Mechanic Monday – Bluffing

Just about everyone has been raised with the moral standard that lying is wrong; what about when that lying is part of a game? This has been a hot topic among groups for some time now; The Dice Tower’s temporary side cast, The Dice Steeple, had a good discussion on the topic as well as a few others. Rather than tackle the issue of the moral side of bluffing in games we will rather look at is as a mechanic. How does the mechanic work? When does it work? And what can the future hold for Bluffing games?

I went to check Some history on bluffing as a mechanic and to my surprise it was not listed on Board Game Geek. I thus decided to look at a few games that use bluffing and discovered the following:
Sheriff of Nottingham; Hand Management, Role Playing, and Set Collection
Liar’s Dice; Betting/Wagering, Dice Rolling, and Player Elimination
Ultimate Werewolf; Partnerships, Role Playing, Variable Player powers, and Voting
On further inspection I did note that these games were in the category of bluffing. I thus deduced that at least the powers that be at BGG view bluffing as a broader game category as opposed to a mechanic. So let us first look at the question; is bluffing a mechanic?

To define a mechanic is a blog in and of itself; so rather let us turn to the most reliable source of all things opinion on the web; wikipedia. We thus get the definition that a mechanic is, “constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.” This definition leaves room for interpretation, for the sake of time, however, we will run with it.

Let us look at the first of the above listed games; Sheriff of Nottingham. In Sheriff players fill their bag with a number of cards then tell the sheriff their bag is full of X items. The number must be accurate; the items they claim, not so much. In this instance Bluffing is a core mechanic according to our running definition. This is the result of the Sheriff’s choice. The sheriff can choose to accept the claim and return the bag to the merchant or declare them a liar, open the bag and learn the truth. Were bluffing not an element of game play then the sheriff would play no role, contraband would serve no use, and the game would fall to pieces. This is an example of bluffing not only being a mechanic but a core mechanic.

Liar’s dice and Ultimate Werewolf work in a similar fashion. In all three of these games bluffing is not mandatory; a player can play the entire game in complete honesty and still win; mayhaps this may even prove to be the best strategy in some games. The presence of bluffing as an option, however, alter the entire dynamic of gameplay. Were players not allowed to bluff in Ultimate Werewolf; a non-werewolf would systematically ask each player if they are a werewolf. Thus, remember barring bluffing, a werewolf has 2 options; admit their role or cheat, the latter leading to disgruntled gamers and a poor play experience. With Liar’s dice if players were forced to play in complete honesty the game would be completely derived by who happened to roll the better hand.

In all three of these games bluffing is an optional mechanic, players need not bluff, that by it’s mere presence adds a dynamic to the game; or to put it another way, bluffing is a construct which provides interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.

Merely by establishing the fact that bluffing is a mechanic we also answered one of our core questions; how does the mechanic work? It works by adding an element of deception and deduction; both adding strategy to what would edgewise be dry purposeless games.

Let us thus move on to our second question when does bluffing work? The three sample scenarios cover two prime examples of when bluffing acts as a crucial element in gaming. The first of the two being when players make statements that may or may not be accurate and thus have the option of altering the game state. This is explained above when looking at Sheriff’s dependency on the ability of bluffing. The second being seen in our inspection of Ultimate Werewolf; anytime players have any form of hidden roles or agendas bluffing is a necessary mechanic; the only alternative would be a rule dictation players cannot ask one another about their roles/motives, though doing so would create an additional problem. When players begin making claims based upon their roles options such as, “I am the seer and I know Billy is a werewolf”, if bluffing is not allowed it is now clear the speaker is a werewolf; each other player may then make any potential claims; leading to a drastic deduction in who deserves a lynching which will almost always lead to a townsfolk victory. When bluffing is reintroduced it is possible for a player to make a false claim; a werewolf for example may claim innocent upon the seer’s proclamation; or may declare themself the seer leading to the seer often countering forcing players to take a side on who is the seer and who is not.

What then does the future hold for bluffing games? Will they become more or less popular than they currently are? Will they change the way we or others view this beloved hobby? Will people ever settle on the moral side of the mechanic? These are all questions we can only make theoretical presumptions at. I will make one theory, however, and that is that we will see an increase in bluffing in the next few years. With the success of bluffing games in the recent months more designers will try their hand at the mechanic; how they will fare is up for observation and will likely influence the adoption or decrease of the mechanic in pop-gaming (non-hobby and fringe-hobby games often seen in the big box stores/mall kiosks). Bare in mind this is an observation derived from my local playgroup and environment; your experience may differ.

As it stands I find bluffing to be an intriguing mechanic which, when played by players who understand a game is a mere game and the mechanic not something to be taken beyond the game, provides a grand experience bring players back for more.

Tomorrow we will take a closer look at Sheriff of Nottingham as we follow up on the bluffing mechanic.

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