Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Ways to Create Space for Signaling in Games

Hot on the heels (for me) of my previous post about "Game of Strategy" (June 1: Design Pattern: Repeat Play Within A Single Game) I just finished reading chapters 9 and 10.  OK, I mostly skim read.  Chapter 9 on uncertainty and information was interesting but I did not feel the connection to game design as strongly as some past chapters.  Chapter 10 on strategic moves had some really interesting core ideas and LOTS of examples... that I started skipping. 

Look, if I'm going to finish this book any time soon I've got to make some compromises.

by Delapouite via game-icons.net
What is Signalling Again?
Signalling is something that the book discussed back in the first couple of chapters.  I talked about it a bit here.

Signaling is when you say or do something that implies your intent for the future.  It can be anything from an absolute guarantee that you will do X to a completely untrustworthy proclamation.

Chapter 10 talked a lot about signaling and strategic choices around signalling.  Parts of chapter 9 also delved deeper into signaling.

Why Do We Like Signaling?
I think signaling provides some really interesting strategic opportunities.  Social deduction games are an entire genre of around signaling.  Werewolf and The Resistance and their kin are built around trying to signal which team you are on -- either in truth or not.  Sometimes the signalling is all in the table talk but often there are mechanics that act as signals too.

Why does signaling have such value?  It gets to the core of what makes a game.  Remember that this book defines a strategic game in large part by having two or more participants who are aware of the impact their choices have on each other.  Signaling messes with that awareness and can add depth to the simplest of games.

Just think about Werewolf.  This is a game whose only required component is a small deck of cards -- from which you get 1 card each for the whole game.  Werewolf also has very, very few mechanics.  After set-up you basically have two things to do: talk and then decide who to hang.  That's it.  And yet this is a game that defines a genre and a game publisher.

Now lets look at three things that I think can be captured in game mechanics and generate space for signalling.

by Delapouite via game-icons.net
1) Partially Aligned Interests

In Chapter 9, the authors talk a lot about talk as a signal.  The big take-away is that talk's value as a signal is related to how aligned the interests of the participants are.  

If the players have perfectly aligned interests (and know it) their talk is a pretty reliable signal.  Think co-op games.  If the players' interests are completely competitive then talk is completely unreliable and best ignored as a signal.  But that leaves an interesting space in the middle -- a situation the authors term partially aligned interests.

Dead of Winter is a decent example of this.  In Dead of Winter, most players a shared public object and a unique secret objective.  So one goal is shared with the group and yet the other goal is not shared and sometimes those two goals are in conflict.  This creates an interesting dynamic where apparently sub-optimal plays can either be willful sabotage (there can be traitors), bad luck (they just don't have the cards to help), or prioritization of the player's second goal.

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2) Voluntarily Reducing Your Freedom of Action

The end of chapter 10 had a great section on ways to add credibility to your signals.

The first main category was reducing your freedom of action.  This harkens back to their old example of the game of chicken.  If the driver of one car throws her steering wheel out of the car, you know she isn't turning.  She is committed to going straight and you better turn.

I can't think of any games that really use this idea mechanically but I feel like this would be really interesting.  What if a game gave a significant advantage to the player who went first, but that player had significantly fewer options on their turn?


by Delapouite via game-icons.net
3) Public Betting on Outcomes

The second big category in this section was entitled changing your payoffs.  This is something I do have some good examples for.  Nearly every horse racing game has you bet on different horses.  Sometimes publicly, sometimes not, sometimes semi-publicly.

Titan: The Arena is a good old-school example.  In Titan Arena you bet on various monsters that may or may not last the round.  Obviously that action changes your incentive to have that creature win and strongly signals that you will and can do things to keep the creature around.

Further Discussion
I'm behind in my listening to the podcasts by Messrs. Aaron, Austin, and Paul on these topics.  Here they talk about Chapter 9... here Chapter 10.  

I'm going to go do that now, in fact.

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