Theory: Kigo and Hidden Rules

This past weekend I had the opportunity to play Jamey Stevenson’s fascinating Kigo. It’s fun, and also an interesting look into the things one can do with digital implementations of board games. Features that are difficult or impossible to incorporate into a board game, like hidden game rules that can only be discovered through play, are completely doable when an analog experience goes digital.

If you follow the link above, you can play Kigo in your browser. There’s a thorough tutorial explaining the game, but basically the goal is to build a tree according to rules inspired by haiku. Getting the tree higher means more points, but also more risk; each turn is timed, and the taller the tree the faster time runs out.

With just the basic mechanisms of play Kigo is essentially a board game, one that could be played with physical pieces and a sand timer. (In fact, I think it would be a lot of fun that way!) However, Kigo’s tutorial includes this fascinating line:

“Rumor has it you can earn even more points through something called a ‘resonance bonus.’ What could that mean?”

That struck me when I first went through the tutorial, and it’s stayed with me since. Board games often have hidden information, but rarely is a whole aspect of the rules locked away to be found through exploration. After all, how would the player know when she had discovered it? In analog gaming players have to be let in on the secret, if only enough to recognize the trigger for the big reveal.

By contrast, in a digital game the computer knows the secret—and how to find it. As a result, the designer can make finding the secret much more satisfying, providing the player with clues without having to give things away at the outset.

Keeping secrets in a digital game is, of course, a problem all its own. Still, I feel that there’s a lot of untapped potential here. I think of digital implementations of board games as providing two things: rules enforcement and easy access to opponents. Kigo suggests one way they can do much more.

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