Game Design + Mechanics
On the Mechanics of Doubt
DOUBT, n. A feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.
In a cynical attempt to leverage Medium?s theme-of-the-month, I planned to analyze the most doubt-inducing board game I could think of. By a mile, that game was Fog of Love. Fog of Love explores the ULTIMATE source of doubt: romantic relationships. The fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. The terror of committing to another human. The uncertainty of said human being worth the time, effort, pain, money, energy, and sanity. Etc. It?s a two-player game, each player trying to reach their own personal goals. The players aren?t opponents, but they?re not on the same side either.
Good board games generate a certain amount of doubt. Usually this doubt is about strategy. Should you have moved 20 armies into Russia? Should you trade four Bricks for three Wheat? Good games make you sweat your decisions. Doubts are usually only removed by curb-stomping your opponents. Or by being curb-stomped. Either way, once someone?s been stomped, you know where you stand.
Chess makes you doubt your intelligence. Our culture, even with its anti-intellectual bent, has mythologized chess. Super-smart people play chess, and chess players are super-smart. If you lose in chess, you?re obviously dumber than dirt under a rock. This is why some people refuse to learn how to play. Some even lie about knowing how to play. Because if you play and lose, everyone will know you?re too stupid to live.
Secret Hitler makes you doubt your wokeness. Never mind that doubting other player?s motives is part of the game. Secret Hitler was co-designed by one of Cards Against Humanity?s creators, and CAH is just a big excuse to be racist. But this logic is wrong. Secret Hitler is not about being edgy because Nazis. It?s about averting political and governmental collapse. There are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are Fascists. It?s practically a prequel to Black Orchestra, which is all about killing Hitler. Still, some gamers think twice about bringing it to game night. But the Trump Pack expansion might have reversed some of the negative sentiment. Because Trump is just a dumber Hitler who doesn?t even believe in his own bullshit.
Secrets (different game, not a nickname for SH) is a minefield of doubt. You doubt who?s on your team. You doubt the intentions of everyone that offers you a card. You even doubt which team actually you?re on! Doubts on top of uncertainties on top of distrust. It?s a hoot, but some players walk away feeling like nothing they did mattered. There were too many unknowns to play strategically, which makes you doubt whether you had fun or not.
But Fog of Love oozes doubt. Before you even start playing, the rulebook?s tutorial screams ?READ THIS FIRST!? at you. If you?re a novice gamer, the existence of a tutorial makes the game seem harder than it is. It makes you wonder if you?re playing it right. And if you?ve ever played Exit!, Fighting Fantasy, or something comparable, you?ll worry if the Tutorial cards are in the right order. You will fixate on the idea that the factory put them in the wrong order, ruining the experience.
Character Cards with Satisfaction point trackers.
Then there?s the roleplaying aspect. If you?re not in a relationship with the other player, it?s easy to start thinking they?re coming on to you. Or if YOU suggested playing, you may regret it once you begin. THEY may think YOU?RE coming on to THEM. Fog of Love generates a lot of doubt BEFORE YOU EVEN PLAY IT.
Then there?s the doubt in the gameplay itself. Each turn, a player plays a Scene card which one or both players must respond to. Players secretly choose how they will respond with one of four poker chips labeled A, B, C, and D. Players can respond with only their wants in mind (represented by hidden Goal cards). Or, they can try to predict what would make both players happy (represented by a Satisfaction stat). Of course, you still don?t know what the other player?s Goals are, so you can?t be sure what will satisfy them. And you don?t know if THEY?RE concerned with YOUR needs. They may have other motives (represented by Destiny cards). Almost like a real relationship (except without the board game components).
An Scene Card (left) and a Goal Card.
So I didn?t buy it. The amount of doubt Fog of Love generated simply by researching it was a bad, bad trip. I don?t care that it?s a beautifully designed and thoughtfully crafted game. If I bought it I would open it to count the components, then immediately shelve it and never play the damn thing. The very thought of playing it with anyone I actually know is cringe-inducing. And I HATE cringe.
Right about now, normal readers are realizing why the vast majority of the games I cover can be played solitaire.