Memorisation: Do we need this tedious mechanic?
Do you enjoy keeping numbers in your head?
Many games, especially board games, include a memorisation element. Which cards have been played, how many meeples went into a tower or even the current score are vital pieces of information which we are often forced to memorise. It’s a tedious task that contributes little but remains present in a large number of games.
The most common form of unnecessary memorisation is hidden trackable information. Trackable information is details or knowledge about the game you can keep track of, like what cards were played on the last round. Hidden information is information you cannot see. Put together, it means there are details you know everything about but cannot check after some time has passed.
In other words, hidden trackable information is information that requires memorisation to know. It’s not actually hidden, but obscured. If I see four meeples go into the tower in El Grande, I know there are four meeples in it, whether the tower is transparent or not. Only if I forget or if I don’t pay enough attention will the information become an actual mystery.
This kind of needless memorisation is extremely common. From Puerto Rico to Power Grid, as well as in Tigris & Euphrates and Settlers of Catan, we can find it in all sorts of games. But it’s not actually hidden to the attentive player. As long as you pay attention once it’s as if it were face-up in the middle of the table. It’s a needless detail that impairs our ability to play a game.
For example, in Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, the score is the largest factor in how you play. You collect pieces of three types and strive to gain a majority in two of them. Where you attack or pressure your opponents changes depending on their score. And yet, you need to memorise that score because the game hides it.
Some people argue that memory is valuable because it’s a skill. Truth to be told, it’s not difficult to memorise game information. You can count cards and keep scores with little practice. For example, I use strings of three numbers to remember my opponent’s score in Samurai. The first digit represents peasants, the second priests and the third bureaucrats.
But is it fun? Well, no. Is it interesting? Again, no. Nobody goes around and says, “You know what I like about Samurai? Having to memorise the score”. Instead of wasting time on memorisation, I can learn how to negotiate, to understand stock markets or how likely it is for my girlfriend to yet again stab me on the back. These are good reasons to play games, memorisation isn’t.
If I wanted to play a game about memory, which I don’t, I wouldn’t play Samurai. Or Chinatown or Power Grid or any other of the hundreds of strategy games that include hidden trackable information. And if it were such a deep, interesting skill, it couldn’t be replaced by writing things down on a piece of paper.
There are some great games that require memorisation. Fighting games, for example, require extensive memorisation of moves. If I want to play Street Fighter at a competent level, I need to know how to perform an uppercut. Similarly, if I want to do well at card games, I need to know my deck’s contents.
But, in those cases, memorisation is not needless. It’s just an unfortunate consequence. On the other hand, there’s little artistic justification to add memory tests to a game about power plants or bartering. It’s a damaging element that games would do well in avoiding.
Memorisation is a terrible mechanic. I can spend my time with the game planning my moves, thinking about the possibilities and trying to outsmart my opponents. Or, I can repeat three numbers on my head over and over just to know the current score. Which one will make me walk away happier? Which one will make me think “It was a good idea to come here and play this game”?
Sometimes, people insist in keeping memorisation in, to the detriment of everything else. I once played a game in which you make bids face-down. My rivals, who were sticklers for the rules, refused to let me check my own bids when I forgot about them. The result? I had no idea what I was doing. I did not have fun and now I try to avoid playing with them. What did memorisation achieve?
I’ve often won because my opponents did not keep data in their heads. “Oh, I thought the blue card hadn’t been played”, “I thought I had five meeples”, “I thought you were winning”. Well, you thought wrong and now the match has gone down the drain, har, har. It’s a waste of time. No game has improved because someone forgot to memorise.
Some disagree, though. One of the most common complaints about Vinci was its tendency to devolve into leader-bashing. Its remake, Smallworld, hid the score and most reviews claimed this fixed the issue. But it doesn’t. All it does is to make it possible to get it wrong and bash an undeserving player instead.
In fact, the most common effect of unnecessary memorisation is to make play slower. All the time spent memorising, keeping scores and all other nonsense is time I could spend strategizing or even talking with the other people at the table. I would rather check the score, and forget about it, than have it take away my precious gaming time.
I despise memorisation. I can’t think of a worse mechanic that is still acceptable to use. I’ve seen designers balk at losing turns, elimination, direct attacks and even dice rolls, but forcing the player to waste time on memorisation is seen as normal. But I admit my crusade against needless memorisation also has a personal side to it.
I suffer from attention deficit disorder, which makes it difficult for me to focus. I’m easily distracted and struggle to keep my mind on one task. As you can imagine, having to keep numbers on my head makes it harder for me to play. I can do it, but it’s frustrating. It exhausts me.
In that sense, memorisation reminds me of the “skill” of telling colours apart, reading small print or understanding poorly written rules. It’s a barrier that prevents people from enjoying what’s valuable in games. So why add it? Like Nintendo’s baffling stance against configurable controls, it adds little, yet prevents many from playing comfortably.
To me, doing away with needless memorisation is no different from providing player aids or using a calculator. It makes games more enjoyable. Tradition, bad design or even preference may keep it entrenched in the art form. But I think it’s time to do away with it whenever appropriate and possible.
I can relate to that! My favorite feature in the digital version of Star Realms is that you can view not only the content of the discard piles but also of each player’s deck (but not the order, of course).
On the other hand, I can also see some practical cases for hidden but trackable information. For example, Dominion has the rule that only the top cards of discard piles are public. Now, it is possible to hide some of your discarded cards from the other players, but even without that, I think the rule makes some sense. It forces players not to spend time digging through everyone’s discard pile, and if you can gain an edge through good memory, so be it.
OK, I guess it’s technically allowed to slow down the game even more by taking notes, but it’s pretty clear you’re not supposed to do that.
The digital version of Star Realms is great. I’ve played it more than it’s healthy.
I’ve never thought of checking an opponent’s discard pile in Dominion, though I do it in most games. What I wish I could know sometimes is how many points each player has. But other than taking notes there’s no good way to do it. It barely matters, though. so it’s ok.