You might say that making a good deception-based game is a task more difficult than making, say, a Eurogame. After all, games that make us question the truthfulness of our friends are based on a set of concepts much more nebulous than a well-written and tested mathematical model that will run your trading in the Mediterranean game.
But there are a few simple rules you can follow to be well on your way to designing a good mind game. Let’s try to establish them using the most successful games of the genre that have been published during the last few years.
This one is probably the most obvious: in order to be able to bluff or deceive, your game must adapt a specific stance toward the information players have at their disposal. To put simply, this information must be incomplete.
Whether it’s the hidden identities of Battlestar Galactica or the hidden movement of Jack the Ripper in Letters from Whitechapel, you need vital pieces of information to be available only to some players. In Terra Mystica there is no way of convincing your opponent to do the less beneficial thing – if they can see the board, they can count your resources, scrutinize your resources and be sure of what the best course of action is – both for you, and for them.
A game of bluff and deception works only when all the players know the rules really well. So it goes a long way to create a rule set that is very easy to comprehend, as players will simply not be able to look through their opponents’ true motives, if they are unsure of how some of the game elements and mechanisms actually work.
Look at The Resistance that uses the most basic of rules to seamlessly introduce the players into a world of uncertainty and subterfuge. Or see how well Shadows over Camelot makes use of elements of Poker to quickly get players on board with what’s going on around the multiple quests – and multiple boards – the game includes.
Many deception-based games work as well as they do because of some key elements of their mechanisms: procedures that need to be followed very carefully in order for the game to work well on its interpersonal level. And it is your job to make sure your players will understand and easily follow these procedures.
One of my most refreshing gaming experiences was trying out One Night Ultimate Werewolf – a game that made the original Werewolf playable for me. However, every time you begin a game, you need to carefully follow a set of ordered steps – and do it with your eyes closed! However, in order to make the whole process easy to follow, the publisher also made available a free application, that will not only simplify the trickiest part of the game, but even put you in the right mood.
Finally, you need to make sure that if the game introduces hidden identities, there are ample opportunities to make them stay hidden – and ways a smart player (or the game mechanisms themselves) can obscure who is who.
Previously mentioned Battlestar Galactica does a great job with that with its Crisis mechanism (players each turn play face down cards to a stack that is then randomized and supplemented with two unknown cards from a general deck), and the recent hit Dead of Winter takes a page from it, and adds a very smart hidden objective system, that makes all players (not only traitors) do fishy stuff from time to time.
No matter how much work you put in your game of bluffing, deception and misinformation, you’ll encounter people who will hate your game – or outright refuse to play it. And it may be as robust as Dead of Winter, as dramatic as Battlestar Galactica, and as mind boggling as One Night Ultimate Werewolf , but some will still stay away from it simply due what the games makes them do, and they are simply unwilling to lie, cheat, deceive, be the traitor, the Cylon or the suicide bomber.