I’m thinking of a number from one to ten.

Seven, you say?
Most people do. But sorry, you’re wrong.

Nope – guess again.

You’re right!

The problem with this game is that I actually was thinking of seven. But I wanted the game to last a little bit longer, so I changed the number in my head to something else. Sorry, I guess that was cheating.

How can we redesign this game to eliminate the honor system? We need some way to confirm the truth. How about this:

I’ll write it on a piece of paper. Okay. It’s between 1 and 10. Guess.

Seven again?
Hah. Good try. But no.

Three? No.

Eight? Nope.

Nine? No.

Two? No.

Four? No.

Oh wait! Darn it. Sorry. You guessed two? It was two. See it here? My bad.

Apparently the honor system is still a factor. Even though the truth could be validated, just the fact that I have the power to reveal or not reveal something unknown to you means that this hinges on some degree of honor. At the very least, human error or memory failure can compromise the whole game.

We run into the honor system most often in intrigue games, where the identity (or location) of one or more players is unknown. But broadly, any game that requires one player to hide information from a player during gameplay leans some degree on the honor system. It’s a purely human aspect. Obviously there have been some very successful games that use the honor system in their mechanics. The intrigue that is fostered in a game where players keep information from each other is very interesting to play. I’m not saying to avoid the honor system in your own design.

However, when playing a game, we are slightly uncomfortable with the honor system, even if we are not playing with lily-livered, snot-wiping, mouth-breathing cheats. Why? Well, real life runs on the honor system. We can never be sure if the people with whom we’re interacting are being forthcoming with information we need. A game is supposed to be an escape from the realities of life. Games provide an artificial, contrived system of rules that everyone knows and follows, and there is a clear winner and loser. As soon as we implement the need for an honor system, those lines become less clear.

I’m not even going to pretend to have an answer here, because I’m not convinced it’s a problem in game design if it’s done well. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts. For starters, what games have you played that rely on the honor system? Do you enjoy the element of the honor system in a game? Have you experienced a breakdown in the honor system that has compromised a game you were playing?

Come on. Be honest!

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  1. Christina Major on March 10, 2014

    Definitely an interesting theme in games! Human error is the driving force of a lot of games, and many have successfully baked that into the design. Hanabi’s core challenge is the human elements of forgetfulness and communication. Resistance and Shadow Hunters, similarly, can be frustrating when your teammate accidentally plays the wrong card or attacks the wrong person. But that’s what makes these games so popular; the game’s actual mechanics are so simple to understand and so quick, groups are compelled to play game after game to see how to improve their communication and deduction skills.

    However, where I see more challenges and disconnects from a game is when it’s every man for himself, because human error/cheating is NOT expected to play a role in the successfully-played game. Unlike other games, new players are discouraged from asking questions about misunderstood rules/roles because it would tip their hand. So it takes a clear understanding of the rules from the get-go to make the game rewarding (or a lot of failed attempts), and a lot of people don’t have the patience to play a game that frustrated them once.

  2. BlueRhonda on March 14, 2014

    What are your experiences and recommendations regarding patents. Do you patent your game mechanics?

    • Michael Domeny Author on March 14, 2014

      Hey bluerhonda! I’m no legal expert, but I can share what I’ve picked up to the best of my knowledge. Patents are almost always for actual tangible items that are physically engineered. Some games would have patented components, like the Life spinner wheel, perhaps. But since a game mechanic is really just a way of doing things, there can be no patent. Furthermore, there can be no copyright, either, which is more of what we deal with in game design. So we are really talking about copyright, which may actually make a good discussion in the future elsewhere on this blog. But for now, suffice it to say that simply putting (c), the year, and your name on any documents and art is enough to legally protect your project, if you can prove that it has been your project. Beyond that you can pay to get a trade mark registered with the government, and receive the right to put the little circled R on your product. But that’s illegal unless actually registered. Simply declaring your copyright on your work is valid to protect your ownership, but, to bring it back around, it is not possible to copyright a game mechanic. Someone could “steal” your mechanic for their game, but at worst people accuse them of knocking off your awesome original game and people don’t buy their game 🙂 then again, many games work with mechanics very similar to others. It’s tough to find a”new” mechanic anymore anyway. Hope that is helpful, albeit lengthy.

      • Steve Bellin on April 24, 2014

        Check this out:
        I think the best way to protect your intangible ideas is simply to make other designers afraid of you. Develop a reputation as a brilliant designer and terrifying psycho.
        Seriously, though, I managed to register a © about nine years ago, using photographs and form TX.

  3. Jeff Cornelius on March 14, 2014

    I’ll never forget the time we had just finished up a game of Battlestar Gallactica and the humans had one. One guy at the end of the table was just laughing and laying it on about how the humans had done so much better and the cylons needed to figure out how to communicate with each other better.

    Then he says, “so who was the other cylon anyway?” (we had one revealed during the game). No one spoke up. Then it was like, “who was it? did we create the loyalty deck wrong?” Then this guy looks down at his cards and says, “Damn it! I was the other cylon! I totally didn’t even realize that!”

    Human error – made for a very memorable game (but may have ended differently without it)

  4. Steve Bellin on April 24, 2014

    Just look at the way the Honor System is handled in Space Hulk.
    For those of you who haven’t played Space Huilk (I pity you), it’s basically “Aliens” on the tabletop, with movement and combat controlled using command points. The “human” player basically gets to roll a d6 for extra command points each turn, and his opponent is not supposed to know how many he gets. To keep it honest, the d6 is replaced with six numbered chits drawn from a cup. A chit is drawn, then placed face-down on a track to count the command points as they are spent. At the end of the turn, the chit is flipped over to reveal its value. If you overspent your command points, YOU LOSE, Period. (You cheating %@$&#!)

  5. Mark Hansen on July 4, 2014

    I remember playing an intrigue-based spy game with some friends. There’s a part where you bid to control the movements of a spy. At the end, you can look at each other’s money cards to verify the bidding. As we taught the rules, one of the other players asked, “Can you cheat?” I thought about it and said, “Well… technically, yeah…, but that’s, you know, CHEATING…” He took that to mean that the scope of the rules allowed him to secretly overbid, cheating the rules. I thought it odd that he would think the rules would allow you to break the rules.

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