What is bluffing?
Following Harry Frankfurt's brilliant On Bullshit, it might be helpful to think about, and define, bluffing in comparison to lying. Because bluffing isn't exactly lying, or we wouldn't bother to come up with a whole different word for it. Or would we? We do have lots of synonyms for many words. But bluffing, like bullshit, is most certainly a form of misrepresentation and deceit. What is that we are misrepresenting?
Let's look at Frankfurt's definition for bullshit for help, since he correctly identifies that bullshitting is close to bluffing. According to Frankfurt, bullshit is the product of indifference to how things really are. Unlike lying, the bullshitter is not trying to hide the truth from us - what he/she is hiding is that he/she doesn't really care about the truth. The bullshitter misrepresents 'what he is up to' - and he does so by saying things as if he cares about whether or not they are true. Think of the pretentious small talker that's trying to impress with tidbits he has read on some popular science website. He is trying to present himself as knowledgeable and curious, while the truth is that he really is mostly interested in creating a good impression. What he is saying might be true, but he really doesn't know, can't tell if it's true and most importantly, he really doesn't care if it's true.
Now that sounds a lot like bluffing, but it really isn't the same. Unlike bullshitting, bluffing is form of deceit that does pay attention to actual facts. If I have a terrible hand in poker and I'm bluffing about it, I'm particularly concerned to make you think that I actually have a good hand. I couldn't bluff if I had a good hand. In that bluffing is more like lying than bullshitting - in bluffing, I am committing to the falsehood of my statehood. The truth of the matter is necessarily private information - it is for me to know and for you to find out, should you choose to challenge. And challenge you might, for you is not the kind of person to let me get away with lying. Beware though: challenging is costly. If you challenge me and you are wrong, it's you who suffers. This is a crucial component of the bluff - it is an invitation to challenge. That is why bluffing is connecting to 'calling one's bluff' - you call someone bluff (or attempt at it) by rising to the challenge that the bluffer put forth. If he was bluffing, you called his bluff. If he wasn't, you're in trouble.
But bluffing is like bullshitting, as Frankfurt notes, in that it is an effort in fakery. When I bluff, I try to fake it - to convey that I am something that I'm not. In this way, it is true that the skill involved in bluffing calls for the kind of talent Frankfurt ascribes to the 'bullshit artist', providing "spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play."
Lastly, when I bluff, I put something on the line. In poker, it's money (or chits). In other cases it's my reputation as someone who doesn't make idle threats. In any case, I bluff because it allows me to do something that I couldn't otherwise. I can raise the stakes because, I claim, I have a good hand. Without a good hand I would not be justified in raising the bet (and the stakes). When I bluff, I pretend to be something I'm not, or to have something I don't, so that I can enjoy the privileges of that possession.
In sum, bluffing is the attempt to use a resource or a privilege that one does not have, in a manner which invites a costly challenge. There is always tension around bluffing. I claim I deserve it, and I'm the only one who knows whether that's actually the case. You can challenge me if you want, but if you're wrong, it'll cost you. If you're right, though, I'll be exposed in my shame.
Why do we bluff?
The first reason we bluff is because it's really fun! Which is why it's not surprising there are so many games that revolve around this concept. Think about it: lying itself is pretty fun (there's the general appeal of forbidden fruits and then there's the fun of successfully misleading someone) and in this case, on top of lying, you get something you don't deserve for lying well! How exciting. Moreover, as was noted before, bluffing provides variegated opportunities for play and imagination. As a form of fakery, it invites one to select from a wide array of options: What do I want to pretend to be do? It's a form of role playing, a game within the game.
But other than the thrill of bluffing, it's important to note that bluffing is an interesting form of interaction. Many games incorporate different types of lying, and some have been praised/condemned for ruining friendships and other important forms of relationships. Bluffing is a fun interaction because it is very tense: it is an action that invites a reaction, and it's usually very clear that something might be a bluff. The potential bluff hovers in the air and invites the challenge, creating drama and tensions. Will she call my bluff? Can she tell that I'm nervous? Is she counter-bluffing my bluff?
It's definitely controversial to train, legitimize and practice lying as a skill, though this calls for a separate discussion. It is worthwhile to note, in this context, that bluffing does not share with bullshitting the characteristic which makes bullshitting, according to Frankfurt, "a greater enemy of the truth than lies are" - namely, the disregard for the truth. Consequently, practicing the art and craft of bluffing does not lead one to attenuate a person's normal regard to the way things are, as Frankfurt warns, since bluffing hinges on actually telling a lie. Also, bluffing is inherently dangerous: every time you lie, you can be challenged. So lying can advantageous in a competitive environment, but it's a costly strategy. Since I think learning to lie, and recognize lying, are important skills that shouldn't be shunned - I find bluffing games to be particularly appealing.
To bluff or not to bluff
When thinking about bluffing, it's a good idea to look at a brilliant little card game that is totally built around bluffing: Coup. I will not review the entire ruleset here, it's a pretty simple games and you can find the rules on BGG. The basic notion of the game is that each player has two cards face down in front of them, and on them two out of the five possible characters in the game. The characters determine what actions you can do in the game, so you can only assassinate someone if you have the assassin. But if you don't have the assassin, have no fear! You can always claim that you have it and unless someone challenges you, feel free to assassinate.
Coup is a great game to think about when thinking about bluffing, because there really is nothing else going on in the game. If games are 'a contest of decision-making' (as Keith Burgun argues), then Coup is a competition in making just one decision: to bluff or not to bluff. If Coup was played with the cards face up, eliminating the possibility of bluffing (since there will be no private information), there would be no game left for there would be no competition. There would still be a tiny little space to make decisions (do I take 3 from the treasury or do I still 2? Who do I assassinate?) but the progression of the game would be almost completely determined by the card drawn. Another reason to look at Coup for the study of bluffing is that Coup institutionalize bluffing. While you can bluff in many games, in Coup, the bluffing is integrated into the rules. Therefore, the benefits of a well-executed bluff as well as the punishment for having one's bluff called were considered and adjusted by the game designer for balance and maximum fun-value.
So what do we learn from Coup? We learn that bluffing is a sufficiently wealthy mechanic to hold up an entire game. True, Coup is one of these game that some would call a 'micro-game' (and others would say it's just another small game), which means that it's one of these games that pack a lot of complexity and depth into a short, quick game that comes in a small package. Coup fits this definition really well: it promises and delivers fun and depth that exceeds its package size. The reason Coup does that bluffing as a mechanic is rich enough to create a wide array of tense and fun situations. Bluffing, when done well, is the gift that keeps on giving. But beyond that, we learn that bluffing is something you can successfully integrate into the rules. People understand what bluffing is and so it's easy to explain the rules of a bluffing game.
When you play Coup a few times with different people, you'll see the wide variety of situations that bluffing offers, Some people cannot lie to save their lives. But, interestingly, people who don't lie don't necessarily believe that others don't lie - a friend who didn't himself lie once during the game, couldn't help himself but challenge almost every action done around the table. And though challenges were not paying off and people realized quickly that it is dangerous to lie, the outrage at the possibility of lies made sure that people kept challenging and challenging. In another context, a low-lying environment made bluffing all the more profitable as most players didn't even consider lying a possibility. There's the inevitable, and hilarious, moment where someone gets indignant that someone would accuse her of lying, only to then reveal that she did in fact lie.
Coup exemplifies the variety in strategies that bluffing provides. You can analyze the probability of each and every possible hand, as one poker analyst did, and craft a strategy that ensures challenging you is, more often than not, a bad idea. This analysis shows that even when your only source of information (namely, what your opponent chooses) is clearly unreliable, there is much strategic calculating that one can do. This kind of strategy will probably consistently beat any other consistent strategy, but it doesn't take into account many of the common reaction to lying that one can use to manipulate the game. As one other strategist suggests, lying early is usually a good idea, because people don't typically challenge you early on before they know anything about what you are likely to have. If you claim three different roles in the first three turns you've established yourself as a liar but also prevented your opponents from 'boxing' you into one category or another. If you only start lying late in the game, as many people do, you risk being obvious about it. And even if you lie and invite challenges, that's not necessarily a bad thing: challenging is risky, and if you were not lying often enough, they'll be sorry they challenged you.
I hope that by now, by looking at (and hopefully playing!) Coup, you get a sense of what bluffing feels like, why it's fun and what it does for to a game. Now let's look at some variants of this basic mechanic.
Hidden roles and ignorance as a strategy
A related, though distinct, popular game mechanic is that of hidden identities. The two most popular games in that category is Werewolf (aka Mafia) and The Resistance, though there are many others. The basic idea of these games are that people play different roles in the game yet their roles are private information: discovering the roles of the players is pretty much the goal of the game. Typically the 'bad guys' (the werewolves, mobsters, spies etc.) are compelled, by the logic of the game, to pretend to 'good guys' (villagers or whatever) so that no-one will know what they really are. That sort of pretence involves bluffing since werewolves would be hiding their identity by claiming that they have the privileges of an innocent person and employing it to do the only thing innocents people can do in those games: blame others that they are spies/werewolves.
As the bluff is not incorporated into the rules, there is no institutionalized way to challenge a bluff. But the challenge will be there, and usually take the form of 'if you're really what you say you are, prove it by helping the team'. A leader of a mission, playing the Resistance, might appoint himself and another person saying to them: 'if this mission fails, we will know that you are the spy'. That's an attempt to call the bluff though, of course, it too might be a kind of a bluff.
The bluffing aspect of hidden role games comes to light in the mature versions of these games, namely in cooperative game that employ what has come to be called the 'traitor mechanic'. Games like Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, or the widely expected (in my opinion, justifiably so) upcoming Plaid Hat Game Dead of Winter have a group of players working together to achieve a goal with the knowledge that among them there is, more likely that not, someone who is working against the group. Players therefore challenge each other all the time to prove their loyalty to the group by working for the group. The drama and tension increase as you realize that if you might be suspected for being a traitor if you don't help the group whether or not it's within your powers to help. As one board game commentator said, players will be considering the question, 'are you a cyclon are you just incompetent'?
The confusing between the bluffing traitor and the incompetent loyalist, in its glamour and hilarity, opens up many possibilities for the bluffer. When in doubt, you can always masquerade as an incompetent loyalist. Or act confused. Or better: confuse yourself. Especially if you're bad at lying, you don't want to be too strategic about when to bluff and when to really help the group. Say you're playing Battlestar Galactica and you're the Cylon. You look at your cards and you're sweating: should I try to fail them now, or would it be obvious that it's me? Everybody is looking at you, trying to glean your thoughts from the movement of your eyebrows. The solution? Draw a card at random. That way, you don't even know if you helped or hindered this particular crisis. When the cards are revealed, you'll be just as surprises as everyone else to see that the group failed. Genuine surprise is hard to feint and so ignorance as a strategy helps you produce this priceless authenticity. If you want to successfully lie to others, you have to learn how to lie to yourself.
Bluffing with perfect information
As we saw, bluffing depends on some private information. The games we considered so far have all incorporated that into the game by, for example, dealing a secret hand of cards to each player. But does that mean that there's no bluffing in perfect information games? Eurogames are typically designed to minimize guessing and the chance that characterize many American-style games. It's certainly true that Agricola or Terra Mystica don't have traitors, hidden roles and challenges incorporated into the rules.
But bluffing is part and parcel of almost every game, especially ones that lend themselves to tournament style competition. An enduring competitive environment supports experienced players who develop and employ strategies and respond to other players' strategies. Think of Chess - a game with perfect information that, at least in theory, can be solved. That it can be solved means that if we were to solve it, we would know exactly what is the best strategy in every situation. But given that it is not solved (and is not solvable by humans as far as we know), a big part of playing Chess revolves around figuring your opponent's intention. If you can discover what is your opponent's strategy, you go a long way to defeat her. Which is why chess players do a lot of posturing and feints, in attempts to hide their real strategy.
Likewise when you're playing a deeply economic Euro game, like Puerto Rico or Container. You may not be bluffing when you take actions (as the rules do not allow you to claim privileges you don't deserve) - but you might be bluffing when you pretend to go for one resource or building and then reveal that you were actually going for another. This kind of bluffing requires not only deep knowledge of the game but also playing with opponents that will pick up on the subtle cues and pose a threat to your strategy by attempting to block you. Nonetheless, if you watch a bunch of serious Euro-gamers deeply involved in a classic game like El Grande, moving colored cubes carefully in their typically silent gaming session, you might not hear the lies and challenges, but they will be there all the same. There will be posturing, bluffing, costly challenges and all the rest of it - but it will all be done to the sound of lightly pushed colored cubes.
Following through with you bluff
Before I end this admittedly long discussion of an esoteric mechanic, there is one other rare kind of bluffing I wish to discuss. We sometimes bluff when we make threaten someone with retaliation or punishment. In fact, every threat is potentially a bluff because it is often the case that we make irrational threats: when we know it will not be wise for us to follow through with our interests. This what we call an 'empty threat', and they can sometimes be hard to tell apart from real threats. These threats are sometimes the outcome of vengeful rage, when you the strength of the threat is its irrationality: If you hurt me, I'll be really angry, and the anger will cloud my judgement so much that I'll hurt you even if it hurts me. DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU.
Of course, I might be really angry and my anger may indeed cloud my judgment (don't say I didn't warn you). Or I may calm down by the time it's time for me to follow through with my threat, and I'll see that it makes no sense to keep my vicious promise. Naturally, there's the possibility that I wasn't really angry in the first place and I was merely bluffing: I pretended to be indignant and angry, just so you won't mess up my stuff with your justifiably destructive strategy.
But then, even if I was bluffing, even if I never intended to follow through - still, there's a price to making empty threats. In repeated games, as we are all too sensitive to notice, reputation matters. The importance of this point is commonly overestimated so I wouldn't want to press it too hard, but there is a kernel of truth to it: If I keep making idle threats and never follow through, I won't be taken seriously. The consequence of this is that people sometimes follow through with a threat, turning manageable failures into disasters (to use a phrase borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), only to maintain their reputation and the credibility of their threats. This instance of bluffing is often a move in the meta-game and not in the current game, but that's a topic to be discussed at some other time.
So, to bluff?
Bluffing is a fascinating dynamic of strategic environments that blossoms on hidden information. It's a costly, but potentially profitable, type of lying that invites a lot of interaction. The shadow of the potential challenge, the attempt to 'read' other people and expose their bluffs will create many funny, tense and dramatic moments. It is almost impossible to avoid any kind of bluffing in a competitive environment, where might try to hide your strategy by pretending to go for something else, so even if you're more of a Eurogamer than a fan of The Resistance - you better learn how to keep your private information to yourself.