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Many board games have information which is semi-secret, where it's possible to keep track of it, but not easy. For example, which resources you get and spend in Catan is public knowledge, but which resources you currently have is secret. If I was able to mentally count every player's income and expenditures, I'd know exactly what they were holding, but that's a lot of information to keep track of. Similarly, many games make earning victory points public, but the total number earned private.

This gives an advantage to players with better memories. It's not necessarily an unfair advantage, and there's only so much you can generally do with the information, but it is an advantage.

Given this, how appropriate or inappropriate would it be to keep a record of this information? I can write down every resource card someone collects, and scratch them off when they spend them, or keep a running total of points earned. Assuming I'm accurate, this would be even more precise than the people with good memories. But is it good sportsmanship?

Obviously, a group of friends who regularly play together can establish whatever social norms or house rules they want. I'm more interested in the general case, where you're playing with people you may not see regularly or may not know at all.

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    Given your Catan example, would it be bad form if you remembered that 10 wheat resources had been earned by rolls / development cards in the last 3 turns, then you play monopoly? – Brian Robbins May 22 '15 at 15:24
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    @BrianRobbins - If it's purely your memory, absolutely not. I don't think anyone would disagree about that. But if you jot a reminder to yourself that 10 wheat has been handed out... – Bobson May 22 '15 at 16:13
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    Speaking of Catan, robberies are not public knowledge, so you can only (reliably) track how many overall resources are on hands. This is much easier to keep track of by tracking the resource deck ins and outs. With a little practice you can do it mentally without slowing the game pace down. – Quassnoi May 22 '15 at 16:43
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    I think that this very much depends on what game you are playing. For example, the Magic: the Gathering tournament rules explicitly allow both taking notes and figuring out whatever you can based on information you were previously given. – murgatroid99 May 22 '15 at 19:42
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    Tournament settings obviously have their own rules, I think the question was pretty clearly asking about more casual environments. – bwarner May 22 '15 at 20:19
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There's two schools of thought on this subject - one is that you can do anything unless the rules say you can't, the other is that you can only do what the rules say you can. I believe there's a better argument for the second case, because the rules are generally written to define the game, and can't expressly prohibit everything you might try to do. The rules of Catan don't specifically say you can't look through the Development Card deck, but I don't think anyone would consider that fair play. By-hand tracking is never mentioned in the rules, so I don't think it should be included.

In my opinion, a board game should be one person's brain and luck against the other's. Would it be fair to run an app computing my odds of winning a Risk battle? Or compute my chance of drawing that straight flush in a poker game? These are things I could figure out myself if I had the time and math skills, but are much easier with an aid. Similarly, tracking resources could be done with a good memory, but augmenting that with paper and pencil doesn't seem right.

TL;DR: I would consider by-hand point or resource tracking at best unsporting, and at worst, against the rules.

  • It's also a LOT of work. Keeping track of events happening in real time would require near constant scribbling, and if you miss a trade or something while you're still writing the previous event down, your whole log becomes corrupted. So putting whether it's against the rules or not aside, it's waaay more effort than it's worth. – mfoy_ May 22 '15 at 14:54
  • @mfoy_ - For Catan, probably. But there's other games where the information is less dense and easier to keep track of (such as a sum of victory points earned in Small World, or train cards taken in Ticket to Ride). – Bobson May 22 '15 at 16:17
  • There are a number of good answers to my question posted here, but I think the other comparisons in this answer (searching the deck and odds calculations) make it the best. It's hard to justify counting cards on paper in a poker or blackjack game, which is fundamentally the same question I started with - just applied to a less complicated game. Thanks for the perspective on it! – Bobson May 26 '15 at 3:48
  • I agree that there's a better argument for the second case. The first case can be fairly easily countered with a "you can't have it both ways" argument. For example, in the case of Catan, the rules do not actually state that resource cards must be revealed when turning them in to purchase items. So if somebody thinks it's ok for them to keep notes about what they think I have, then they must also agree that it's ok for me to not reveal my cards when I buy things. – Alex Howansky May 27 '15 at 21:27
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I think you have to understand the game sufficiently to gauge whether the information really is secret or not. For games where information isn't secret due to being calculatable, it sounds like a good, sporting house rule to instead play openly rather than punishing less acute players.

Good etiquette would mean communicating why you wish to invoke this house rule clearly and accepting how the players feel about doing so. Some may perceive having a good memory as part of the challenge and therefore not a candidate for being removed in the name of sportsmanship and ultimately it is better sportsmanship to come to a compromise and play according to whatever rules are agreed, without reluctance or resentment.

  • I like this perspective on it. – Bobson May 22 '15 at 16:51
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I'll take the other side here.

Keeping private notes is always ok (unless the rules specifically forbid it.)

When I'm playing a game like Settlers of Catan, I can keep track of what other players have in their hands without too much difficulty. Am I acting against the rules by simply remembering what's happened so far?

Using a piece of scrap paper to augment your mental capacities is perfectly acceptable.

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    I don't know yet whether I agree with that viewpoint, but realizing it existed is exactly why I asked the question. Thanks for being the voice of opposition. – Bobson May 22 '15 at 23:53
  • By OK, do you mean "not cheating", or do you mean that you think it is socially acceptable in all circumstances? – bwarner May 27 '15 at 17:52
  • @bwarner, that raises a different question. As far as I'm concerned, if it's not cheating, it's socially acceptable unless the group comes to a social agreement otherwise. – Joe May 27 '15 at 21:13
  • This does sound reasonable on the surface, but I think you get into trouble when you start applying this to games where note-taking is clearly just straight-up extra information, stuff that no one but a savant would be able to keep track of otherwise. At that point, you're effectively replacing (partially) hidden information with known/public information, which inevitably changes the game - and changing the game is not in general socially acceptable without prior agreement. – Cascabel May 27 '15 at 23:13
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  1. It's against the rules.

    The rules call for playing with the cards kept secret, but tracking everyone's resources on paper would be virtually no different than playing with all cards revealed.

  2. It makes the game less enjoyable.

    It slows the game down. It leads to "what did I miss" type questions. It takes your attention away from players, reducing social interactions. etc. People will rapidly lose interest in playing with you. If this isn't the definition of poor sportsmanship, I don't know what is.

3

Among people you don't know as well or don't know at all (the key here is familiarity, not exactly what you stated at the end of your question about people you don't see regularly per se), it's typically safe to fall back to the assumption that games are played more socially and less competitively. You can imagine any number of brutal or brilliant competitive plays that are shrugged off or laughed off among friends but would easily make gaming situations with less familiar people awkward, such as repeatedly assaulting one player or loudly declaring a convincing argument why someone needs to be attacked. These situations easily antagonize even people who are close within a game group.

Given this, you wouldn't necessarily offend anyone by taking notes, but, to put it bluntly, they'd think you were weird, do the eyebrow raising thing, and go into high alert from a competitive standpoint. Even ignoring the negative social ramifications, you compromise the ability to divert attention from yourself and surprise opponents. That's the best part!

3

In my particular view, there are two kinds of information in games. Hidden, and Known. Things which are hidden you do not know, and methods of gaining that information are limited to whatever rules the game supplies. Things which are known, you already know. Nobody would claim that it is unethical to remember that which you know. Further, outside of certain very specific games (i.e., the classic "Memory") the goal of the game is not to out-memorize your opponent. Most games center on decision making and weighing odds and risks. So I would say that as long as your memory (be it in your head, on your notepad, on your laptop, whatever) does not bog down or ruin the gameplay for others (i.e., it is non-intrusive and doesn't result in you constantly asking harassing questions) that it is perfectly acceptable. Note that the game itself defines methods of moving information from Hidden to Known, and any method that is not laid out in the rules is clearly cheating (i.e., peeking at cards)

To address some of the other points raised regarding other games:

1- I would be in favor of letting someone use an odds calculator in Risk. The point of the game isn't "I am better at calculating odds than you", it's "I am going to take some Risks, whereby I know certain actions are risky and others are less so, and I must choose what level or tolerance I have for those risks based on how they tie into my grand strategem." Allowing a player to use an odds calculator allows them to make a more informed decision, which makes the game more strategic and enjoyable for all.

2- Many players play Poker while holding little index cards on them that list the hands in order of probability. The core gameplay elements in Poker involve the secret information of what's in the opposing hands, and how likely you feel your hand is to win on that basis. Knowing how likely any particular combination is merely puts you in a position to make an informed decision, thereby elevating the overall level of gameplay.

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    The thing is, the mere fact that your memory has suddenly become perfect and complete (or at least much more so than without taking notes) is extremely likely to bog down the game and make it less fun. Asking questions isn't the big concern, it's analysis paralysis and forcing others to do it too in order to compete. – Cascabel May 27 '15 at 17:36
  • Forcing people to analyze the game to win sounds like a feature, not a bug. Shouldn't the player who is able to best analyze the data and make decisions win more games? Obviously we expect the player to do so within reasonable time constraints; the definition of reasonable will vary from group to group. – GWLlosa May 27 '15 at 17:38
  • Some people play games for a casual experience. Extensive analysis is neither their goal, nor fun for them. But neither is feeling that they are likely to lose because someone else is doing extensive analysis. – bwarner May 27 '15 at 17:50
  • Wouldn't these casual experience gamers gravitate towards games which feature more randomness and thereby offer less opportunity for analysis anyway? – GWLlosa May 27 '15 at 17:57
  • @GWLlosa I'm not talking about forcing people to analyze; they're doing that already. I'm talking about about analysis paralysis, forcing people to drastically overanalyze. Often, if you give people complete information, they'll start spending many times longer to decide every single action. A two hour game can turn into a three or four hour game. And often it's all for tiny little advantages. See for example Power Grid, where the designers deliberately said to keep money secret to avoid this in the endgame. – Cascabel May 27 '15 at 19:21
1

In the general case, I would say writing down semi-secret information is definitely frowned on. You're giving yourself a competitive advantage over others, unless they are willing to put in the same amount of effort, which will be upsetting to a lot of players that are trying to focus more on enjoying the game than winning at all costs. These players don't want to spend the time to track everyone's resources, but they will resent that they are less likely to win due to this (even if the reality is that you get little or no advantage as a result). Having more information also contributes to analysis paralysis, and is likely to make your decisions take longer as you try to assess what choice you should make based on what everyone else is holding.

I would only do something like this in a group you are familiar with and where everyone is interested in a highly competitive environment where as much information as possible is available to all players. And if you're making that agreement, you could just agree to make it public information by playing with open hands or whatever.

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    At that point though, why not all agree to play with open hands to save each-other the effort? I mean once it's been established you're all willing to maintain immaculate transaction logs... – mfoy_ May 22 '15 at 14:56
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    @mfoy I agree, if you're establishing that it is OK for everyone to have perfect information, playing with open hands seems like a much better solution. – bwarner May 22 '15 at 15:45
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In situations where certain information would be available perfectly to an observant player, little would be generally gained by allowing all players to keep records of such information which would not equally be gained by having the information continually public. There are, however, at least two situations where allowing personal record-keeping might be useful:

  1. If players have different levels of skill, and granting novice players a handicap would make the game more enjoyable than it would be if they were simply outclassed, it may be helpful to allow the novice players to keep written records even if more skillful players were not allowed to. To keep the game "fair", it may be helpful to have a house rule that any player may select between either being allowed to keep written records, or receiving some other advantage/ability which would only be relevant to more skillful players, though such advantage must be chosen carefully to be worth enough that skillful players wouldn't want to give it up, but not worth so much as to unbalance the game against the novice. Alternatively, if novices are unlikely to reach level 20 while still being novices, one could have a rule that recordkeeping would be allowed by all players below level 20 (though few people who expected to spend most of their time over level 20 would want to bother prior to passing that point).

  2. In some games, the state of a player's hand may have public and non-public aspects. For the situation where a player's initial cards start be private, but the motion of cards into or out of a player's hand might be public, a player might leave all of his hands which have been publicly seen face-up, but not expose those which haven't. Such an approach may offer some benefit to the player with the cards as well as the opponents, since leaving publicly-exposed cards face up would help the player remember which cards the opponents had seen. I'm not sure, though, how best to handle situations where most acquisitions and disposals would be public but some disposals might not be (e.g. if a player does a "sneak thief" attack on another player and takes a randomly selected card, and only the thief and victim are supposed to know which card the player no longer has, I don't know any way for an "open-hand" game to effectively convey the notion "the player has acquired these five cards, but presently only has four"). For such games, written records might be more convenient than other open-hand approaches.

What's most important is that players agree upon what the rules should be. Many games could be enjoyable as light-hearted fun without record-keeping or as a competitive exercise with note-taking allowed. Neither approach should be considered "better" than the other; what's important is that the approach that's in use matches the game people presently want to play.

0

I believe the propriety depends on what the other players are doing and what you've agreed upon beforehand. If the other players appear to emphasize quick play and thinking intuitively, then do it; if one or two are obviously mathing everything out and slowing the game to an extremely deliberate pace, then follow to give yourself a level playing ground. Afterward, make your own decision on whether the play style of the group is something that fits your opinion on how the game should be played.

On a larger issue, beware of games where the primary thing that makes it tick is the semi-secret information, where having a better memory of things contributes significantly to your chances of winning. The more reliant the game is on this, the more this issue can be a sore note (and in my opinion, the likelier that the game was lazily designed, and the more I should avoid it and look for a better game).

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