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?
I conducted a survey of gamers’ opinions about “teachability” or the lack thereof in the least scientific way possible: by doing a few searches through the BGG forums with the phrase “easy to teach.” There are quite a few vague praises of games as being easy to teach but little in the way of specifics. What about the game makes it easy to teach?
So I went the opposite direction next and searched for the phrase “difficult to teach.” There, an avalanche of complaints gave some very specific ideas of what players don’t want to see when it comes to teaching. (Some of the following complaints cite example games; I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with the example given, but they’re good illustrations.)
Poorly defined turns. Or, poorly defined effective turns.
An example was Lords of Waterdeep, where “on your turn you can do one of four things, this or this or this or this. If you do this, then its good because ABC, if you do this, then it is also good because XYZ.” The chief complaint here is that it’s not necessarily apparent to the new player why ABC and XYZ are roughly equivalent, and why one might be better than the other under certain conditions.
Heavily interconnected elements.
- In Brass, there are so many “tracks” that the game moves along that it can be difficult to explain what each one does, much less how each relates to the others. To earn money, you need to make and sell goods; to make goods, you need to develop industry; to sell goods, you need to develop connections; but to develop industry or connections, you need money. Such “chicken and egg” situations can be tough to explain.
Too many rules to support a lighter mechanism.
- The example cited here was L’Aéropostale, which “has too many rules. More specifically, the central mechanism is that of a lighter game, but it has lots of rules which add chrome – but don’t really add to the game experience. As a result, the game is very difficult to teach and very difficult to remember the rules for, leading to a disappointing experience.”
Non-intuitive core concepts.
- One of the most important concepts in Small World is putting races into decline. According to one post, some new players have trouble deciding not only when to decline a race (a core strategic decision) but why to do it (“why would I ever decline a race that’s prospering?”) If a game mechanic is tough to grasp thematically, it might also be more difficult to teach.
The game “looks complicated.”
- Better than even for its game mechanics, Race for the Galaxy is known for its iconography, the little symbols on each card that explain how each one works. Although those symbols are designed to make the game easier, at first glance, they can be confusing to downright impenetrable. Including extensive symbolic elements in the game, making player aids full-size sheets of paper, and showing a scoring track that goes up to 200 when an average first turn is worth 2 points make a game less teachable because new players are scared into thinking it’s more complex than it really is.
- Max Seidman at Most Dangerous Game Design gives a great example from a game he worked on called buffalo. He notes that while buffalo is very simple to learn, in early playtests, it appeared much more complicated that it really was, only because he hadn’t arrived on an optimal order for explaining the concepts in the rulebook.
What makes a game easy to teach?
It’s easy to simply say “the opposite of what makes it difficult,” but to some extent that’s the best answer. Evidently, it’s tougher (or less common) to articulate good teachability than bad, and players probably will not make many comments to the effect of “wow, this game is really teachable.” But it’s still a deliberate design decision that can lead to a game succeeding.
A turn in Carcassonne consists of exactly two actions: place a tile on the board, and decide whether to use a worker or not. The idea of optimal tile and worker placement is a deeper strategic idea that might take some experience with the game to fully appreciate. But the notions of “you can put that tile there because the edges match” and “if you put a robber on the road, you will gain points” are simple to grasp.
Minimal rules interactions.
Ancient abstracts like Checkers are incredibly teachable because their rules exist largely independently of each other. A piece can move or jump to capture. A king can move or jump backwards. There are no “king phases” or “capture phases,” and every piece interacts with every other piece in the same way.
Similarity to existing games.
Every time I’ve introduced new players to The Resistance, I’ve been able to explain it very effectively by asking “have you ever played Mafia?” The Resistance is so easy to teach because a great analogy can be drawn to another social deduction, identity-bluffing game.
Few rules for a light mechanism.
- If Dixit contained an auction mechanism where players bid on which cards they wanted to tell a story about, or if Fluxx made players commit a worker to every rules revision they played, those games would be unnecessarily complicated and much more difficult to teach.
Despite its many game design flaws, Monopoly is popular undoubtedly due to its wonderfully intuitive scoring system, which mostly boils down to “the last person with money wins,” or more realistically “whoever has the most money when we get tired of playing wins.”
How do you teach rules?
The process of teaching rules might be more the player’s responsibility than the designer’s, but it’s important to give players a good avenue to explain. I’ll only briefly touch on this since it’s been covered in depth elsewhere, but here’s an overview of ideas to keep in mind:
Make sure there’s a catchy “hook,” a simple word or phrase your players can use to draw other players in. If teaching your game requires you to read aloud from the rulebook, the players will be lost.
Players will be most enticed if there’s an obvious strategic path to pursue, or at least they can ask questions that will lead them down a strategic path. That said, the skeleton for a grand strategy will appeal to players a lot less than an immediate goal they can set. In Puerto Rico, it’s one thing to tell your players “one way to win is by shipping lots of goods” and another entirely to say “if you’re interested in shipping goods, think about starting corn and indigo production early.”
The easier it is to perform a demonstration of a turn, one player walking the rest of the players through it, the more the rest of the players will grasp the turn.
Finally, rules are most easily taught by someone who already knows the rules, so the simpler and more intuitive they are in the first place, the easier they’ll be for anyone else to explain.
Merely considering a game a good value in both money and time isn’t enough if teaching the game to new players becomes a factor as well. Ultimately, players want to go from “deciding to play a game” to “actually playing a game” in as little time as possible, and if that amount of time starts to approach the duration of the game itself, the game could be in trouble. The art of making a game easy for experienced players to teach and for new players to sit down to and understand is a central concept in game design, and our upcoming article series in April, focusing on “approachability,” explores exactly what makes players want to teach and learn a game.
- Blog – Boards and Barley: How to Teach Games
- Blog – The Games Journal: The Finer Points of Teaching Rules
- Blog – Growing Up Gamers: 10 Tips for Teaching Board Games
- Blog – The How to Play Podcast: The HTP Method for Teaching Games
- Blog – Most Dangerous Game Design: Designing Game Learning
- Video – Shut Up And Sit Down: Some Tips for Rules Explanations (8:48)