Designing a Game around Hidden Identity
There is a special feeling I get when playing games with hidden identity. There is an aura of mystery that instantly captures my interest and gets me completely immersed. I think it is because I put myself in the shoes of the characters and put on my detective hat on, so I can outsmart and perhaps deceive my opponents.
Because of my fascination of hidden identity games, I, myself have tried to design a game around this idea. However, there were always a couple of issues that I couldn’t overcome; issues such as, asymmetrical win conditions, character balances, and keeping an element of mystery was always a hurdle for me.
I reached out to Mitchell and his team (Cloudfall Studios), who designed Captain’s Gambit, to learn more about their thoughts and ideas on how to design a game around the hidden identity concept. Captain’s Gambit is an asymmetrical Shakespeare-inspired hidden role game. He and his team were happy to share some of their experiences regarding their game design.
Captain’s Gambit is an asymmetric Shakespeare-inspired hidden role game.
Your secret objective depends on which alien captain you’re given — for example, the technomancer Prospero must stockpile power, brainmother Lady Macbeth must bloody her hands, and Hamlet must assassinate a specific target.
Each player has one captain card and two permit cards. Permit cards correlate to permit actions, which are powerful moves that can be bluffed. Since permit cards stay face-down, players can declare any action they would like — but other players can challenge that declaration if they’re doubtful.
Whoever loses the bluff call takes 3 damage!
Since each captain’s win condition is different, this means players can form unlikely alliances or make intriguing offers to get ahead. Captain’s Gambit encourages players to engage in a high amount of table talk and persuasive efforts in order to win.
Designing a Game around Hidden Identity
There is no doubt that people find games with hidden identity fun, as there are games such as Resistance, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Secret Hitler, being so popular in the board game space. But what makes a game with hidden identity fun?
There are many different factors that contribute to the game being fun, however, for this article, I would like to focus on the idea of uncertainty. This is the element in which I think is most appealing for these types of games, as it highlights the mystery and piques our inherent desire to uncover secrets. Here’s what Mitchell and his team from Captain’s Gambit thinks.
Mitchell & Team:
How important is uncertainty?
Uncertainty was a core part of Captain’s Gambit design. We knew right from the start that we wanted deception to play an integral role in the game, and uncertainty is essential for making players feel suspicious of each other. If you don’t have enough uncertainty, the game can easily feel too predictable or repetitive. But if there’s too much uncertainty, players will feel lost or out of control.
I think our favourite spot for a player is when they’re calculating the odds of an event, and their own risk tolerance. In practice, it means having information about the range of events that are likely to happen, but being uncertain of which particular outcome might happen (or even which one they want to happen). In Captain’s Gambit, it meant designing our captains so that you could look at a player and narrow down their list of potential identities, but never becoming 100% certain of them. Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Titus all collect blood but each one does it for radically different purposes. The skillful element is engaging in your analysis of how your opponents speak and act, which means players feel like they have a lot of room to improve their analytical skills if they want to.
I think uncertainty allows for player agency and a sense of progression that plays a major factor in player engagement. Having the agency to learn more information — at a risk — is also important for making decisions; it feels more like a game rather than a calculator. For example, you can bet 3 health that someone is lying about which permit cards they have — it’s your choice if you want to let them get away with lying, or if you want to risk some damage to find out for sure!
We did feel that it is important that information is being revealed as the game progresses. Players should feel increasingly confident in their assumptions (though never certain). That’s why when players die, we reveal their permit cards and do not shuffle them back into the deck. That way when players try to call out bluffs they know for certain their opponent won’t have those two permits.
How is Uncertainty Incorporated?
As the name of the genre suggests, Captain’s Gambit has hidden roles for all the players. This adds uncertainty to the game as every player will be assigned different roles at the start of the game, with different win conditions. With every player trying to be the first to complete their win condition, naturally, players will be trying to identify what the other players are trying to do, so they can slow down their progress.
When all players have identical win conditions (such as gathering the most energy), it’s very easy for each game to feel the same. But with asymmetrical win conditions, each game feels completely different depending on which captains are present. Though you don’t want every game to feel too different. If every win condition is radically distinct, it can be hard for players to keep track of how they all work. To make things a bit easier, we grouped our win conditions into five broad categories: Assassination (kill a specific other player), Devotion (help another player win), Manipulation (trick or deceive other players), Ascension (collect enough resources), and Domination (be the last player standing). These broad categories give players a simple heuristic for grouping captains together. This allows players to quickly assess which captains are threats, which captains could be allies, and which captains you can pretend to be to stay safe.
When it comes to asymmetrical win conditions, there may be concerns with balance. Does this role A have the same chance of winning as role B? Personally, I don’t think balance is the most important thing in asymmetric games. We think of balance as a measure of fun rather than a necessary element, meaning we think it’s important to look into if something feels wrong but not something to seek out on its own terms. Instead of specifically looking at balance, we instead looked at the mood of the whole table to see if anyone felt robbed of a rightful victory.
At the end of the day, what is most important is that all strategies are both fun to play as and against. In a game with asymmetrical win conditions, everyone should feel that they had some agency in their own victory or defeat. To give an example, captains that can win together with other players (such as Cordelia or Iago) have higher win rates when compared to captains that can only win solo. But these captains are still challenging to play and enjoyable to have at the table, so the game still feels fair for the other players. Meanwhile, some of our captains like Viola or Titus are very difficult to play correctly — but they feel incredibly satisfying when you finally pull off an astounding and well-earned victory.
Captain’s Gambit team utilized uncertainty as a tool to create an engaging game that intrigues the mind with an element of mystery and encourages player improvement through subtle hints and clues. Uncertainty not only allows for a more unpredictable and non-repetitive gameplay, but it allows for a sense of progression, as more information is naturally revealed as time goes on.
What was your inspiration for the theme?
It’d be cooler if it came to us in a dream, but it actually started out as a prompt for our game design project. We all met each other at a game design course at the University of Waterloo, and our final project prompt was just “Shakespeare in Space”. Mitchell had been advocating for a Smash Bros-like game for a while, and this finally felt like the perfect fit. We liked taking a unique spin of classic Shakespearean characters and having them fight it out in an all-star battle royale.
It was a pleasant surprise to see that we actually had a lot of room regarding the specific art style — it was a bit of experimentation to see if we wanted things to look gritty-futuristic, fantastical, perhaps even alternate-past, etc. Ultimately, the overall mood of the game is inspired by bold and dramatic media along the lines of Starcraft, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Homestuck, and Metroid.
As a complete aside, I want to give a big thank you to Fourtato Games. When we were designing our Kickstarter campaign, Chicken Heist’s campaign was a huge inspiration for us. I don’t think our campaign would have been nearly as successful if we hadn’t had such an amazing campaign to use as a reference. So thank you for being awesome!
For those who want a more indepth dive into the development of Captain’s Gambit, the Cloudfall team has written a whole “Captain’s Log” series that you can check out here: https://www.cloudfallstudios.com/captains-gambit-blogs. If you want to play to hangout with the team and play some Captain’s Gambit on Tabletop Simulator, feel free to drop in on their discord (Discord: https://discord.gg/ZH6Q9T3bza)
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