Design Patterns: I Have Something To Show You

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I’ll never forget the first time I played Pandemic. After the very first outbreak, we performed the Intensify step, shuffled the discard pile and placed in on top of the draw deck. *Gulp.* We knew what was coming. Every turn going forward, we’d now draw the very same cities that had been infected in the past, the ones that were most vulnerable and dangerous.

That mechanism is brilliant for elegantly creating dramatic tension. Players still have the turn-to-turn uncertainty about what might come up, along with the certain foreknowledge that the deck has literally been stacked against them. A board situation that was difficult but manageable can quickly become dire and unstable.

Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island uses the same concept a bit differently. In Robinson, players are stranded on a deserted island, and using a worker placement mechanism, they try to survive and accomplish some goals. When players attempt a task with only a single worker, dice are rolled to resolve the attempt, and the dice may direct players to draw a card from a mystery deck. Those cards might feature a choice that provides a benefit, like robbing a nest of eggs, or scavenging a dead animal. However, the consequences of that choice will impact you later, as the card gets shuffled into an event deck that resolves each turn… leaving you to deal with the returning mama bird, or the digestive consequences of eating found meat. The mechanism models the key to tension and storytelling suspense: show the audience the beast lurking in the shadows before springing it on them.


This “Show me” mechanism is so powerful, yet it appears in relatively few games, and it’s no coincidence that both of the examples we discussed are from cooperative games, and are drivers of the AI engine in those games. There are some examples of how this mechanism is used in competitive games too, however.

Consider deck-building games, especially high-interactivity DBGs, like Star Realms. When a player buys a card out of the card row, opponents arch an eyebrow, because they know they’ll be seeing that card again, in some future draw, when they’ll face its consequences. More commonly, competitive games will remove the “show” aspect, and allow players to seed events known only to each individual player into a common pool, like in Vlada Chvatl’s masterpiece, Through the Ages. On a first play, those events offer more surprise than dramatic tension, but experienced players quickly learn the range of possibilities in these relatively small decks. The overall effect is quite similar to a cooperative ‘show and tell’ mechanism.

As designers continue to incorporate more storytelling into games, we can expect to see more of the ‘show me’ mechanism. It’s a great way of introducing tension, and even evoking a sense of horror or doom. In the tabletop space that’s quite an achievement, and it proves that innovative designers will find ways to surpass the perceived boundaries of the medium.


  1. Matt Leacock October 18, 2017 8:58 pm Reply

    See also Hitchock’s famous quote on the difference between surprise and suspense.

  2. Isaac Shalev October 19, 2017 3:15 pm Reply

    Thanks Matt! That’s a great comment. It also reminds me of the famous Mel Brooks quote about the difference between comedy and tragedy. “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

    Hitchcock’s point about surprise vs suspense instructs us to use suspense to extend the payoff of our devices. Brooks’ is actually warning us that one player’s experience of the same event can be radically different from another’s. I recall playing Axis & Allies, invading Russia with a raft of planes, and having my opponent knock out more than half of them by rolling a ton of 1s. My cutting my finger in that moment was tragedy to me. Him seeing me fall down that open sewer and die to his incredibly lucky roll was comedy to him. The overall game experience? I don’t recall it fondly, for either of us.

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