No hands!

Open question on how to design traditional games for the dystopian future of closed computing.

kennyrogersgambler.jpgEven though it doesn’t sound like it, my official stance on the iPad remains “undecided.” But back when I was going on about the vast potential of the thing, I said that an obvious and interesting first step would be translating traditional games — card games and board games, to start with — to a touch interface. It’s still intriguing to me: it’d make them more “intimate” than network-based multiplayer games, and more tactile than local multiplayer games.

I’d bet that plenty of people saw the problem with that immediately, but it took a while for it to occur to me. I’m not talking about the most obvious problem of paying 500 bucks to play chess or poker; I’m assuming that the simpler traditional games will quickly give way to fancier projects, like variants on Magic: The Gathering-type games or Real-Time Strategy or tabletop roleplaying or that global war game that Bond played against the bad guy in Never Say Never Again.

The more interesting problem is that almost every card and board game I can think of requires you to have a hand that the other players can’t see.

Even games like Settlers of Catan, where most of the action takes place on a shared game board, has an element of strategy in what you hide from the other players. When Big Huge Games did their Xbox Live version of Catan, they assumed that everybody counts cards anyway (obviously they’ve never seen me trying to count cards in a game), so they made that information publicly available. But as far as I can remember, the number and type of victory cards each player has is still kept secret.

A cooperative game like Pandemic would be an obvious candidate. And from what I understand, D&D campaigns have players cooperating against a dungeon master. (I’ve been writing this blog for six years and I’ve finally used the phrase “dungeon master.” It’s been a good run). But cooperative games are a niche category even for board games.

Now, I admit that it did occur to me that players could view their private info on an iPhone or iPod Touch, and use the iPad as a central game board. And I do admit that the idea of that gives me a geek boner like you couldn’t imagine. But it still feels deeply, fundamentally, morally wrong to even suggest such a thing.

So two questions:

  1. Are there any existing competitive board games that don’t require players to have a “hand” that’s kept secret from other players?
  2. Using a shared device like an iPad or a big touch-sensitive video table, what would be some good ways to keep player-specific information hidden from other players?

14 thoughts on “No hands!”

  1. “And from what I understand, D&D campaigns have players cooperating against a dungeon master.”

    Well, not exactly. The DM is supposed to be a completely neutral party who facilitates the gameplay/storytelling, acts out the various NPCs, etc. The player/DM split is more like a system of checks and balances to maintain the pace of the game and keep things interesting for both sides. In a Pure Gygaxian System, anyway.

  2. Well, many dice-based games don’t require hands of cards, such as cross and circle games like Halma, and the Game of the Goose. Another example that comes to my mind is Monopoly, which does have cards, but nothing that must be kept secret from other players. Tic-tac-toe would be another interesting game perhaps.

    When thinking of more traditional games, chess, checkers and go, along with backgammon are all played “out in the open”. Yacht and dominoes as well. I can’t think of any other examples at the moment, but I’m sure there are more.

    As for your second question, that’s tricky, and I’m not at all an expert, but there must be a way to do it. Perhaps they can make the display in such a way that your own cards can only be viewed from a particular angle (your angle, to be precise), making them essentially invisible to the others. Another way might be to have augmented reality glasses, although that might not be desirable in the social context of playing a game. You could always just put something in front of your virtual cards, but that would defeat the purpose of having a touch screen or table. These things are interesting to ponder…

  3. Here’s a suggestion. Each player gets on ear Jack from the stereo and players get there info through audio.

  4. The only game I’d like to play on it would be pictionary. Not that Jeff, Jan and J didn’t have good ideas as well.

  5. Each player gets on ear Jack from the stereo and players get their info through audio.

    That’s a cool idea. The original Xbox promised something like that when they introduced it with the headset; the API lets you send audio to individual controllers, so you could be sending different instructions to different players even at the same console. I don’t know of any games that really take advantage of that, though.

    When thinking of more traditional games, chess, checkers and go, along with backgammon are all played “out in the open”. Yacht and dominoes as well.

    It’s been a while since I’ve played dominoes; don’t you have a “hand” of tiles, like Scrabble? The idea of the iPad working as a portable chess, checkers, or go board where you don’t have to keep track or reset the pieces seems like a natural. I wouldn’t be surprised if a version of Battle Chess is already in the works, or something like the game they played in Star Wars.

    You could always just put something in front of your virtual cards, but that would defeat the purpose of having a touch screen or table.

    Yeah, you could even have a “peek” button that would reveal your hand/pieces/tiles/whatever, knowing that you have to obscure that part of the board with your hand whenever you pressed the button.

    With the iPad, an idea that just occurred to me: you could take advantage of the accelerometers and detect when the thing gets picked up. So if you want to look at your cards, you just pick the device up. Assuming the two players are facing each other, it would detect whether it’s upside down or not to determine whose hand to show.

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve played dominoes; don’t you have a “hand” of tiles, like Scrabble?

    Yes, you’re right; I guess I wasn’t properly awake when I wrote that.

    One thing I thought of with a table, maybe if it is divided up into several segments or tiles, you could tilt up one of those (the one that contains your hand of cards) when you want to look at your hand. Then when you’re done with that, put it back into place, so it’s one flat surface again.

    Man… when you watch The Jetsons, you can’t help but feel we’ve still got a long way to go, technology-wise…

  7. I just don’t see why you would want to play card games with virtual cards and another human player. I like normal playing cards. They have a great look, don’t require batteries and it’s easy to keep others from seeing your hand. If I were going to play games with other people on something like the iPad I’d want to play games I couldn’t play normally.

    It wouldn’t have to be a big difference, but something that makes it worthwhile. Like playing Cluedo and after you choose what you think is the correct murder a little cutscene is acted out portraying it as you describe. And if you really want to play a game with hands, have each player take turns inscribing their personal symbol onto the touchpad. Then when they want to see their hand they hold the iPad so no one else can see the screen, “draw” their little symbol and their hand pops up.

  8. No, traditional card games on a portable computer aren’t necessary, but they’ll give way to other games. Either ones that have more pieces or more complicated score-keeping that’d be nice to have a computer to keep track of (like say Puerto Rico), or ones that would benefit from having animation or art, like you describe. Even Clue has info that has to be kept secret from other players, which is what I call a “hand.”

  9. I think Carcassone is my favorite example of a competitive (or more accurately “co-opetitive”) board game without secrets.

    I like the idea of using the accelerometer to display different hands in different orientations, albeit one that would be reasonably easy to cheat.

    I helped solve a puzzle on a Surface that used multiple colors of glasses to present different information to different players. Board games themselves have used colored lenses to hide information, so it is a possibly fitting tool, albeit one that restricts your color palette for the hidden information.

    The geek in me thinks that there should even be some interesting cryptographic tools that could be applied… One simple obvious idea, each player inputs a secret number from 1 to 25 and the output gets Ceasar shifted with that number. If players don’t mind that little bit of mental alphabet math, it would be a reasonable way to keep each other honest. You could even throw in good old fashioned Decoder Wheels, to make the math a little easiers.

  10. Pssst…I just heard a rumor. Chuck took the Pepsi challenge…and chose, “Pepsi,” over “Coke.” Pass it on.

  11. Kudos for mentioning Pandemic. I think cooperative games are a niche category because it’s hard to design one that is compelling, but Pandemic is a notable success, about the only coop board game I can think of that holds up under repeat play.

    I note that Carcassone and Puerto Rico have been mentioned, I’ll add Power Grid (I think your bank account is technically secret in that game but it doesn’t make much difference). And Vino, though there is a momentarily secret aspect as you decide which areas to focus on. Modern German board game design leaves much out in the open, but I’ll also throw this thought out for consumption: how important is it to have a game playable on an open board when the platform seems to be intended to be something that each player will have, rather than just one central unit?

  12. how important is it to have a game playable on an open board when the platform seems to be intended to be something that each player will have, rather than just one central unit?

    For something that’s played on a personal device like a phone, it’s not an issue at all; you can combine private and public information on the same screen. There are plenty of peer-to-peer multiplayer games available on the iPhone already, although I haven’t tried any of them.

    I’ve been thinking more about something like the iPad, and assuming that they won’t be as ubiquitous as a phone. The idea of iPad-based games is really interesting to me now, since you get the social advantages of table-top gaming but can add animation, sound, more complex score-keeping and status updating, and have a ton of games that you carry with you instead of requiring a room full of game boxes or keeping track of a billion little plastic tokens. If you get two or more people in a room all staring at their phones, it’s less social than if you’ve got everybody sharing the same device.

    I haven’t really gotten into multiplayer gaming, even hotseat games, outside of Team Fortress 2, because it tends to feel like a single-player game where other people are crowding in on my space. But I like Game Night (when I can go), and love the idea of making social games that aren’t all split-screen shooters or beat-em-ups.

  13. Here’s a list of board games with no secret information that haven’t been mentioned: Ra, Bananagrams, Vegas Showdown, Tikal, Thebes, Hansa, Pirateer, Conflict, Tongiaki and of course Qwirkle Cubes. 🙂

    And here’s a list of “good” gateway games I found on BGG that values having no secret information: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/38507/revisiting-good-gateway-games

    Ticket to Ride on Xbox Live allows players to play each other using the same screen. If I recall, there’s a button you hold to bring up your hand and ticket cards. I was a little surprised that Catan on Xbox Live didn’t support same screen play at all.

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