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I've heard that there are games where the units on the board are secret -- that the other player doesn't know where they are. How does this actually work? How can you have units on the board without the other players knowing their location?

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There are a few popular ways.

  • Have a duplicate game board with a referee to validate things.
  • Have a map of the game board set aside with the secret locations marked.
  • Have numbered locations on the board where the hidden units can be and mark the number down secretly.
  • Use decoy markers. Place several markers on the board and treat them like a real unit. Only one of the decoy markers represents the actual unit.
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Re: Decoy markers - that's essentially how Stratego works; have a marker on ever space, but only some of them actually be units. –  The Chaz 2.0 May 31 '12 at 20:49
    
Ares Project is a recent example that is a version of several of these... basically independent boards with a stand-up divider between the players. Only at certain points do you reveal how you've set things up. boardgamegeek.com/image/1242034/the-ares-project –  Daniel Richnak Jun 1 '12 at 4:35
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Pandemic is a popular game using essentially the third idea (the bioterrorist variant in the expansion uses a secret sheet, with city names). Battleship demonstrates that you don't need a referee to use duplicate boards, as long as everyone plays nice. –  Jefromi Jun 8 '12 at 23:27
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In Stratego, you don't know which units are which, but I am sure that isn't what you mean.

Scotland Yard and Clue: The Great Museum Caper have a player record their moves secretly, and only reveal their location at the end of the game.

Battleship does it with independent boards.

You could also institute a Fog of War by placing unit tiles facedown among blank tiles. Moving unit tiles on your turn (only you know the location of your units) when your opponent isn't in the room. When you maneuver a unit adjacent to another you flip the tile and reveal an opponent’s unit or a blank. At the end of your turn, you replace the blanks and your opponent returns to the room and takes their turn.

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The Ravensburger game Pyramid has a fairly creative solution to this problem: The board is stood vertically, with all the pieces attached by magnets to respective sides.

All but one of the players sit on one side and move their pieces to collect treasure inside a pyramid. The other player is a mummy and is trying to capture them, but he only knows where they are when they reveal treasure. In practice, the mummy sits on the other side.

Additionally, there is a mummy magnet on the adventurers' side as well, so that when the mummy moves, the other players can see where he moves to, making the mummy's location known to all, but the adventurers' locations secret to the mummy.

Not a particularly deep game, but one I really like just for this creative approach to secret piece movement!

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Thanks for the bounty, hope the suggestion helps! –  Johno Jun 15 '12 at 8:13
    
It doesn't help at all for what I'm trying to do, but it's such an unusual way of accomplishing secret locations that I'm quite glad you posted it. –  Joe Jan 14 at 0:50
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ASL has two levels of secrecy: the simpler is concealment, where you place a blank counter (actually marked '?') on top of every stack, and have a few stacks consisting only of blanks; when the other player 'would see' the stack (it moves in the open, is successfully fired at, etc.), you take the blank (or blanks) off. Hidden requires you to write down a hex number for each hidden unit, with any relevant information (equipment, facing...). When you want that unit to act, you have to put it on the board (possibly concealed).

It is also possible to have one board for each player, with a barrier between them. On your board you place your own units and your guess as to the enemy dispositions. A neutral referee checks each move (ideally having his own board, which will be right for both sides), and reports what is visible.

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Some game resolve this with having your units as cards, with a monogenous backside. The player will have a stack of cards with units on them, ranging from strong to weak. He also have a stack of blank decoy cards, and when he places the cards on the battlemap, only he knows which contains units and which are blanks.

With this method, you can also make some sneaky bluffs with the number of cards you put in each stack, which order you place them in and so forth.

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One idea for keeping secret units, well, secret on a shared board would be for the player controlling said units to maintain a notepad with current (and past) unit locations. Keeping track would be trivial on a grid-based board where you could note "Spy is moving from A-2 to B-4".

This could be even simpler if combined with some variety of rules-enforcing system like a small computer application, a game master, or even a numbered turn counter to add to the notes.

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The simplest way is for units which cannot move while hidden. They can simply start off hidden with a counter one every location. When you want to activate a hidden unit, turn over one of the counters. If people can search a location for hidden units, then let them look at a counter and discard/replace it. Alternatively you can merely write down where they are and reveal them whenever you want.

Written approaches lack the transparency of the counter method though, since you could easily cheat or forget a unit is in a location where it should have been revealed.

If you want to move hidden units, you could swap two neighbouring location counters. This will give clues to the other players where units might be moving, however. You could possibly allow more then one move at a time so some might be real and some fake. This approach has the advantage that you cannot accidentally lose track of your hidden unit, and forget they should have been killed/revealed.

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