Captain’s Gambit has a bluffing mechanic in which players can attempt any action in the game - regardless of whether or not they actually have the appropriate card in front of them. If you successfully call someone else’s bluff, or if you trick someone into calling a bluff when you were honest, you’ll deal 3 damage to them. While the number has fluctuated a lot, the core concept of bluff calling was actually one of the very first ideas we had.
The bluffing mechanic was one of the first concepts we wanted in Captain’s Gambit. When our game design professor first prompted us to make a game about Shakespeare (in space???) we immediately latched onto the idea of making deception a core design pillar, alongside the concept of each captain having their own win condition. Deception made sense because it was a common theme across many of Shakespeare’s plays - a game full of manipulation and deception in this way would set the perfect stage for drama to unfold.
Inspired by games like poker, cheat and Coup, our bluffing mechanic does the strongest job of exemplifying that design pillar. Because each player’s permit cards stay face-down, regardless of whether or not people are telling the truth about their permits, you’re encouraged to get suspicious every time an action is declared. If you don’t call a bluff, you’re just letting someone get away with lying - but if you call a bluff, you may be walking into a 3-damage trap! We’ve enjoyed this mechanic a lot as it gave everyone lots of room to manipulate information and keep tensions high even during the quiet setup turns.
What’s in a number?
Bluffing takes a lot of guts - to reflect that, in our first iteration of Captain’s Gambit, the loser of a bluff call actually took 5 damage instead of 3. That’s half of a player’s health! While some players loved the high stakes, many more players felt intimidated by the consequences of messing up. And since we wanted to encourage players to interface with what we had deemed to be a core element of the game, we decided to adjust the value of bluff damage to make it more approachable.
We tried playtesting with 4-damage bluffs, but players still felt it was too high stakes. A few of us felt apprehensive about dropping it even lower - shouldn’t players just get good? - but we dutifully lowered bluff damage, again, to a final 3-damage resting point. And there it stayed! It didn’t take many games to realize that this was the magic number. There’s a delicate balance between feeling confident in making / calling bluffs, and feeling like successfully doing so had a proper amount of weight to it. A few curious playtests of 2 damage quickly illustrated that there was such thing as too little consequence. Bluff calls on every single turn wasn’t ideal, as there had to be enough turns where people ‘let it slide’ - both for the flow of the game, and to make good lies feel better.
The bluffing mechanic now feels like it’s in a good place. The final, final piece to the puzzle that truly made bluffing feel great was the introduction of a new “maximum health”, and it helped in the most intriguing of ways. But that’ll be for next time!