Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #155:

Strategic Insights: Bluffing Games

by Shannon Appelcline

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about pure strategy games. Thus, last time you got an article on Connection Games and this week I'm considering more strategic possibilities in the form of games that allow you to bluff.

The genre spans from Poker to Rock, Scissors, Paper, with plenty of opportunities to build new games or supplement existing systems in between.

Defining Bluffing Games

The core idea of a bluffing game is to convince your opponents of something that isn't true. This usually means that there's some type of hidden information, as I talked about way back in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #112, Defining Strategy: Hidden Information. However, you could also be bluffing about what you're going to do, a potential element in just about any strategy game, but one that's brought to the forefront in a game specifically designed to support bluffing.

Overall, I've defined four different types of bluffing games: resource bluffing and information bluffing, where you bluff about hidden information; victory bluffing, where you bluff about victory conditions; and action bluffing, where you bluff about planned activity.

In discussing these four types of bluffing, we'll meet a number of classic games along the way, clearly displaying how important bluffing is to all game design.

Resource Bluffing

The core idea of resource bluffing is to pretend that you have some game resource which you may or may not. Variants of resource bluffing can be delineated by how explicit they require (or allow) the bluffing to be.

Explicit Resource Bluffing: In a game based on explicit resource bluffing you make bald-faced & clear lies, usually because the game system requires you too. You state you have some resource (usually a card or some other marker that's easy to hide) that you actually don't.

Liar's Dice is a classic game, and one of the best examples of this category. In that game you place a number of dice in a cup, shake it, then flip it upside down; you can pull up the corner of the cup to see your dice, but no one else gets to. In order around the table each player says how many there are, total, of a certain die type (e.g., "There are seven '6's") and then the next player must make a larger claim than the player before him--or call the previous statement as a bluff. Eventually, someone gets called out, and if they were bluffing rather than stating the truth, they lose. Because the size of the stated dice collections keeps increasing, eventually you have to bluff ... Do you do it early, driving other players to even higher numbers, or do you just sit and hope someone else gets caught?

Veiled Resource Bluffing: A step down is veiled resource bluffing, where you might heavily imply a fairly specific card without outright stating it. It's clearly a middle ground between explicit and implicit bluffing.

I'm the Boss by Sid Sackson is one of many games that supports this type of bluffing. In ItB players are trying to put together deals and you can choose to play cards to help or hinder those deals. So, a common statement in the game is, "If you cut me into this deal, I won't ruin it." The clear implication is that you've got specific cards which could be played to mess up this particular deal.

Even if you don't purposefully build veiled bluffing into a game, any game that has some type of hidden information (in the case of ItB, cards in your hand) will support veiled bluffing, so it's worth thinking about.

Implicit Resource Bluffing: Finally you can have very implicit bluffing where you could be implying a specific card, but also could be implying something as simple as a strength level for the resources you're holding. In addition, in implicit bluffing you usually don't get as much leeway to state what your resources are; instead you have to do it through some game-specified intermediary (such as bidding in Poker or Bridge).

Poker is the definitive example of implicit resource bluffing. When you make bids you're implying, whether you raise or just stay in the game, that you have certain strengths in your hidden cards. A good bluffer can win over a good hand in Poker.

Information Bluffing

My above category of "resource bluffing" involved implying that you had specific, tangible resources (usually represented by specific, hidden markers). However you can also bluff about less tangible resources you have: information. This is the heart of most good deduction games, which I hope to discuss on their own in some future article.

Information Bluffing: The heart of information bluffing is implying that some fact that you know as true is false, or vice-versa.

Clue is by no means the best example of this type of bluffing, but it's probably the best known game that does use it to some extent. The common trick here is to ask another player for an item that you actually have in your hand or otherwise know is not part of the murder. For example, if you have or have seen the rope, you could ask an opponent for the rope, and when he said he didn't have it, it'd imply to everyone that the rope could be the murder weapon. Better deduction games, such as Sid Sackson's Sleuth and Bruno Faidutti's Mystery of the Abbey also allow for this sort of bluffing.

Victory Bluffing

This third type of bluffing I haven't seen as much in mass-market games, though I have plenty of examples among the designer games on my shelf. In victory bluffing games, each player has somewhat different victory conditions--and they hide those victory conditions from other players (which gives them an implicit advantage in the game, as no one knows exactly how to stop them).

Identical Victory Bluffing: Each player has the exact same victory conditions, but they hide how well they're doing in achieving those victory conditions until the end of the game.

Samurai offers an example of identical victory bluffing. Each player is trying to achieve majorities among three Japanese castes (the warrior, worker, and religious castes), and each player hides how far he is along this path. (Like many identical victory bluffing games, all the information on how well you're doing is totally open until you place the victory pieces behind your secret shield, somewhat limiting the impact of this type of bluffing, and instead reducing it to a memory game.)

Symetrical Victory Bluffing: Each player has substantially identical victory, but which type of marker (usually which color/shape/etc) they're trying to move to victory is unknown.

Clans is a simple example of this gameplay. Players are slowly moving colored huts together in order to form villages which give points to the specific colors of huts involved in that village's formation. There are a total of 5 colors of huts, and each of the (up to 4) players has a secret color assigned to them. One of the advantages of this setup is that there's always at least one color not in use, which means that players may decide to help the color that they think is out of play, and instead end up helping you.

Wooly Bully follows a pretty similar design. There are four colors of sheep, and each player is trying to make sure that his (secret) color fills the largest pen of sheep in the game. Unfortunately the number of players and colors is the same here; however the game is also more supportive of victory conditions being revealed during play: in fact, you get to play a very nice tile of your sheep if you choose to reveal your victory condition.

Titan: The Arena (now Colossal Arena, but I haven't seen the new edition yet) shows an example of victory bluffing not based just on colors. There are 8 arena combatants in a game and you can place a secret bet on one of them by playing one of that combatant's arena cards face down in front of you, with a bidding chip on top. If your secret bet wins, you get some bonus points.

Asymetrical Victory Bluffing: Another variant of victory bluffing is to let each player have a victory condition which is very different from those of other players.

Mystic War offers a simple example of this. Each player is trying to build up reserves of followers, mystic power, and gold, but how much each player needs of each resource is secret.

The classic Dune boardgame contains a particularly quirky variant of this sort of victory bluffing. One of the players is usually the Bene Gesserit. At the start of the game they secretly predict which player will win on which turn of the game. If they're right, the Bene Gesserit wins instead.

Action Bluffing

All of the above types of bluffing are fairly widely used, but they're also simple enough that they can't really be used as the heart of a game unless it's a very simple game (such as Liar's Dice). Conversely, this last type of bluffing, action bluffing, can be (and is) used as the heart of fairly complex games.

The object of action bluffing is to imply that you're going to take a specific action, let your opponents prepare for that action, then do something else entirely. Really, this is another type of bluffing that could happen in any type of game, but what I'm most interested in are those games which purposefully make action bluffing a part of their gameplay. I've broken action bluffing up into two broad categories: unweighted and weighted.

Unweighted Action Bluffing: In this type of action bluffing, all possibilities are truly equal, and the only difference in choosing one over another has to do with first-, second-, and third- guessing your opponent. Overall, I find it an unfulfilling and unstrategic method of gameplay, but that doesn't stop some designers from trying to use it.

Rock-Scissors-Paper is the traditional unweighted action bluffing game, and in fact many people will call any action bluffing games "a rock-scissors-paper game" as a result. Here, you have three choices (ro, sham, and bo) and none is implicitly better than the others, so you just have to guess what your opponents will do. Since there's no way for a human being to truly randomize between these three options during gameplay, a good player will statistically know which choices his opponent is most likely to make at each point (if I remember correctly, most people start with "rock" and in the case of a tie most people are likely to go up the chain [e.g., to "paper"] rather than to stay or go down the chain). However, that's as far as the strategy goes; not too interesting.

Age of Mythology: The Board Game is a good example of a strategy games that tries to duplicate this same mechanism, to its regret. Here you have a bunch of different monster types, each of which is particularly good against at least one other monster type and particularly bad against at least one other monster type. Since each player is likely to have all possible monster types, on balance no monster is better than any other. Unfortunately, Age of Mythology has something that roshambo doesn't: a way to randomize. Players can shuffle their cards, removing even the narrow sliver of strategy that roshambo offered.

Weighted Action Bluffing: In this type of action bluffing, all actions are not equal. Using visible information you can estimate which choice each player is most likely to make and then try and determine from there if they're likely to bluff or not. It increases the strategic possibilities at least somewhat.

Basari is a good example of this sort of bluffing. Each round you have three choices (take gems, take points, and move). By looking at a player's current space (does it offer lots of gems or points?) and their current resources (do they particularly want the gems being offered? Or to move?) you can try and make an educated guess about what everyone will do.

Basari also turns roshambo on its head. Instead of certain choices being better than others, players do best if no one matches their choice, possibly worse if one player does, and very badly if two or more players do, thus there's an additional level of strategy in figuring out not just what each player might do, but also in how many players will do each action.

Hoity Toity offers a somewhat similar system, but here you have to figure out if people will buy paintings, try and steal money, or try and catch thieves; and again each choice has weight based on a player's current resources (do they want the paintings available? do they need money? or will they just try and grab points?). However, the information isn't quite as clear as that in Basari, so there's a bit more unstrategic guessing.

Making a Good Bluffing Game

Bluffing is one of those game systems that you should at least think about for any game. To start off with you should consider action bluffing and resource bluffing, since they'll be possible in most games, and determine if you want to build any game systems to support them. Beyond that victory bluffing is often a possibility, but you should be aware that it's a definite game skill, and this will turn some players off of an otherwise fine game. (My wife, for example, thinks she's very bad at victory bluffing, and thus is less likely to play that sort of game.)

If you want to build a pure bluffing game, it will probably be an action bluffing game, as that's the type of bluffing that you can best build a core game system around. Here, you have to be certain to offer good weighting & good information for your actions so that the game doesn't descend into rock-scissors-paper ... or worse. Pure bluffing games can also be built around resource bluffing but they'll probably be simpler games.


I've played all the bluffing games I've described here, and probably a few others. However, I've only written reviews of a few of them. These include: Samurai (identical victory bluffing); Clans (symetrical victory bluffing); Titan: The Arena (symetrical victory bluffing); Age of Mythology (unweighted action bluffing); Basari (weighted action bluffing); and Hoity Toity (weighted action bluffing).

Station Master is another very recent game which uses symetrical victory bluffing, and which gives you fairly free rein in determining how your victory will be weighted, while at the same time giving the other players some indication of that weighting. (Every player knows which cards you put bids on, but not the weight of those bids, from 1 to 3.)


Simply, bluffing will be a part of most game designs, whether intentional or not. Thus, it's better to think about which type of bluffing your game will encourage, and see if you can improve that play.

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