Bluffing Games

Morning Table Talk is a series where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.

First of all apologies for not having a morning table talk last week because I was at Emerald City Comicon demoing Collectors and Capers and playtesting my new game Eminence Grise. It was a great and eventually I will go over going to a convention!

This week however I had been think about my first game Collectors and Caper which is a bluffing game and what makes bluffing games good and what common features they have. For this I will look at 3 bluffing games BS, Sheriff of Nottingham, and (of course) Collectors and Capers.

BS is a game that only requires a standard deck of cards (no Jokers) where the goal is to have no cards left in your hand first by discarding cards.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a game where players take turn being the Sheriff who questions the various merchants and the merchants try to bluff their way passed the sheriff to victory.

Finally Collectors and Capers, my first game, is a game where players try to steal treasures from the museum and other players with sets of cards.

So what makes a bluffing game a bluffing game? There are 3 things foremost having a reason a means to bluff, a reason to bluff, means to bluff penalties. The last is simple enough, write it in the rules. In games expect the player to play honestly so by allowing players to lie you create a space in which the players can start to engage in a way that people are not normally able to in a social setting, lying.

The means to bluff in these games is pretty similar players will declare what they are trying to play and the rules allow for lying. In BS a play declares a number of cards and what cards they are playing and play them face down in the discard pile. For Sheriff of Nottingham the players declaring their goods place their cards in a bag awaiting inspection. In Collectors and Capers the Cards are declared when a player tries to steal a card also facedown. In each of this games, the cards when the player hides the set of cards they are playing and declares what cards they are playing a matching set of cards of the same value (Kings, apples, and Priceless Paintings respectively).

This leads to the need to bluff. In BS it is to get rid of cards that you don’t have or want so that you win. For Sheriff of Nottingham players bluff to get more points and score cards called ‘contraband’ that cannot be declared normally for ‘honesty’. In Collectors and Capers, bluffing helps players score more points as well as solidify their hold on a particular Treasure. In all of these cases there are two types of cards that players have: cards that would be considered honest and dishonest cards. Bluffing simply allows players to get rid of the dishonest cards and incentivizes that. In BS the honest cards are determined by the turn order starting with 2s, the next player would have 3s, and so on and so forth looping back to 2s after Aces. With this mechanic is means that players need to balance getting rid of dishonest cards that don’t match the value of the card they are trying to play while keeping enough the other card values to be honest at times too. In Sheriff of Nottingham there are two (main) types of cards, Legal Goods and Contraband. Legal Goods are the types of cards a player can bluff with and earn less points while contraband cannot be declared and must be bluffed in but is worth more points to the player. In this example the Honest cards are by default the Legal Goods (though a player can bluff with these cards) and the Dishonest cards are the Contraband cards. In Collectors and Capers the Honest and Dishonest cards are simple in that if the card matches the Treasure it is an Honest card. This is unique from the other two games in that the Honest Dishonest split comes from what is being tried to stolen instead of the cards’  value and type intrinsically in relation to the rules. To simply put it, the need to bluff in each of these games comes from the desire to pass off the Dishonest cards as Honest cards for the benefit of winning (hopefully).

Finally, in a bluffing game there are deterrents for being caught bluffing or for calling out an Honest set. These fall into two categories, penalties and knowledge. In BS the penalty is that if you were caught bluffing or were wrong about someone bluffing is that the wrong party gets all of the cards from the discard pile. This then hinders the player by increasing their hand size. In Sheriff of  Nottingham, players have to pay the sheriff the penalties for what was not Honest in coins and the Sheriff pays the player if they are wrong in coins. In Collectors and Capers, players have to bet cards from their hand to call out another player and discard those cards if the player is Honest. If the player is not honest in Collectors and Capers they have to discard the Dishonest cards, weakening their claim to a treasure and removing the possibility for extra points. For each of these penalties there is a risk for the person calling out the player that make it a exercise of risk reward. The knowledge of the game comes from a shared knowledge about the game that could aid or hinder ones bluff. In Sherrif of Nottingham players can draw from the discard pile indicating some of the cards in their hand. For Collectors and Capers, there are 5 cards players can draw from called Informants where a player can inform other players what is in their hand. In all of these Knowledge cases players have a way of knowing what their opponents have in their hands (in theory) and can act upon that knowledge.

To summarize, there are 3 things that make a bluffing game a bluffing game: the means to bluff where one declares their set of cards, a need to bluff, and a penalty for either being caught bluffing or for calling out an honest set. There are of course many other bluffing games, like poker, where the high levels of play are all about bluffing and reading other people but these are just the building blocks that I have found in looking at these games and during the creation of my own. This topic could be expanded into being studied as systems of information as well as when and how to bluff and when to call someone out but to do those topic justice one would need to devote many more pages to thoroughly do the topic justice.

All of this is just food for thought so take some time, sip some of your morning beverage, and have a great day!