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“opacity” in gaming

I’d like to draw a distinction between two different kinds of games: games that are opaque and games that are transparent. A transparent game is one whose basic strategies are available even to first-time players; an opaque game is one whose basic strategies are only revealed to those who have played the game many times before. A transparent game has an easy point of entry, though it might take a long time to master; an opaque game is difficult to get into, however long it takes to master. A transparent game is newbie-friendly; an opaque game appeals only to those who are more dedicated to the hobby.

It might on first inspection appear that opacity is closely related to the game’s learning curve, and perhaps it is, but I hope to define opacity in a more precise way so as to be able to say something more specific about a game’s approachability.

What am I on about? Let’s take two games: Race for the Galaxy and Dominion. I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but they illustrate the point I’m trying to make quite well.

Dominion is transparent: first-time players know all the cards that are in play, they know how many of each card is on the table, they can read and assimilate the information on each card, they can readily understand the role of the treasure cards and the victory cards, and they can formulate basic strategies for winning their first time out. They won’t understand how all the cards interact, and they likely won’t do very well the first few times they play, but they nonetheless have a relatively easy approach into the game. All the information they need to play is right there in front of them, and players just need to familiarize themselves with the patterns of connections (and the flow of the cards through their hands) before claiming a basic proficiency.

Race for the Galaxy, on the other hand, is opaque: while first-time players have a rough idea that they want to build up their empire, and that they do this by buying settlements and developments, most of the cards are initially hidden from them. There are a large number of cards, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and the number of possible interactions between these cards is staggering. They don’t know what all the cards do or how the deck is structured, and they have no idea (unless they count) what the relative frequency of each card is. There is a great deal of hidden information, in other words, and this makes it impossible for new players to formulate even basic strategies their first few plays of the game. Players have to become familiar with the game before they can begin to play it intelligently.

I’m not saying transparent games are better than opaque games, as I know full well that each type of game has its devoted followers. Transparent games are easier for newbies to enjoy, yes, and they have a more inviting learning curve, but this doesn’t make them better. Some (those who feel their hard work should be rewarded) might even say it makes them less interesting.

I’m also not saying that transparent games are necessarily easier or lighter than opaque games: while transparent games are more accessible than opaque games, they often prove to be just as difficult to master.

Chess, for example, is fairly transparent: there are only six different kinds of pieces, there’s no hidden information, and the rules are relatively simple. Bridge, on the other hand, is fairly opaque: while card play is straightforward, bidding effectively requires the memorization of a great many guidelines and conventions. And while Chess and Bridge will both reward a lifetime of study, I’ve never heard anyone say that Bridge is harder to master than Chess. Harder to pick up initially, yes, but not harder to master.

I’m not really saying anything new, here, I’m just trying to create a shorthand when talking about games: transparent games are newbie-friendly, have an easier point of entry, have a more gradual learning curve, and have no hidden information. Opaque games, on the other hand, have a steeper learning curve, have lots of hidden information, and require a much larger upfront investment in time before players can claim even a basic competence.

I’ve found the term useful when thinking about games and talking about them with other people, and I hope you, dear reader, find it useful, too. =^..^=


Note: this post was inspired in part by Hiew’s analysis of the phrase “multiple paths to victory” (MPTV): http://hiewandboardgames.blogspot.com/2011/02/multiple-paths-to-victory.html.

  1. March 25, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Yeah, I like it better when you need a few play-throughs to get the strategy. I also love games which offer a variety of strategies which can be explored, like Puerto Rico. I have found a number of winning strategies of PR, but I don’t stick with them. I am almost always switching up my strategies simply to try something new. But they only work if I think them through.

    • March 25, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      I’ve never played Puerto Rico, but so many people rave about it I’m going to have to give it a go. Maybe I’ll pony up for it soon and bring it out at our more serious game night.

  2. March 30, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Since you mentioned Puerto Rico – one thing Puerto Rico has better than San Juan is that it’s slightly easier to teach since everything is out in public. That’s a good thing when teaching games, and one reason why Dominion is such a great game.

    One of my favourite opaque games is Gulf, Mobile & Ohio from Winsome Games. It’s full information game with fairly simple rules, but the strategy is far from transparent or obvious. It’s a delightful game.

    • March 31, 2011 at 7:28 pm

      I didn’t realize that Puerto Rico had less hidden information than San Juan — now I’ll definitely have to give it a try. I’ve never heard of Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, but it sounds like a game I’d really enjoy. Thanks for the tip! :-)

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