Monday, June 11, 2012

Asymmetric Hidden Information

King of asymmetric hidden information

So I got to thinking about Space Hulk while overseas (as often happens), particularly in light of this post at Solo Nexus (there's more to be said about this particular post, but Space Hulk first).  Many competitive games feature hidden information; in Magic and other card games, you have the hand.  In Starmada, you have plotted movement orders.  In D&D, you have "what's in the next room".  But in most cases, these sources of hidden information are the same for both players; in Magic, neither player knows the other's hand.  In Starmada, neither knows the other's movement orders.  D&D's an odd case, naturally, being many-and-one and an RPG and whatnot.

But Space Hulk's unusual here, in that there are two sources of hidden information, each of which is hidden only from one player.  For those unfamiliar, Space Hulk is a 'dungeon crawler'-type boardgame with a squad or two of space marines trying to achieve their objectives in the face of a horde of fast, angry, and deadly aliens.  The marines can attack at range and act during the alien turn, but are slow, few in number, very weak in melee, and almost always on the losing end of things.  Thus, Space Hulk is already a strongly asymmetric game, even before you start adding elements of hidden information.

The marine player has access to a limited pool of off-turn actions, called Command Points.  The size of this pool is determined at random each turn, and is kept hidden until the end of the alien player's following turn when it is re-rolled.  Thus, the alien player never knows for sure if the marine has one last reaction left (until he's spent the maximum possible number that he could've drawn).  The alien, however, has a much larger store of hidden information.  In most scenarios, the alien starts with few forces on the board, but has them enter over time from the edges.  Rather than having actual units enter, though, he instead draws 'blip markers', each of which has a number on the backside denoting how many aliens it's actually worth, which could be anywhere between 0 and 3 (or more with the expansions).  He then deploys these face down; thus, his actual strength is hidden from the marine player, who is left to guess and speculate the strength of each marker until it is revealed (either voluntarily by the alien player so that he can attack with it, or when it comes into line of sight of a marine unit).  The inclusion of zero-value markers is particularly worthwhile, I think - these pose a challenge for the alien player, since he has to bluff with them.  There's a final, doubly-hidden form of information in the expansions by way of ambush counters, but I don't particularly want to go into those just now.

Why am I bothering to discuss this?  Well, first and most personally, I'd kind of like to play more Space Hulk (perhaps with all kinds of crazy tweaks), but it's kind of a hard sell.  Second, I think hidden information is part of why I'm supremely unmotivated to play Starmada: Nova.  There is no hidden information in it; gone are movement orders, allocation of screens, and cloaking.  About the only thing left is pre-declaring dual mode weapon mode for the turn, and that's...  not enough for me.  Third, I think this kind of asymmetric hidden information (and general lack of balance between sides) is something we could stand to see more of in games in general.

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