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?