The last method of evaluating games that we’ll discuss this month is by how complicated they are, with a particular focus on how easy or difficult they are to teach. Even if you’ve decided a given game is worth the money, and you’ve decided it fits into your collection, there are certain situations when a game is simply too complicated to be appropriate for a particular setting.
The New Player Problem
The new player problem can affect how we evaluate games both at the point of purchase (“this game looks great and is a fine value for the money, but it looks like such a pain to teach that it’s not worth it”) and at the table (“we haven’t played this game in so long, but Mike doesn’t know how to play, so it’s going to take far too long once we’ve explained everything”).
Of course, there are plenty of great resources out there dedicated to explaining how to teach games. We’ll cover those at the end, but since we’re primarily focused on game design, let’s start with what design factors can make a game easier or more difficult to teach.
What makes a game difficult to teach?
Our monthly topic for April is Approachability, a concept so important that we’ve spent the last few months laying the ground work. In February, we covered Utility and how game design can expand the situations in which a game can be played. In March, we looked at methods to improve teachability in games.
So what is approachability and how does it relate to game design? To put it simply, Approachability emerges by removing the barriers of entry for new players.
The Uncertainty Gap
Board games can be an unfamiliar medium to convey information. For a new person to the hobby it can be downright overwhelming to see a table full of cards, tiles, icons, charts and maps.
We’ll call this initial response to stimuli in any game “the uncertainty gap”. This gap represents a player’s aversion to attempting the game, the cognitive burden of the player during the game and the general level of anxiety a person experiences while progressing the learning curve of an activity.
This month we’re looking at approachability in game design. How do we remove the initial barriers to entry that new players face in games? This week we look at several methods that help to encourage a player to try a new game. To follow up on our six axioms of Approachability, this week we’ll be looking at Familiarity and Purpose.
Bridging the Uncertainty Gap
As we introduced last week, gamers and non-gamers alike often have a bit of rules aversion. We don’t wish to learn new rules as it can lead to confusion while learning, errors in judgment and even anxiety over the possibility of making mistakes. In order to help dissipate this initial response game designers have some tools to generate leverage on the situation.
Familiarity: Ease concerns by establishing connections with the audience.
Purpose: What is my objective and how do I get there?
Let’s begin with an example that illustrates why some games need familiarity and purpose:
Although this clip is comedic in nature, it is a wonderful illustration to set-up our first phase of approachability. The Cones of Dunshire may or may sound like a game for you but convincing others to play would undoubtedly be a significant obstacle. The game may have some innovative mechanics, interesting decisions and intense player interaction but most people would never know for themselves. The Cones of Dunshire lacks familiarity: nothing we see or hear during Ben’s pitch will trigger memories or ideas that resonate with a prospective group of players. Furthermore, The greatest mystery in this clip is the purpose or overall objective of the game and how players might achieve it.
This month we are exploring Approachability, the process of removing barriers to entry for new players. Last week we wrote about the invitation phase of approachability and how games can ease the daunting aspects of a new game. This week we’ll look at how to build on this foundation using theme, mechanics and structure. The result is a series of ideas that can help acclimate a beginner to the game and encourage them to achieve the intended game experience.
In a two-part article we will dive in to four more of our axioms of approachability:
Clarity: What can I do and why should I do it?
Navigation: Give players a push in the right direction.
Parsimony: Ease the cognitive burden on players and remove distractions.
Assurance: Reward the player for participating through positive reinforcement.
When we left off last week we were looking at Clarity which helps players by providing context to their available actions. We finished by looking at Navigation which provides short-term goals to new players to mitigate a lack of experience. We’ll pick up where previously left it by covering Parsimony and Assurance followed by a conclusion which brings all these concepts together.
If you missed Part I, read it here.
Many of our Approachability axioms assist new players by providing additional resources or mechanics at their disposal. Our axiom of Parsimony deviates from the others by subscribing to simplification which can decrease the overall burden on players. Parsimony is more than just an arbitrary statement like “get rid of the excess stuff” and actually an advocate for addition by subtraction.
Our third article in the Approachability series focuses on the learning curve. Once you’ve gotten your players in the door and interested, how do you set them loose on the game? Can someone learn the rules and strategy over the course of the game, or does it take three games, or ten? And what’s the best design strategy to make the replay as approachable as the initial play?
To answer those questions, we’ll revisit the clarity and navigation axioms of approachability. Clarity, as we established at the beginning of our approachability series has two forms. The first type, as we covered in an earlier article, dealt with turn-scale clarity and how players were able to understand how their actions lead to results. The second type which we will cover in this article is game-scale clarity which is how a game can ensure a player comes away from a game with an understanding of their performance and how to improve in future sessions.