Hiding Information from Players

As a game designer, you should never hide information that the player already has from the player.  The reasoning: the player has this information already, so all you are doing by not tracking it within the game is encouraging the player to track it manually out-of-game.  This is a big waste of time for the player, and it never feels good to have to choose between two bad options: either spend a bunch of time tracking it manually or playing worse on purpose by not tracking whatever information.

An obvious example of what I’m talking about is with things like in-game maps. It’s not a requirement that a roguelike includes a map the player can browse at-will; the game could hide the map from the player and still function properly. Probably no one would play that roguelike, of course, since it’s unbelievably annoying to have to keep track of everything manually.

The game that has me writing about this is actually Dominion, however. If you haven’t played it (or heard of it), the only information you really need to know is that it’s a card game, and it has a discard pile where you put cards you’ve already played. The relevant thing to this post is that Dominion actually includes a rule saying you cannot look through your discard pile.

To me, this is absolutely insane. It’s completely impossible for a card in Dominion to enter your discard pile without you knowing that it did so, so this is a case where the player already knows all the information. It’s really easy to check, and honestly takes almost no time at all to do so. The ostensible justification for the rule, I think, is to speed up gameplay … but the problem is that probably it does just the opposite.

If you’re just playing casually then probably you don’t care too much to track which cards in your deck you have already seen, so checking your discard pile does not happen to begin with and the rule is irrelevant. However, if you are taking the game seriously, then it’s pretty important in a lot of situations to know what cards remain in your deck and what cards you’ve already played. So the “best” way to account for this, as a player, is to spend a lot of time making absolutely sure that you know what cards you’ve played, since you are not allowed to check this afterward.

The rules also say you can’t track this stuff on paper, so what you want to do is figure out some other way of keeping track. Probably this comes at the cost of doing things like actually playing your cards quickly, since after every card play you need to make sure you add it to your mental tracker. In practice perhaps this ends up being too complicated, so you just have a vague, inexact idea about how many of each card you’ve played. To me, that just feels really unsatisfying and hurts my enjoyment. Thankfully it’s not too much of a problem in real life since the appropriate thing to do here is just house rule away the problem by letting people look through their discard pile.

It’s a pretty serious problem in online Dominion, though. The no-notetaking rule is completely unenforcable. It’s trivial to keep a text file open and use it to track which cards you’ve played. It’s technically cheating, but you can’t ever stop people from doing it, and the information is available to the player anyway. Removing the restriction on looking through your discard pile strongly reduces the incentive to take notes in this fashion, so the rule should just go away. And as I said above, it doesn’t actually help anyone to begin with: if you don’t care about tracking your deck, then you don’t care whether you can look through your discard pile.

I should note here I only mean looking through your own discard pile. Opponents’ discard piles are not actually public information, and that’s fine. Additionally, while it is helpful to track your opponents’ cards in the same way you’d like to track your own, the no-notetaking rule is fine because notetaking actually does slow down play, so there is a benefit to the rule existing. (It’s still a problem online, of course, but there’s a good argument for the online version of Dominion sticking to the rulebook in this case.)

Also, lest it sound like I’m ragging on Dominion too much here, I should note that the game is amazing. It’s just this rule that’s bad.

A great way to handle this in online play is the way Star Realms does it. In the Star Realms app you can click on any discard pile to view the contents of that discard pile, and you can also click on either player’s deck to view the cards remaining in the deck. This is all public information anyway, so letting the player access it so easily is a great thing.

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