Hidden Knowledge

I’d like to talk about a game concept I like to call “hidden knowledge”. What I am talking about is the game content that players unfamiliar to a game don’t know but more veteran players do. I’m not referring to strategy or even experience but rather just knowing what scenarios are even possible.

For example in a card game where you draw cards from a deck, a player who has never played the game has no familiarity of what they will draw. As you can imagine, this plays a large role in the learning curve of a game. The more hidden knowledge in a game, the more difficult the game is to learn. Players can’t develop a cohesive strategy if they don’t know what’s coming or is even possible. Often it takes a couple plays (or more) for players to become familiar and comfortable enough to feel like they are doing more than a practice run.

Players can’t develop a cohesive strategy if they don’t know what’s coming or is even possible.

What are some tabletop games that demonstrate this problem? Surprisingly, there are many, and some of them are even the most popular games out there.

Take a look at 7 Wonders for example. 7 Wonders is a hidden card drafting game split into three ages (phases of the game). Players are drafting cards from a private hand so your view of what cards are available is limited to just what is in your own hand until more cards are passed to you. To make matters worse, because the game is split into three ages, you don’t know what to prepare for in the next age. The game escalates quickly from age to age and being unprepared for the final age makes it difficult to score well.

Another popular game that exhibits a lot of hidden knowledge is Race for the Galaxy. Race contains a staggering number of distinct cards. Even the ubiquitous Settlers of Catan has a development card deck. Newer players focus on building as many settlements as possible but experienced Catan players know that drawing development cards can often result in surprise or sudden victory.

So many incredibly popular games contain large amounts of hidden knowledge so it can’t be all that bad, right? That’s correct. One characteristic that many of these games have is replayability. Even though players familiar with the game know what cards there are, they don’t know which ones they will draw. The variety of cards and limited nature of hidden knowledge games often forces players into new and never seen before situations where they have to adapt with a strategy they may not have played with in the past.

The variety of cards and limited nature of hidden knowledge games often forces players into new and never seen before situations.

There are also many ways for game designers to mitigate and even eliminate the downsides of hidden knowledge. A lot of these tricks involve giving players asymmetrical starts. These differences hint at what is possible and signals what kind of strategy you might consider pursuing. And since it’s different for each player, no single strategy gets saturated or overwhelmed.

In 7 Wonders players each starting with a unique board that represents their wonder. The board hints at what resources you should be focusing on and the powers that wonder grants can point towards a particular strategy. Race for the Galaxy employs a similar trick by having each player start with a different planet.

Dominion is a game that has managed to eliminate the hidden knowledge problem while still maintaining a high level of replayability. Dominion is a deckbuilding game that displays 10 different kingdom cards that are actions that players can purchase and add into their decks. These kingdom cards are revealed to everyone at the beginning of the game so there is no hidden knowledge. Instead, the replayability of the game comes from the fact that the 10 kingdom cards are different every game. Settlers of Catan also uses this trick with its hexagonal tiles. The game board can be set up differently each time.

However having no hidden knowledge and completely symmetrical starts can sometimes mean there’s one dominant strategy and the first player to discover and execute it gains a large advantage.

In the game I’m currently designing, Fantastic Factories, I also have the hidden knowledge issue to consider. Players draw from a deck of factory blueprint cards. Having the right combination of blueprints/factories is key to winning the game. I chose to mitigate the problem by having an open draft marketplace between turns. The marketplace allows players to see more cards but because other players draft from the marketplace, they aren’t guaranteed to get the card they want. This forces players to adapt to changing conditions and also rewards them for pursuing less popular and more unique strategies.

So now that you guys know all about hidden knowledge, what are some games that you believe do a good — or bad — job of dealing with hidden knowledge?