I’ve been binging Shut Up and Sit Down reviews, mostly because I just love their accents, and something they mentioned about Inis has me wondering whether one of my favorite ways to add intrigue to games might actually be strictly worse than familiar alternatives which we simply don’t normally consider as alternatives. Here’s the chain of thought:
Inis, I’m told, has an option to gain cards which are extremely powerful in relatively narrow situations. “Extremely powerful” seems like it could be cashed out as having a high expected value of progress toward victory. If that’s right, then, for a really well-analyzed game, each such card would be able to be assigned an expected VP contribution, with some variance based on how well everything else in the game allows the player to take advantage of its power. So, now, consider what futzing around with that variance means. On the high end, you’d have cards which, if you manage to arrange the difficult circumstance in which they’re playable, might effectively win you the game outright or accomplish very little at all (indeed, we can imagine that the card might ruin your hopes of ever winning, though that would presumably require some opacity in its effects, else one simply wouldn’t play it). On the low end, there’s no variance at all—the card is worth a fixed number of VPs.
But that’s all hidden goals are, isn’t it? If, in Wingspan, I satisfy my hidden goal of having five or more platform-nesting birds, I get a bonus of six VPs, or whatever. Usually, hidden goals stay hidden until end-game scoring, so they add a degree of uncertainty about relative performance which eases bash-the-leader problems, but there’s no reason other cards couldn’t have effects if you end the game with them in your hand and their conditions satisfied. It doesn’t seem to me like hidden goals offer anything beyond any other sorts of cards you could have in your hand, but those other cards A) offer quite a lot more options, and B) have lower structural overhead, because you don’t need a separate kind of card.
That reasoning makes sense to me, but it has for so long seemed as though hidden goals enhanced my experience of games that I doubt my conclusion. Is it really possible that I’ve just been subject to an illusion that this has brought something distinctive to game design? That not impossible; after all, Tigris and Euphrates was long regarded as highly innovative for scoring only your lowest category, and there was a widespread intuition that this made its gameplay unique, until it was observed that this is mathematically identical to the very familiar set collection. So, maybe, this is no more than that—a common illusion.
But that doesn’t seem tremendously likely. Mass illusions may not be unknown, but they must be very rare, right? Please? Anyway, I wonder whether hidden goals, or some convention common to them without being strictly necessary, makes a contribution I’m undervaluing. Perhaps it matters that effects which affect cards in hand can’t touch them, so players can feel more committed to their goals knowing that they can’t be forced to reveal or discard them. Perhaps it matters that everyone gets the same number in many games, and the simplicity of that eases cognitive load. Maybe it’s something entirely different.
But I’m imagining that, rather than simply offering a VP bonus, we took the same triggers and turned them into game-state-affecting cards. So, rather than “if you gain control of Venice, flip this card for 1 VP”, you had “if you control Venice, you may play this card to build two fleets” or “turn control of Athens over to the player who controls Venice” (assuming the expected VP value of those effects is roughly 1). That strikes me as more exciting, and seems like it would connect me more fully to the game and its other mechanisms, rather than siloing everything. What I loved most when I first played Chaos in the Old World is how related everything was—upgrading units, paying for cards, moving on the board, summoning new units—everything ran on the common resource of power. So you had the freedom to do anything, but doing anything traded away your opportunities to do everything else.