There are many board games where all of your information is public. Monopoly players can see just how badly they’re boned with a glance around the table. Many other games prefer to keep a player’s information hidden. In any classic card game, from poker to rummy, it can be difficult to determine how good or bad the hand of an opponent is at any given time. Some games mix an element of the unknown into their gameplay. Lords of Waterdeep keeps the true identity of its players hidden until the very end, as does Archipelago from what I understand. And then there are the games where hidden information and deception are a focal point of gameplay, a system without which the game could not operate at all.
I’ve recently been playing Mascarade at lunch with the dayjob crew. Technically a party game, Mascarade distributes a number of role cards to its players, each with an ability to earn gold coins from the stockpile in the middle. Some, like the King and Queen, generate wealth on their own, while others, such as the Bishop and the Thief, take that wealth from other players. Not only are these roles hidden from all players, but the main action of the game is in swapping roles. The swaps happen out of sight of all players, as the swapping player must execute the swap under the table. A player may not know what role they have until they either spend their turn looking at their card, or get challenged by another player when they try to use their assumed role’s ability. In addition to requiring deductive reasoning and a decent poker face, it’s a good test of memory skills as well: did you actually swap your Witch card for that guy’s King card, or did you lose track of which card was which while they were under the table?
I’ve mentioned The Resistance: Avalon here before, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Another game of hidden roles and deductive reasoning, Avalon‘s sole focus is on making the most of scraps of information gathered through observation. You have to pay attention, actively, to what other players are saying and doing, to either determine who among you are the traitors, or shift and deflect blame like some form of deceptive judo. Avalon adds the roles that The Resistance lacks to give the game an additional layer of deception and deduction: if the traitors can determine who Merlin is, they will win even if the loyal players succeed in their missions. It requires a great deal of concentration.
I think the pinnacle of this use of hidden threats may lie with Battlestar Galactica‘s board game adaptation. The game is, essentially, cooperative: players take on roles of the Galactica’s crew and characters, from hothead Viper pilots like Apollo and Starbuck to well-reasoned leaders like Adama and Roslin. Every turn, players will face a crisis that either requires them to work together, presents the active player with a choice that could sap the group of precious resources, or places Cylon forces on the board that must be fended off while the Galactica prepares to jump to the next system. The game could function well enough with just this system, but on top of this is the fact that one or more players around the table could be Cylons themselves. At the start of the game and at about the halfway point, Loyalty cards are dealt to each player to tell them what side they’re on. A player can reveal themselves as a Cylon at any time, activating a special power that can cripple Galactica or cause other kinds of trouble. However, an effective Cylon will remain hidden for several turns, perhaps working to sabotage a crisis here and there to make victory all more the difficult to attain for the humans. Savvy players must then try to discern who at the table might be a Cylon at the same time they’re trying to keep the civilian population safe and the Galactica’s supply of Vipers repaired, all while searching for the route to Earth. I’ve only played the game once as of this writing, but given how much fun I had in spite of the rules confusion and other factors, it’s safe to say I will definitely be playing it again.