Addressing Invisible Power

Last week I posted discussing the concept of “Invisible Power”. The basic gist of it is that sometimes it’s hard for people to appreciate how good various mechanics in your game are. This can be a problem because it basically means that those players don’t understand how to play your game properly. Last week, I also promised that we’d discuss some ways to address invisible power this week. So let’s get started.

Good ways to make power more visible

At this point in time, your solutions will vary quite a bit depending on the specific game you’re working on. Tabletop games will probably not be very good at implementing the audio cues that many video games are able to. Likewise, video games aren’t going to be able to leverage the tangible feeling of counting your hoard of cardstock coins very well.

Video Games

Video games have the advantage of being very visual. However, “300 damage” can look very similar to “360 damage” even though there is a 20% difference in the value. Because of this, most games have a visual display of important resources (read: health and mana bars).

Showing the shield value on a player's health bar (white) is a good way to remind players shields are as good as health (while they persist).

Showing the shield value on a player’s health bar (white) is a good way to remind players shields are as good as health (while they persist).

Sounds are also a great way of notifying the player of something. For example, try comparing the sound that is made between a super-effective attack and not very effective attack in Pokemon. It’s just got that satisfying crunch, where as the not very effective attack even sounds like you don’t want to get it.

One other very effective way of making an effect visible in a game is to have it interrupt the player’s control. While it can be a little risky that the game becomes frustrating if there’s too much of this, a player getting knocked back against their will pretty clearly shows that something has happened.

Tabletop Games

While it might seem like the higher production values of video games provide insurmountable advantages to video games in the form of HUDs and audio feedback, this isn’t true: tabletop games still have many strengths to leverage. In fact, a huge part of the design of tabletop games is finding good ways to take an abstract mechanic and representing it in the real world.

Meeple are often used to represent workers or people in tabletop games.

Providing a component for a player to move around or place on the board can often get players into the game. Further than that, it’ll let player assess the state of the board at a glance by looking at where the pieces are placed.

However, if there’s so many of a certain type of component, that can be both a good or a bad thing. Often, the pile of components will give the feeling of “an endless pile”, but if it’s a component very directly liked to player status (like victory points), it can be a problem if it’s hard to count how far ahead the player across from you is. In these situations, especially if the resource is a sequential one, it can be easier to represent that mechanic in a sliding scale.

Warden's Arena SpoilerFinally, while it can be hard to plan for this, one of the most powerful communicators of the influence of a mechanic is the reaction of the other people at the table. Faces and expletives following a “trade away all my wheat, then declare a monopoly on wheat” play will make sure that no-one at the table underestimates that value of the monopoly card in the near future. Bam! Removal of control and opponent reaction in the same mechanic!

Conclusion

Invisible power is a two sided problem: you have to notice a mechanic being unappreciated, then implement a way to make it more visible. Like the phrasing implies, much of the time it’s about helping the players to visualize or notice what the game’s rules are saying in the first place. Hopefully, discussing some of these methods can be inspiring and spark a few ideas of solutions, or help you notice the solutions used in other games that you play.

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