The Long and Short of Memory Games

Why adult gamers dislike the memory mechanism and hidden trackable information

Memory games sure are a stigmatized lot. It is THE mechanism that is shunned and actively avoided by many gamers. Mention that a game involves memory and you will invariably get some negative reactions. It is not just in-game memory mechanisms that people dislike but the metagaming aspect of hidden trackable information is also widely panned. Why is that so and is it worthy of the scorn heaped upon it?

Tell me this, when is the last time you heard of a full blown memory game being in the spotlight? The last game I remember was Memoarrr!. In fact the game was a 2018 SDJ recommended game but it quickly dropped off the radar. In Memoarrr!, memory is the core mechanism where players try to connect similar elements between animals and landscapes that was previously revealed. Each round, more cards are revealed as players try to remember the previous location of the cards. The game wasn’t particularly innovative, but it was decent game with several memorable come-from-behind moments.

There are a handful of games I know where memory is a small component of the game: The older Days of Wonder title Mystery Express features a mini game where players are ask to recall the hands of a clock; The more recent title Hadara has a small memory component where it is advantageous to remember when a card you desire is discarded so that you may pick it up in a later phases; The classic El Grande has a tower which everyone deposit cubes into. These are influence cubes which you can later reassign to different areas to gain area majority. It helps to remember how many cubes your opponents have deposited. Finally, there is Lord of the Rings : Confrontation from Knizia where it is Stratego on steroids. I am positive that for many of these titles, the memory aspect of the game has generated at least some negative comments, particularly for El Grande.

Time cards in Mystery Express (Photo credits: Naduit@BGG)

Historically, memory games have not always suffered so much discrimination. Witness the popularity of the commercial game Memory. The flip-and-match game is still around and is has been published by many companies and in various iterations. Granted, the game is designed for the mass market but it remains a legitimate game, particularly for kids. Curiously, while adults thumb their noses at memory games, kids love them. In fact, kids have an advantage over adults in some of these memory games. My kid would beat me hands down everytime if she also had the accompanying attention span to match her memory skills. Companies such as HABA routinely publishes many pure memory games for kids. While not many games of this type are ranked highly, I suspect the rankings reflects a more adult bias.

Memorization is often seen as a negative in games. The idea that a player with superior memory can have a tactical advantage in games is often looked down upon. To the point that many gamers go out of their way to neutralize this advantage is a bit surprising. This disdain has led to the adoption of house rules which makes hidden trackable information public. The basis of this house rule is that any information that can be jotted down on a pad prior to the information becoming hidden is sub-optimal for gaming and should just be made public during the course of playing the game.

Cubes and Tower in El Grande which are actually called Caballeros and Castilla (Photo credits: GaryJames@BGG)

So where is the love for memory games and why do adult gamers shun this mechanism? My pet theory is that most gamers find memorization a chore: Something that requires work and is the antithesis of fun. Unlike critical thinking or cognitive skills, memory is encoded by different parts of the brain. It doesn’t help that memorization is often associated with studying: something most of us don’t have the fondest of memories during our teenage years. Why do kids like it then? Well, it is accepted that our brain becomes less plastic as we age. Our synaptic connections are not nearly as robust and so is our memory, particularly our working and short-term memory. Does this make us feel less fond of memory games? Perhaps, but this explanation is abstract to most and hard to validate. Nonetheless, it is clear that our peak brain performance occurs when we are young and steadily decline as we age.

I wonder if we should consider memory as an ancillary mechanism in games that have hidden public information. Let’s take Knizia’s Samurai as an example: In Samurai, a screen is provided for each player to hide their captured pieces from the main board. This is clearly the definition of hidden public information. Yet, Samurai will play very differently with or without a screen. If you know exactly which majorities your opponents are gunning for, you can conceivable change your strategy and play a more defensive game. From a strategic gaming perspective I suppose you can argue this change is for the better. To a degree, there is no right or wrong way to play the game. You play whichever way you like but discarding the screen comes at a cost. When some partial information is hidden, players will have to rely on memory, which is not an always reliable. Different players also have a range of memory capacity. But it is this individual uncertainty that generates tension, angst and I expect, many ”aha!” and “if-only-I” moments. Aren’t these the moment gamers always talk so highly of? Don’t all of us seek that last minute come backs or the unexpected victories? Ironically of course, these are the moments we will end up remembering.

Knizia’s take on Stratego and it’s a good one! (Photo credits: Yayforme@BGG)

For me, memory is almost like a skill when playing board games. If you frame memory more as a skill than a utility, then it is no different from other “skills” that you employ to win a game. You can certainly learn techniques to improve memory and the more you use it, the better you get. In fact, memory as a game mechanism is no different from disc-flicking or visualizing spatial orientation. I can attest that some folks don’t do well in Ubongo or Flick em’ Up! but I am quite sure their skills can improve with repetition. Similarly you can improve memory by developing methodologies to encode the short term information. More importantly, memory is but a small component in most games. Hence, a good memory may you win games but it is not imperative for winning games. It is one of many “skills” you utilize for winning games.

Designing a game based solely on memory as a core mechanism is challenging. I can’t think of many good games, like Memoaaar! that uses memory fully as a game mechanism. It would be easier if the memory component formed a larger part of the narrative. In essence, this is the hidden trackable information part of the game. If we can fuse a deck-builder to a racing game or a worker placement with card drafting, why not memory? For sure, some games have successful done this. I think there needs to be a drive to repurpose hidden public information. The most obvious candidate for this is the usage of screens. There hasn’t been much innovation in the use of screens to hide information. There is some avenue for creativity here: Perhaps a partial screen where selective information is hidden. Perhaps more than one screen can be used or using screens as a gimmick or hook to introduce memory elements. All we need is to shift our perspective slightly and embrace hidden public information as part and parcel of game design. If you want to play well, then go play more memory games or improve on your memory skills. It can be done.

Imagine, what if Knizia said that screens were an essential component of Samurai and it should never be removed from the game. That the hidden trackable information is what was intended for the game and part of the design to use memory as a mechanism; In fact, it is an integral experience to playing Samurai. Would you now have a different mindset about using screens? Now, extend that logic to other games as well and see how you feel. We gamers frequently crow about how well board games teaches critical thinking skills, logic, risk-reward probabilities and more. Why can’t it also improve memory? The benefits of improving memory are obvious in our daily lives. Why not add memory to the column of board gaming positives? Ultimately perhaps, we should be able to say that the person with the best skills….. and also memory wins the game.

It’s useful to remember which cards have been discarded for each colored-pile (Photo credits: Stantem@BGG)