Introduction to Approachability

Written by Alex Harkey

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.

Crevasse

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.

If we were to measure the uncertainty gap it would indicate the separation between the intended experience of the designer and the overall response of the player. Approachability facilitates this problem by closing this gap to benefit not only a new player but several other parties involved. Let’s look at who benefits from approachability in game design:

New Players: All new games must first be learned and approachability ensures players can jump into the intended experience quickly and easily rather than take a pre-requisite course first.

Experienced Players: The traditional method of teaching a game to new players requires an experienced player to transfer the knowledge of the game. The teacher is an important role in the learning process and approachability can make their job simpler. As newer players gain experience, approachability will also allow them to more readily identify new opportunities and strategies as they progress the learning curve.

The Designer: Game designers usually want to put their work into the hands of others and approachability improves the willingness of potential players and allows a wider audience to encounter the design ideas.

The Publisher: Sales of a game are influenced by its potential market. Approachability allows for games to be shared with more players which can drive future sales.

The Axioms of Approachability:

To help us in our month-long discussion we have established six axioms of approachability: Familiarity, Purpose, Assurance, Clarity, Navigation & Parsimony.

Familiarity – “But I finally figured out the last game, can’t we go back to that?”
Scrabble

Familiarity: “We build a crossword…”

For many gamers a new game presents a great deal of wonder and amusement. But for some people it brings a dreadful sense of affliction. Whether it’s an aversion to learning new rules, fear of making mistakes or anxiety of trying something new, some players will never fully enjoy the excitement of a new game.

Familiarity is an axiom of approachability that generates connections with players to allow for comfort in the learning process. Relief could come from visuals such as components or even a shared mechanic like a Rondel. Most often it will come from how effective a game is to “pitch” to a new player. Familiarity identifies the foundation on which new ideas can be built quickly and efficiently without straining the comfort levels of a player.

Purpose – “So what do I do?”
Jenga

Purpose: “We take turns building this tower and try not to be the cause of its fall.”

Once a connection is created, the goal of the game should be simple to explain. Purpose is an axiom of approachability that helps player understand what they need to do (the overall objective) and how they can get there.

Purpose is an area in which Eurogames have been spectacularly poor at doing. Game designs can unfortunately end up disguising their objectives with a common goal such as “collect the most victory points” which doesn’t really tell a new player much about the game objective and can cause a player to tune out rules instruction about mechanics that don’t appear to directly lead to victory points.

Clarity – “Why would I want to do that?” & “How did that go wrong?”

In order to understand the objective and the path to get there (Purpose), players need to understand the cause and effect of their actions. This can come in the form of providing context to players about their actions or creating a direct connection between actions and the objective.

Clarity comes in two forms, the first type is turn-scale, which addresses what options are available to a player during a turn that will shape their success in achieving the final objective.

No Thanks!

Clarity: “On your turn you either add a point to the card or pick up the negatively valued card and all points atop of it while seeking the lowest total score…”

The second form of clarity is game-scale, addressing whether a player can come away from a game understanding their performance and the actions they can make differently in the future to improve performance. We’ll go into this second type of clarity in more detail later this month.

Clarity helps the early shaping of strategy of players and it is part of the crucial distinction of whether or not a player grasps an understanding of the game. Clarity is the single greatest factor that will determine whether a player will want to play a game again.

Assurance – “I’m still not so sure…”

Once the game begins, approachability isn’t over quite yet. The game should hold interest in the early stage of the game as the player becomes acquainted with mechanics and the flow of play.

The approachability axiom of assurance is an extension of the loosely defined game design concepts of “immersion” or “player engagement”. Assurance goes beyond these ideas to positively reinforce the idea that playing this game was a wise decision. Assurance can remove the reservations of players who have aversion to learning new games. This could be the single most valuable idea in game design.

Navigation – “What should I do now?”
Ticket to Ride

Navigation: “Begin the game by selecting among your destination tickets, you score points at the end of the game for routes you have completed.”

Even when a player understands their options, sometimes there are just too many that appear to be attractive choices. Since a new player does not yet have the experience that will help them prioritize, some participants can be frozen during their first few turns. All they need is a push in the right direction.

A need for navigation is worth distinguishing from Analysis Paralysis as it specifically relates to new players getting started with the early turns of a game. Navigation exists to guide a player, either by propelling them towards a short term goal or act as a beacon to give them a long-term target to reach.

Parsimony – “What does that do?”

Throughout the process of learning a new game players will have their attention redirected many times. Every extraneous idea, mechanic or component that can be removed can aid players during instruction. Parsimony is the concept of explaining the most information using the fewest number of concepts needed to do so.

This final axiom of Approachability is probably the simplest to implement as it loosely encompasses many other design processes. Think of parsimony as the objective of streamlining a game or lowering the cognitive burden placed on players (which we examined in February’s complexity article). Parsimony provides the greatest benefit to new players by removing potential distractions and allowing their focus to be prioritized.

Conclusion:

Approachability is a topic Matt and I have been putting together over the past year and as you’ll see this month we think it has a variety of applications. However we do readily admit it shouldn’t be a priority for every game design. These are just a few instances where approachability should probably be a low priority:

  • Heavy war games
  • Deep simulation games

Players in pursuit of heavy or highly complex simulations and wargames are already a gaming population conditioned to reading lengthy rulebooks and familiar with extremely specific game mechanics and rules exceptions.

  • Game lengths of multiple hours

Game length is a varying preference from person to person, but for argument sake my threshold would be about three hours. If I’m being taught a game that plays longer than three hours I’m not expecting any approachability considerations as I’m aware of what I’m getting into. I’m already expecting complex gameplay and difficult decisions.

  • Expansions or sequels that build on pre-existing knowledge from a game series.

CCGs and roleplaying games can develop over years with new ideas released in expansions or rules supplements. Many changes and gameplay additions are in response to an existing customer base. I wouldn’t expect to grasp the entirety of Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons in my first few encounters.

patreon2So while many game designs can benefit from approachability, others would require a dramatic shift in design intentions which may not make for a better gaming experience. Although we’ve defined six axioms above, not every single one is necessary for approachability. In fact, trying to incorporate all of them may result in new problems. As you observe our perspectives and examples this month, consider if some of the proposed solutions are worthwhile to make your game designs more approachable.

Join us this month as we examine approachability and dig into plenty of examples of execution (both good and bad).

  • Continue to the next approachability article – “Extending the Invitation” – Making games easier to attract new players where we cover Familiarity and Purpose.
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One comment on “Introduction to Approachability

  1. Sarcastic Robot

    Great article here! I see some ways I should shape up my pitch. I just wish I had read this before I had written my tabletop day stuff. Oh well.

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