Skip to Content

Foreshadowing Random Events

5 replies [Last post]
ananda's picture
Joined: 11/03/2019

Reposted for discussion:

ananda wrote:

I do not like Betrayal at House on the Hill. The hook for the game is that halfway through the game a “haunt” will begin and the rules and goals will change to a scenario randomly selected from a booklet. (typically involving a player turning against the others) The issue I have with it is that this event – which is perhaps the most impactful random event of any board game – is impossible to predict. This makes the first half of the game feel like an extension of the game setup, which isn’t helped by the random way resources are distributed to players; there are very few meaningful choices a player can make before the haunt begins.

When a random event has a big impact on the outcome of the game, the game can feel arbitrary. This is especially true in cooperative games where the only opponent is the game itself. Because every mechanic in a board game must be resolved by a player, game AI tends to be simple. To introduce surprise against a predictable opponent, co-op games may have random events of some sort, often using a deck of event cards. But losing because the game drew a particular card at the exact wrong time can feel unfair. The problem is that players are robbed of their agency since they can’t make informed decisions about future events. The solution is to foreshadow these events – let players know what is coming so they can prepare.

Foreshadowing in games needs to be much more explicit than in literature. Where authors may hint at future events, game designers should explicitly tell players what is happening next. Showing players the near future enables them to make meaningful choices about how to react. Hidden events are no more than a guessing game.

The simplest way to foreshadow events is to show players a preview of a random event – for example, keeping the next card in an event deck revealed. There are numerous variations on this – in Pandemic, players play until an epidemic occurs with no idea of where the next infection will strike. After an epidemic, all infection cards seen so far are shuffled and returned to the top of the deck so that players have a general sense of where infection will strike in the near future. Not only does this ensure that infected countries will worsen, it also gives players an idea of what to expect for the next few turns.

Another option is for events to have small consequences when first revealed and then to escalate over the next few turns. This is effective because the importance of foreshadowing scales with the impact the random event will have on the game. Trivial events do not feel unfair when they come out of nowhere because the player doesn’t care about them. Events that can cause players to lose the game feel much worse when there is no way to anticipate them. By starting off small and escalating, the amount of warning the player has for each stage of the event scales with the threat it poses, and the warning is reinforced by the in-game effects of each stage in a visceral way that just showing a card cannot do.

This approach is at the heart of Spirit Island, a co-op game about defending an island paradise from European invaders using magical spirit powers. Every round, the invaders draw a card to determine the type of land in which they will explore. Explorers are weak enemies, posing no threat by themselves. However, the card used to determine lands for exploration in one round determines where the invaders will build in the next, and where they will ravage the round after that. Building entrenches the invaders, making them much harder to drive away, and ravaging blights the land, destroying player resources and bringing the players one step closer to defeat. The brilliance of this system is the natural way it warns the player what will happen next. Where the invaders will build and ravage is revealed not just by telling the players, but by walking them through the mechanical process of the invaders settling in, building up, and blighting the land.

There is a limit to how much foreshadowing players can handle. Revealing the AI’s moves for the next ten turns is overkill. It encourages analysis paralysis by overloading the players with information. Only the near future needs to be known; uncertainty should come from not knowing what will happen in the long term, not from being blindsided by everything the AI does. Short-term foreknowledge lets players make intelligent decisions about what to do now, while knowledge of the game system itself lets them plan for the long term.

Foreshadowing is just as important in competitive games with random events as it is in cooperative games. For example, Galaxy Trucker involves building spaceships out of ship component tiles and then evaluating their performance by going through a deck of random events. During the build phase, players may spend precious time to look at a subset of the upcoming events in order to tailor their ship to those threats. While new players ignore this option, experienced players can skim these cards and use the information to build the right ship for the job. This gives players the satisfaction of seeing their plans succeed (or fail hilariously) on their own skill, rather than the luck of the draw.

Recently, successful indie computer games have taken advantage of foreshadowing to great effect. Slay the Spire and Into the Breach are two examples of games where knowing what the AI will do is a central part of the game. Both games have an “Intent” system in which the next move each enemy will take is clearly displayed to the player. The designers of Slay the Spire found that the less uncertainty there was about what enemies would do, the more their playtesters liked the game. [1]

Randomness for the sake of surprise alone adds very little to a game and can actively detract from the experience. Predictability is not always bad, nor is it all or nothing – an event can be both surprising and predictable if players are given a little time after its reveal to prepare. The best games give players the information they need to make meaningful choices.


questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Betrayal House on the Hill (BHH)

I too "dislike" BHH ... because half (or more) of the game is exploration and the game is sort of like an adventure but also the SETUP of the play area. Then comes the "haunt" which quickly ENDS the game. The SETUP phase is lengthy and then the "haunt" makes for unfavorable odds for the traitor to either win or lose depending on which scenario is played at the near end.

IMHO what should have been done, is that instead of a "traitor" mechanic, the game continues as CO-OP but against a COMMON FOE. The "haunt" would be a random Boss Monster which would require all players to cooperate together to beat the beastie.

The Foreshadowing would be very limited... Because BHH resolution mechanics are COMPLETELY RANDOM... It is difficult to PREPARE for the "haunt". But there are things players can do like SHARE the "equipment" they find. Player #1 finds a Gun and a Machete, he can share the "machete" with Player #2... etc.

So there could be ways for players to PREPARE for the "haunt"... By cooperating together and sharing equipment when reasonable. And players can STICK TOGETHER making the attacks focused to a single room with more than one player to combat the baddies or Boss.

But generally speaking BHH is not my favorite game. That's my "stab at it!" Hahaha.

bottercot's picture
Joined: 02/06/2018
A mechanic I haven't

A mechanic I haven't personally seen used very often is utilization of card backs for sake of overshadowing.

For instance, say you create a civilization building game involving random disasters that affect a player's advancement. There are several types of disasters: natural disasters, like earthquakes, famines, tornadoes; artificial disasters, like nuclear meltdowns, oil spills, power failures; and intentional disasters, like mass shootings, sabotage, piracy.

There is one common deck of disasters, as well as a deck of location cards. Each type of disaster has its own colored back, giving a clue as to what kind of damage it may deal. Each location card has an image of the larger body that city or country belongs to, i.e. the state or continent. These clues give the player the opportunity to reinforce buildings, post extra security, or perform maintenance in areas they think may be affected.

There isn't really a logical explanation, I suppose, for why the player is able to see into the future in some cases, but like you said it gives the player more opportunity to use strategy and planning.

I realize my example isn't perfect, either. It would probably make more sense as a mechanic in other cases.

Regardless, it's still true that a lot of games don't seem to tap into the full potential of card backs, instead using them for general identification or for nothing at all.

ananda's picture
Joined: 11/03/2019
bottercot wrote:There is one

bottercot wrote:
There is one common deck of disasters, as well as a deck of location cards. Each type of disaster has its own colored back, giving a clue as to what kind of damage it may deal. Each location card has an image of the larger body that city or country belongs to, i.e. the state or continent. These clues give the player the opportunity to reinforce buildings, post extra security, or perform maintenance in areas they think may be affected.

Hey, that's a pretty cool idea. It is also nice because it avoids overwhelming the player with information, since it summarizes the threat without providing exact information.

You're right that most card games try to make all the backs the same so you can't tell what is coming. There are some exceptions like Galaxy Trucker, but even then you only know the level of the next encounter (which isn't enough to help you make a decision before seeing it).

Joined: 01/27/2017
Slow-burning events

One method similar to the Spirit Island mechanic is to make the event unfold over a number of turns. The event could be fully-formed on that one card, or built up out of bits and pieces over time.

A one-card version would work much like the Spirit Island scenario: something happens next turn, something worse there happens later. Players who happened to be in the right place can nip the problem in the bud.

The delay can depend on dice rolls to make it less predictable (Unrest in Philadelphia, roll 1d6 per turn, bursts into a riot on a roll of 6).

The delay could also depend on a player's state. (Chatter in Cairo leads to a bombing next turn unless Counterintelligence is at least 4, in which case the bombing happens in two turns).

Presumably, the player would have some way of arresting the perpetrator if they get there in time (and maybe have some luck with rolls).

A multi-card event would be triggered by something (say, a Chatter card in the normal Random Event deck). An attack type would be combined with a location to create the event. With the correct player state, there is some delay between the draw and when the event happens.

Prepared players would generally get more notice, profoundly unprepared one might have to draw all the cards immediately and suffer the consequences.

For example, draw Chatter. Pull an Attack Type and Location face-down. On a roll of N+ the attack happens next turn (N is higher the better one's Signal Intelligence is, indicating earlier detection). On a successful Counterintelligence roll, turn over one card. If time runs out, turn over all remaining cards and resolve the event.

Biggle Bear
Joined: 10/23/2019
Robinson Crusoe

I've seen this idea of colour differentiation. Robinson Crusoe. There are regular event cards that are all backed with black with green text that have an immediate effect, and an effect that will happen in a couple of turns if a certain action isn't taken. For example a flood from a blocked river occurs of the map tile your camp in on. You lose your food store. If you don't use a shovel and a token of your energy/time in a certain time the map tile will be permanently blocked.

Then as you play the game you have events that occur as part of your actions. For example, foraging cards have green backs and may say that you ate some potentially poisonous berries. Take 2 hp damage and shuffle the card into the recent deck. If the card is drawn again then take 2 more damage.

When you see that the next event card is green backed, the players are thinking "is this the berries foraging card or the wild predator card? How will that affect us? Can we do something to prepare or maybe try to fail at something in the hope we reshuffle the event deck?"

That way you are given clues as to what will come but always balancing the risks.

Syndicate content

forum | by Dr. Radut