As part of an attempt to make peace between my conflicting desire to discuss game design and to talk endlessly about 404 (Still live on kickstarter! One week left!) today is going to focus on hidden objectives. The basic conflict in a lot of games is to achieve your goals before your opponents achieve theirs. Hampering your opponents' progress is often a powerful tool to this end, so trying to hide your intentions acts in support of your goals. Some games highlight this aspect of competition, making it vital to ensure that your opponent can't answer a simple question:
A lot of games use the notion of a secret objective as something to add spice. Twilight Imperium was the first to come to mind, which each player having a two point secret objective that isn't shared by the others. Malifaux followed hot on its heels, with players selecting secret objectives in addition to the main one and needing to follow through. The key here is that these games have a core main objective that's open information and players have secret objectives that can be executed in addition, which will not win the game on their own, but can contribute to a successful strategy.
In this type of game the design of the hidden objectives can serve to be masked by the main objective. For instance you may be trying to nab an adjacent player's homeworld in TI3, but an objective might pop up to acquire a certain number of planets, allowing you to hide setting up an attack on their homeworld as an opportunistic land grab. In this instance secret objectives help to encourage players to interact with the game more fully, as they explore ways of going about the core objectives that they otherwise might have eschewed in favour of "what worked last time".
Hidden objectives also play a very important role in traitor games like Mafia or The Resistance. I've written about this style of game before, but to quickly summarise: In these games players initially appear to all be on the same team, working towards a common objective. However a minority of the players are traitors, who win if the team loses and lose if it wins. Concealing your objectives is obviously very important to this type of game and the design of the game as a whole often succeeds or fails based on how well the game does at providing traitors opportunities to disguise their treasonous intent.
In this instance the standard hidden objective is a simple "make your team win", however there's still room to elaborate on the theme. For instance some games of mafia feature star crossed lovers that will lose if either of them dies (there are plenty of other variants of this role), in this case the secret objective for some of the players changes to "make my team win without getting X killed" which can generate more complicated emergent gameplay. Suddenly the traitor team can't be exactly sure of each other's motivations as their partners may be pursuing other goals.
The final category of hidden objective games that leapt out at me was those games that centred around them. Examples include Discworld: Ankh Morpork and 404: Law Not Found. In these games all players have hidden objectives and a lot of the skill to these games is focused on working out your opponents plans while keeping your own secret.
For instance in 404 you might be looking to open all of the doors in order to expose every room to space. If you go about this in the most straightforward way someone will notice and start closing doors which will make your life much harder. Instead starting by killing a few humans in other ways and then opening doors might imply that you're only opening doors as a means to kill humans, leading to players trying to counter by hiding the humans away or putting them in space suits, which doesn't impact upon your actual objective.
Hidden objectives can play a wide variety of roles in the games that they're found in, I'm particularly partial to ones that allow players to engage with different strategies in repeated plays. A lot of games have interesting facets that are never fully explored, it's often disadvantageous to try a move "because it's cool", but once it also covers setup for a vital objective it becomes viable, leading to more dynamic and intriguing play. Though the main change, which for the right type of game is a benefit, remains bringing the social dimension to play and everything that comes with it.