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Hidden structure

Andy Van Zandt
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Something that I feel pushes a lot of "good" games into "great" is hidden structure. When I say hidden structure, I mean structure that people don't realize is there. Something that affects their experience, but that they don't really consciously process. This hidden structure can be in the rules or in the graphic design. In graphic design, this often overlaps heavily with affordance (see my previous blog post on that), but not always. In rules, it can sometimes overlap with emergence. But there are other forms of hidden structure as well.

Let's start with some graphic design examples:

Can you imagine playing Eclipse or Terra Mystica without the information provided by the player board when things are on it and when they are removed from it? It is so ingrained in the experience of the game that it might be hard to even picture that information being separate in some way. It's hidden in plain sight, but that hidden structure deeply affects how you play, AND how you feel about the game as a result. It makes it easier to do things, speeds up gameplay, and (perhaps most importantly) makes it harder to mess up. And you often don't think about how integrated it is. It's seamless.

That seamless experience is very desirable, and all three attributes (easier to do, harder to mess up, faster playtime) are all important factors in hidden structure. If you have a card game, often it's a good idea to put key information in the corner of the card, so that when splayed it's easily viewable. This speeds up gameplay, and makes things easier, but doesn't really make it harder to make mistakes. This is still hidden structure, but isn't quite as awesome as if it prevented people from making mistakes regularly. Whether the mistakes it prevents are technical (such as preventing incorrectly playing a rule), or tactical (such as making an irreparably bad choice) is not really relevant, both are valuable things.

In both Endeavor and Orleans, one of the first things I point out when explaining the game is that the turn structure sort of moves "down" the board. The steps of the game in endeavor correspond directly to the position of the tracks on your player mat. In Orleans, you've got events at the top, farmer income below that, and knights pulling followers from the bag further down. That's the order in which you process the beginning of each round. You never have to look up what order any of that happens in, because it's right there.

What are some non-graphic-design examples of hidden structure?

Something I've mentioned before, in Splendor, is the way the rules combine to generate emergent behavior. The limit of how many gems are in play forces action by the players right as things are getting tight. This sounds so simple and obvious, but the game would be a very different (and worse) experience with a significantly bigger OR smaller pool of gems. But do you think about that during play? No, you just set the gem pool based on player count during setup, and the hidden structure prevents players from making the mistake of infinitely taking gems without advancing their board position, and prevents the game from reaching a state where you have a null turn. None of this is spelled out for you, but it's still there and it's integral to the success of the game.

There's an entire lesson hiding in Citadels about order of operations. The assassin goes first, because he needs to go before everyone else in order for his power to be meaningful. The thief goes second, which means he can never steal from the assassin. It also means that it's much less likely for the assassin to want to kill the thief, since he's already protected. We're only two cards into the order, and we've already got several layers of interaction. Both of these cards, as well as the bishop, can prevent the warlord from blowing things up, he goes last. But also, since he goes last, the bishop, king, and merchant will all be guaranteed to get their bonus money that turn from buildings they already had before the warlord can potentially set them back. And several of the cards can punish you for over-extending and not using your resources immediately. Literally all of this and more is accomplished just by having the resolution numbers in an intentional order. This core aspect of the game provides great hidden structure to the whole experience.

I like using Citadels for this example, because its leverage of this is such a big part of the game. Battlecruisers also has this as a critical attribute. But there are plenty of other, more subtle uses in many games - do you get income before or after an auction round? Do you get new recruits before or after movement? When do the disruption/take-that elements occur in a game? Sometimes it can be good for disruption to happen AFTER benefit generation, so that people are guaranteed at least one use. Sometimes it's better for it to happen BEFORE, so that there's a possibility for counter-play.

In Mysterium, you've got an entire second set of cards for the ghost to use. The rules could say "choose one set of person/place/thing for each player and secretly note it down on a piece of paper". This would make the game much cheaper, as it would cut out about half the components. But what does having a second set of cards do? It prevents the ghost player from having to use the public cards as reference. Players can't "follow the eyes" of the ghost and get extra information. And the ghost doesn't have to combat this by picking up every card to examine it equally, just to avoid giving out unintended information. In my opinion, this is an excellent design choice. It speeds up the game, makes it easier to play, and prevents players from accidentally or intentionally cheating. It checks all the boxes.

There's tons of stuff that you can do in games to generate hidden structure, and leveraging affordance and emergence can help immeasurably in this process. Hidden structure is one of the best tools you can use to make the experience of a game SHINE.
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