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The currency of secrecy

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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Microbadge: You Said This Would Be FunMicrobadge: LeftyMicrobadge: SPACE-BIFF!Microbadge: Van Morrison fanMicrobadge: The Sands of Time
BGG isn't a game -- heck, it isn't always even fun! -- but it has one feature that some games have that allows us to illustrate a point of good game design.

I'm talking about , BGG's peculiar currency that you can use to buy an avatar or some microbadges or ... well, actually that's about it. Most of us use it to signify "super-approval" of posts we really like: more than a thumbs up, I am giving you ! And that's of course a very nice gesture and a perfectly fine use of .

(One useful thing you can buy with : a You Said This Would Be Fun microbadge, quite a bargain at 8 GG, and I'll even give you the GG if you want the badge. Click on the badge in my profile to find it, it's the one that looks like this, just smaller:

From gallery of jwarrend


I've seen prototype games that had in-game currencies that functioned in a somewhat similar way. A friend designed a political game and you had political capital you could spread around to bribe people to do what you wanted them to. The trouble was, there wasn't anything to spend that political capital on other than bribery, and thus the currency had no actual value. Not surprisingly, the deal-making layer fell flat once we realized this.

In a separate instance, an early version of Captains of Industry allowed players to move money and resources around to be able to afford buildings, but the economy quickly tanked. The reason in that case was that, although players were supposed to share resources a la Settlers to be able to afford what they needed, there wasn't enough influx of those resources into the game, and once resources left the game the game's overall economy became resource-poor.

And in my own game, Sands of Time, at one point we had a situation where you collected "civ tokens" which you could use to pay for advances, chronicles, or in battle. The idea was that paying them in battle was supposed to be painful, but at one point the economy was so loose that you wouldn't have anything else you needed them for, so people would be throwing 20 tokens at a time into key battles. (And not to mention, the effect of "paying these tokens in battle will feel painful because it means giving up being able to pay for a higher chronicle" never materialized -- people just counted out how many tokens they'd need for their desired chronicle, and paid all but that number of tokens in the battle).

The implication of these is that lateral movement of money and resources in a game only makes sense if there is also vertical movement of money into and out of the game.


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In the previous post we talked about the value of secrecy. In this post I'm going to riff a little bit on an idea I've had for a different game, which uses secrecy as a currency.

The game in view is Palace of Dreams, which I've talked about here. Briefly, players are power-brokers who manipulate the empire's dream-interpretation bureaucracy for their own advantage.

There's a sort of negotiation layer to the game but it's a bit more like a coordination layer. Each turn, the empire confronts a series of problems, which are secret. Also each turn, the dream ministry announces one dream to be "the master dream", which the sultan should use to guide his policy. So, the two most powerful offices each propose a course of action based on this dream, the players all contribute influence tokens to one or the other course, and then the sultan "decides" via biased randomizer.

So one currency in the game are these influence tokens, which are something that move around laterally to get opponents to do stuff for you, AND, I think they're also the basic for a quirky combat system: I attack you with a bid of these influence tokens, you counter, and we go back and forth, and then the winner pays their bid to the loser. All of that movement is lateral, but the vertical movement comes from paying tokens to bias the sultan's die roll, and the sultan bestowing favors on his loyal associates IF the proposed course of action adequately deals with the problems of the turn.

That brings us to the secret currency. In addition to the dream ministry there are four other ministries, and there are four possible kinds of problems, each affecting one of those ministries. There are three (?) "problem tokens" of each type, all scrambled together, and four are pulled out: these are the problems the empire faces this turn.

Each player gets one of the remaining tokens, maybe more. And holding certain offices authorizes you to look at the main four problem tokens.

Thus everyone has a bit of information (you know the token you hold is NOT one of the main problem tokens), and there's something tangible for the proposed course of action to connect to: did we avert the war, did we clamp down on heresy?

But I have realized that there are more interesting uses for these tokens as well. For example, perhaps a player can switch the token he holds with one of the four problem tokens. Perhaps a player can use his token as a sort of investment or prediction, which gives him a benefit if that problem actually shows up or if it is (or is not) addressed. Perhaps these tokens can be traded; perhaps they can be used to take action in support of or in opposition to the ministry they correspond to.

So instead of multi-use cards we have multi-use tokens. But another thing they can do is that they can be considered subversive. An opponent can attempt to discredit you by accusing you of holding a token for X ministry: clearly you are plotting something self-serving associated with that ministry! Thus these tokens can act as a sort of hot-potato whereby on the one hand you want to delay using or deploying them until you know what the lay of the land is, and you can use them to give or get information or favors; but on the other hand, if someone figures out what you've got you're at risk of them using that knowledge against you. But surely you can trust that person not to do that to you, right? Perhaps by sharing info with you, you feel safe because you have the ability to retaliate, except what if they get rid of their token before accusing you of the token they know you hold?

I talked about how I wanted this game to have an element of mistrust but also an element of climactic and decisive strikes, and this idea of a secret currency that can do different things for you but the use of which gives information could really amplify the feeling of paranoia the game is supposed to create.
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