7 best hidden movement board games
Stealth on your shelf.
Technically, the genre ‘hidden movement’ refers to games in which one or more players move their character secretly, usually by jotting their position down on a scrap of paper. Functionally, however, hidden movement games are just variations of the game every schoolchild knows: hide and seek.
The oldest surviving rulebook for hide and seek is nearly two thousand years old. You can find it in Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon, a Greek dictionary so obscure that no complete English translation exists. It’s in the ninth book, nestled between other descriptions of the average Greek child. It’s probably much older than that, but old Julius was one of the few academics willing to debase himself with children’s games.
Best Hidden Movement Games
- Scotland Yard
- Whitehall Mystery
- City of the Great Machine
- Fury of Dracula
- Star Wars: Rebellion
- Captain Sonar
- Letter from Whitechapel
Over the course of history, adults invented methods to recapture the thrill of hide and seek. Sometimes those methods involved hunting dogs, teams of men on horses and a fox. In these gentler times, we use cardboard and take turns playing the fox. That’s hidden movement board games in a nutshell.
The best hidden movement board games deliver a three-act story as taut as any thriller. They start with a cold mystery, intensify as players catch the scent, and then break into a race against the clock and the tightening of the noose. Best of all, your prey is a friend and their mind lies at the centre of that mystery. In the end, their resourcefulness might surprise both of you.
7. Scotland Yard
Decades later, the search for Mister X remains the best introduction to the hidden movement genre
It seems fitting to start with the statesman of the hidden movement genre. Although it came out four decades ago, Scotland Yard’s design is clean enough to merit overused adjectives like ‘elegant’ and ‘classic’.
Its restraint is an immediately endearing quality. As you progress through this list, you’ll notice a bleak trend. Invoking the spectre of manhunts and monster hunts can instantly add stakes to a game of hide and seek, and that means there are a lot of dark themes in this genre. Rather than delving into real-life trauma, Scotland Yard tasks one to five London police with chasing down a generically-named ‘Mister X’.
The jungle for this most dangerous game is a network of taxi cabs, buses and metro lines. To traverse each, Mister X pays openly from a stash of tickets. Each ticket means something significant: taxi cabs have nearly no range but can reach every corner of the map, metro lines will get you farther but have a handful of predictable stops, and buses fall somewhere in-between. Essentially, the more distance Mister X tries to put between them and their pursuers, the more likely the police will anticipate their next location and head them off. That push and pull between predictability and distance fuels the game.
It’s a simple system which almost subconsciously creates a sense of terrain, of things to manipulate or hide behind. That’s a design achievement which still feels potent.
Scotland Yard’s chief fault, if it can be called that, is a catch–up mechanism. Every five turns or so, Mister X ‘pings’ their location, revealing their exact spot and making them flash their fluffy white tail. This keeps the game’s time to a brisk hour and prevents frustration on the part of the seekers, but dulls the sheen of a police victory.
Buy Scotland Yard from Amazon UK and Amazon US.
6. Whitehall Mystery
Like Scotland Yard grew up and watched a lot of true crime documentaries
Whitehall Mystery feels like Scotland Yard without the safety rails. Instead of a Saturday-morning cartoon villain like Mister X, the prey is Jack the Ripper himself. Like its big brother, Letters from Whitechapel, the seekers here are based on real 19th-century police officers.
In terms of mechanisms, Jack is essentially running a relay race around the map. Before the game begins, he picks four checkpoints he needs to reach. Whenever he hits one, he needs to announce the spot, so that pings his location in a manner similar to Scotland Yard. But there’s a subtle distinction between a ping and a checkpoint: every checkpoint means Jack’s another step closer to winning. That places the tempo of the hunt in Jack’s hands and demands more from the police.
For movement, Whitehall ditches the ticket system and breaks up the map into two sets of overlaid routes. Policemen move by black squares and Jack moves via the circled numbers, and each set behaves according to a logic of sorts. As a typical citizen, for instance, Jack can quickly pivot into an alley or enter a thoroughfare, but police have lots of access to chokepoints.
Whitehall spices the game with a few modest powers for both Jack and the detectives, but it’s a purer exercise of skill and logic than Scotland Yard. Without tickets or a ping, it’s more content to leave investigators to fumble around.
But it concludes in an hour. That’s an uncommon quality in this genre that Scotland Yard and Whitehall share.
Buy Whitehall Mystery on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
5. City of the Great Machine
Rage against the clockwork machine in this one-versus-many hidden movement game
City of the Great Machine flips the script. In hidden movement board games it’s usually a case of one hidden mover versus many seekers. In City, the one is an auto(ma)crat trying to maintain order, and their hidden opponents are revolutionaries who scurry underfoot.
If your game group fights for the privilege to play Mister X or Jack, this solves that problem. Conversely, if your game group struggles with the anxiety of hiding, having comrades in arms can make that more bearable.
But the best part is the City itself. Essentially, it’s a steampunk Matrix. In this version of the future, society decided to hand the keys to a Babbage Difference Engine and call it a day. It’s a ‘soft’ dictatorship, the sort that believes in catch-and-release and might even have its own version of Asimov’s Three Laws. Its populace is complacent.
This setting opens the genre formula up to a number of inventions. Getting caught no longer ends the game, but moves forward the Great Machine’s Master Plan. Revolutionaries aren’t trying just to avoid capture, but create a network of sympathisers and districts. Either side can rearrange the city like a Rubik’s Cube or Kirin Jindosh’s mansion from Dishonored 2, which can upset everyone’s plans in delightful ways.
Hidden movement acts as the connective tissue for City of the Great Machine, but not its sole focus. Along with our number 3 entry, it illuminates possibilities for the mechanism that the industry should pursue further.
Buy City of the Great Machine from Gamefound and Chaos Cards.
4. Fury of Dracula
When your prey fights back
People like to make fun of the title. For the majority of Fury of Dracula, the world’s fiercest vampire hoofs it around Europe, fleeing the heroes of Bram Stoker’s novel. Admittedly, The Flight of Dracula doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But Fury has a combat system. Players have to stake the vampire, not just locate him. When a cornered Dracula breaks Van Helsing’s crucifix and starts biting necks, ‘fury’ starts looking more and more appropriate.
Fury of Dracula is a hidden movement game of extremes and strict requirements. Its cluefinding elements are scarcely heavier or more involved than Whitehall Mystery, but its playtime and rulebook are three times longer. Its set-up is unyielding; regardless of headcount, there will always be four hunters on the board. Because of the horror board game combat system, Dracula and the four vampire hunters manage private inventories of traps and tricks. Unless someone doesn’t mind juggling handfuls of cards, that means you’ll need exactly five people.
But it commits to the theme too well to ignore, especially when you’re hanging with chums on All Hallow’s Eve. It nails that blend of camp and gothic horror that brings us back to the vampiric legend over and over again.
Buy Fury of Dracula on Zatu UK.
3. Star Wars: Rebellion
A two-player galactic wargame about the line between valour and discretion
“Star Wars in a box” is its usual descriptor, but that doesn’t do justice to its ambitions. Rebellion’s like a Russian Matryoshka doll, a replica inside a replica. It’s a cardboard adaptation of the so-so 1998 video game of the same name and attempts to re-enact the theatre of war Episodes IV through VI suggested, but never conveyed.
As the Empire, you scour the galaxy for the Rebels’ secret HQ. You have cutting-edge tech and an inexhaustible army, your power limited only by the number of rounds left before a revolution hits. As the Rebels, you run guerilla raids around the galaxy to move the revolution closer and prepare your bug-out bag in case the Imperial fleet gets too close. Your ragtag army will never win, but it can buy time.
Putting this Star Wars board game on a list of the best hidden movement games may seem like heresy. Over its four hours of play, the Rebels make a ‘hidden move’ to relocate their HQ maybe four or five times. Yet few as those moves may be, they contain enough misdirection and mind games to equal anything else on this list. Besides, its decision to wrap a full-blown wargame around its hidden movement might be what’s worth celebrating the most.
Hidden movement hasn’t mingled with other genres in the same way that, say, deckbuilding has. Since Mage Knight in 2011, designers have blended that mechanism with worker placement and other genres to create dazzling new specimens. Deckbuilding proved it can serve as a garnish.
Hidden movement, on the other hand, still largely revolves around Scotland Yard. Titles like Mind MGMT might give you mini-comics and legacy boxes, but that’s mostly cruft gathering around the same concept. City of the Great Machine and Rebellion demonstrate a promising, untapped versatility.
Buy Star Wars: Rebellion on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
2. Captain Sonar
Two submarines enter, one submarine leaves
In Captain Sonar, each submarine crew attempts to narrow down the other’s location while concealing their own. Oh, and it’s all done in real time. No turns.
The genius of Sonar lies in the tension it creates between the individual crewmates and their assigned roles. Those roles interlace to create some intense theatre.
The captain controls the sub’s movement and barks orders (“North, South,” etc.). They want speed, want to deny their opponents a slow-moving target. That puts them in conflict with their engineer, who has to allocate the stress every order places on the vessel and sometimes damages equipment to keep pace. Then it’s the turn of the first mate, who keeps track of the arsenal, to be upset: “They torpedoed the spot right next to us. What do you mean you broke the stealth drive?”
The most fascinating role belongs to the radio operator. They listen to the enemy captain’s orders, tracing the trajectory on a transparent sheet of plastic and fitting that line to the map like a puzzle piece. It’s their judgement which convinces the captain to stop hiding and start hunting. That pivot kicks off an exciting second-act reversal.
Like Fury of Dracula, Captain Sonar makes some big asks. If you can’t easily arrange six to eight gamers around a table or if they hate rushing their turns, then you should think twice about owning a copy. But if you can manage that, then Captain Sonar will become the centrepiece of your game night.
Buy Captain Sonar on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
1. Letters from Whitechapel
A crystal lotus made of blood; beautiful in its icy logic, but subtly human
Whitehall Mystery is billed as the leaner, sleeker follow-up to the two-and-a-half hour Letters from Whitechapel. I’m fairly convinced “Catch Jack in under an hour!” was considered for the back of the box.
They have the same rules for movement. The map and its terrain were crafted with similar care. Whitehall added special powers, cut the map down to a third of its size, and conflated Letters’ four smaller rounds to one medium-sized one.
The loss in potency between the two, though, shows how gamers can, like a March Hare, lose meaning in a quest to save hours.
Whitechapel is a raw test of wits. Its map is simultaneously easy to read and densely textured, filled with unexpected dead-ends and shortcuts. You’ll have all the tools you need. Police can set their patrols each night. Jack chooses where he starts and gets one or two ‘get out of jail free’ cards. Still, it provides no special powers or free clues.
But that grants you full ownership of your successes and failures. No other hidden movement board game makes outfoxing your opponents this sweet or falling for gambits this painful. For a brief moment, and through the crude language of animal cunning, you connect.
Buy Letters from Whitechapel from Zatu UK and Amazon US.