in theory (at least without the robber), but not in reality. Its like the scoring things in E&T (at least if you building a lot of monuments). Or IIRC the scoring in Small World is hidden – that its trackable in theory (at least with most combinations) is the point of the change.
        Judging from your first post were pretty much on the same page: Most information cant or at least wont be tracked in a normal game, keeping things hidden speeds up the game and sometimes causes tension.
        (Small story: Once I played 18xx with a guy who claimed: Either we play with open money or I will have to take notes which would prolonge the game a lot. What should it be?)

        • Joe Huber says:

          I’d argue that the tension it causes is one of whether folks will track the situation correctly or not – which is a tension I strongly dislike. But, of course, to each their own.

          I do agree that with some groups, keeping information public slows things down; with others, I’ve seen it speed things up. While I have a preference, I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s universally a better choice.

  8. playnoevil says:

    Ascension would seem to benefit from a Cribbage style score track. Designer intent is less important than quality play.

    So much of contemporary game design is driven by production cost concerns, designer intent may be moot.

  9. seisyll says:

    I wonder how much of the open vs. closed discussion is biased by memory skills. I have terrible short-term memory skills and am at a disadvantage in games where trackable info is closed. A classic example, for me, is the Ticket to Ride card game. In the game, you keep your “finished” colored train cards face-down in a pile. While this prevents your opponents from remembering what you’ve collected – the greater effect of this is that you yourself need to remember what you’ve played. The cognitive space spent attempting to recall my cards is not fun for me and so I absolutely detest this game. I fail miserably every time.

    And not only do I detest the game, but I tend to see it as a terrible game – because somehow, to me, memory testing is a weak game mechanic compared to other forms of strategy. This might be a bad call on my part, but I can’t help but see it that way – either you remember something or you don’t, there’s no choice, a forgotten item is not on par with a misplay. Also, racking my memory is just not fun; negotiating, comboing, computing mental probabilities are all very fun.

    But I wonder how these things are for those with very good memories. Testing of memory skills must be enjoyable for them. Closed, trackable information must be so appealing. It gives them an edge. So this is where I begin to wonder about some bias in this discussion.

    • Joe Huber says:

      On the contrary, I usually – though not always – find that it’s folks with a good memory who advocate open holdings.

      • David Brain says:

        But isn’t that because since they can track the information anyway, why make it tedious? (Personally I tend towards the closed holdings position, even in trackable games, but that may be because I don’t play much with people with that sort of memory.)

      • Friedemann says:

        No wonder for me. If I could memorize all that stuff I know I will do it and no matter how easy it is for me to memorize it, it still steals some concentration. If I do play with open information, it will be a benefit for me.

        If I’m not able to track this information, I will not do it, so it changes nothing for me, but if the information is open, I’m “forced” to take care of this information, because it is available.

        For me it is possible (and it was much easier when I was younger) to track this information, but I hate to do so. So I do not do it. My very high gaming experience (much higher than the average, because it is my job) helps me to have a good “feeling” about what the others might have. So I hate to play with all open information, not only because I do have an advantage of that, more I do not like to know it, because if I know this my turn would be longer and more complex because I would include that data to my choice and I like fast play.

        • jeffinberlin says:

          I’m with Freidemann as I like to play “aus den Bauch heraus”–on gut feeling, rather than making sure I have exact numbers.

          If too much important information is open, it would be like shopping for groceries and checking my account balance after each and every purchase!

  10. garygarison says:

    Ben: “I have never seen a player suggest the opposite–hiding information that the rules specify should be open.”

    Oh, I’ve seen it. Some folks have an overwhelming urge to keep their finances secret, as if games were real life.

  11. Dennis Mills says:

    Even when the information is perfectly trackable, there is still a certain amount of effort required to track it. Those who possess the required memory skills, and are willing to do the necessary work, are rewarded for their efforts by having better information about the game. But they also run the risk of making a tracking error, and thus relying on false information. On the other hand, those who don’t make the effort avoid both the risk and the reward, and probably make their decisions faster because they have less information to analyze.

  12. ndg says:

    Regarding not playing by the rules even from the first play, I prefer to play with open information from the start. Even if it falls flat, I think it’s a mistake to assume I should have tried it as the designer intended — the truth is that if it doesn’t work with open information then I wouldn’t want to play it anyway.

    (Obvious exceptions are deduction games like Letters From Whitechapel, bluff-y fillers etc.)

    An interesting example is Chicago Express. The official ruling is that money should be open, but I have had players argue that it should be closed — they usually say something like “the game can’t possibly work if money is known”. So it does go both ways.

  13. Mc Jarvis says:

    I prefer to play with open money. In my mind the issue more revolves around other players: I have an excellent memory and find it fairly trivial to remember who gets what as components are doled out. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other players— so often, games obscure information and it makes other players worse at strategy. Sometimes this is to my benefit, yet I feel no particular satisfaction in besting someone at a rote memory game. Other times players behave in irrational ways because they don’t know the game state anymore, and that irks me even more.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to whether the game is supposed to be a memory game. If it is, then by all means hide the information(and leave me out of it— I find memory games boring)— but if the game isn’t supposed to be a memory game, then leave the information clear and open, so I can play against better strategy and get a more enjoyable experience.

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