New Ways to Teach

image Scene from 'A Christmas Story'

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The single greatest barrier to entry for board games is learning to play the game, or put another way, reading the rules. This is a tiny, niche hobby that when compared to other forms of spending one's time is merely a spec on the landscape.

Consider a potential gamer's alternatives, and by alternatives, I mean alternate ways in which they can spend their time.

  • A movie is ready to go. You show up, pick a film, and passively enjoy.
  • Televisions is ready to go. You select a channel and passively enjoy.
  • A book is ready to go. You open it and actively enjoy.
  • A video game requires learning (sequels and copycats aside), but it interactively teaches you. Ideally, you are also having fun.
  • Facebook is constantly updated with things to see and do. It is fairly mindless and easy to appreciate.
  • Browsing the Internet is a semi-active, sometimes subconscious trawl through the depths of human depravity and accomplishment.

A board game requires you learn the game, sufficiently to teach it, then learn to play it. Even if you are taught, you must still actively listen and learn. Personally, I enjoy reading rules and learning games. But, I'm a freak exception in this regard. For many people, learning a new game feels like work. Why work when you can watch TV, read, or play Candy Crush?

Innovations in teaching players our games are the single most important way to grow our hobby. There have been several lately that I wanted to gather and bring to your attention.

Video Tutorials: A few folks have done this very well, notably Plaid Hat Games and Watch it Played with Mice and Mystics, or Van Ryder Games and Ryan Metzler with If I'm Going Down. This is a great trend that matches consumer habits and really gives folks an alternative way to learn. Everyone learns in different ways, so forcing people to read, and read only, isn't always right.

The back of the box for Theseus mentions this. The back of the box for Theseus mentions this.
Mice The front cover of the Mice and Mystics rules.

Videos can be easily found by putting a big notice on your game cover, either a simple graphic or a QR code. Don't snicker! They can be useful.

You may not have the budget to hire someone, but using a smartphone video camera and open source or low cost software, you can make something. With zero editing and only two takes, I created a walk through of my prototype Battle for York. Were I to spend just a little more effort, I could use the $6 iMovie editing app to arrange scenes better, then I could overlay Voice Memo audio with better camera shots.

What I'm trying to get at is that if you are serious about making your games more accessible, you don't have an excuse.

Learn to Play manual versus Reference manual: Fantasy Flight has begun a new rules tactic where they ship two booklets with each game. Battlelore 2nd Edition is one game to feature this.  One teaches the players how to play the game. This book focuses on the initial experience and minimizes edge case and one-off explanations. The second booklet is an index for quickly answering rules questions (ex: how does movement work when I am out of money?) and goes deeper into more complex and less common rules.

This accomplishes quite a few things.

  • It services the needs of the first time player. It presents a smooth, narrative of learning. It is A to Z service as far as most people need to know.
  • It services the needs of the experienced player with quick, simple check ups.
  • It makes the rules seem shorter. Don't believe me? Joel Eddy noted how short the rules were in his recent Battlelore 2nd Edition review. People notice.
  • It eases the burden on designers from teaching everything at once.

To continue with this last point, have you ever explained a game to a friend, only to have him hold up a hand and say "just stop, I'm full." There's a point where people can't learn any more, so even if there are more rules, they are finished. I hit this 2 weeks ago explaining City of Remnants. On my second play with another group of friends, I completely changed my strategy. I simplified it and told them the basics. As the game progressed, I revealed more details. No problems.

There are a few twists and variations on this premise.

  • X-Wing Miniatures Game offers first game, quick start rules. They are dead simple and exclude over half the game, but they can be learned very quickly and get the point across.
  • Conflict of Heroes and Earth Reborn both offer layered, teaching rules. Both games are scenario driven, so much like video games, they introduce a few mechanics, have you play the scenario to drive home the point, then teach a few more rules.

Use Cards to Teach Exceptions, not the Rules: This is one of the great benefits of using cards, but it bears repeating. If you have a game where the rule book conveys a few simple, systematic rules, then you use your cards to convey exceptions, you will generally have a smoother game experience.

I was playing Blockade at GenCon with a publishing contact. At one point we were discussing a kamikaze mechanic (no longer in Mars Rising for a few reasons) and whether it should be a rule, or a card. The publisher stressed emphatically that it should be a card. "There are already so many things to learn and keep in my head. Why add this one that is only used conditionally?"

He had a point. If you have an exception to the main, an "if then" (which should arguably be avoided regardless), a rare occurrence, or something similar, consider using a card to help people learn the game more easily.

1812: The Invasion of Canada and Summoner Wars are two good examples of this.

Solo Variants: It can be intimidating for some to learn the game and teach it to friends without having tried the game. Some folks are visual learners, or learn by doing, and a rule book just won't cut it. No matter how good the booklet, it's just not how their mind works.

Consider adding a solo variant to your experience, or a puzzle mode that uses the pieces and mechanics in a fresh way, or perhaps just create a 20 minute teaching walk through game.

Folks may roll their eyes, but how difficult would it be to craft a 30 minute challenge for your game for only one person to enjoy and learn? If you love your games to be brain burners, here's your chance to craft one.

  • Earn N of a resource using only 15 workers. Teaches resource management and manipulating the resource economy.
  • Earn N points in 3 rounds. Teaches the importance of scoring and how to win.
  • Conquer this region using only these troops. Teaches tactical formations and using units sparingly.
  • And so forth...

Ultimately, you can seek to give your players a helping hand to learn and stumble in the privacy of their own living room before standing before their friends.

Fully Illustrated Turn Examples: This may seem like overkill, but providing a fully illustrated game play example for your players is another way to reach different learning types.One of my recent purchases, Theseus, devotes a few pages in the back of its rule book to walking new players through a game, step by step.

theseusturn

This is relatively simple to execute, assuming you can afford the book space.

Add Rules as you Go: As far as I know there's only one example (so far) of this, but Risk Legacy is brilliant in that more of the world, complexity, and rules unlock as the game progresses.  As the game has been out for quite some time now, below, I'm going to SPOIL some of the mechanics. NOT the story, but the mechanics.

WARNING: I'M GOING TO LIST SOME RISK LEGACY MECHANICS THAT ARE UNLOCKED.

 

 

Ready?

 

 

Here are some of the mechanics:

  • A drafting mechanic is introduced to let players vie for starting territory, starting units, starting resources, and order of faction selection. Introducing this later is good in that it spares new players the complexity, but also doesn't force them to make choices they don't yet fully understand.
  • New factions are introduced that offer new mechanics, specifically ones that take advantage of the modified state of the game board.
  • Factions gain new abilities. All begin with 1, which is relatively simple to understand. Over time, they gain many new abilities that are easier to learn.
  • Cities are quickly introduced, which provide an alternate incentive for gaining troops, as well as a tactical decision regarding gaining and defending territory.

Creating a legacy-style game is intimidating and difficult, but consider finding ways to add complexity over time. This example is, of course, very similar to Conflict of Heroes, which uses scenarios to introduce complexity.

What are some of the other innovations in teaching rules that you have seen lately? Share in the comments below!

Comments

Yes, you are correct. Obviously (as I'm sure you could tell) I took a very simple, broad strokes approach with my examples. I've never read Jane Austen because I cannot parse her language (or I'm bored to tears, one or the other). Similarly, Shakespeare, outside of a theater, feels like schoolwork because his language is so different. And I remember my experience reading the Greek classics all too well!

I guess I should phrase my point as such: games are a leisure activity, though some obviously prefer a more intense form of leisure (your preferences versus mine, for example). I wanted to compare the efforts involved of a typical pleasure gaming session to those for other mediums. Hope that helps? Thanks for the comment. I always trust you to keep me honest :)

How dare you quote Farragut in my blog.

Sorry, I don't watch Star Trek.

I'm emailing Wordpress to add a "Favorite" option for my personal comments section. I don't want anyone else to have one.

This is an excellent post. I'm most often the one tasked with explaining games, so the more resources, the better.

Also, for a game that has simple rules but complexity introduced via cards, I think Innovation is king. The game's rulebook is short and complete; it's the cards that make it a brain-bending exercise. I think it works great for that game.

Good post Grant- totally agree on video tutorials. For Spearpoint 1943 Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion (long title I know), I recorded and linked 17 explanatory video tutorials- they're linked from the rules using QR codes when hose concepts are introduced. My one caution to other publishers has always been to use videos to supplement written rules- not replace them. Like yourself, some people prefer to read rather than watch. For me as a publisher, explaining the game through video has some awesome advantages - namely it saves me time in explaining the game later. When questions arise from a new player 1 year after release, you must address them- sometimes pointing to the video on the topic (I recorded a year prior) helps answer the question and keeps me from having to backtrack and re-learn my own games ;). Anyway great post, totally agree.

Great post! I feel like most of the solutions to learning a board game tend to be trying to approximate being taught the game by a good teacher and experienced player. In my experience video tutorials don't do a very good job because they are so interaction-less, and it's hard to reference one particular question you have while learning. Have you ever seen online text/image interactive walk throughs? I suspect a learning manual made in Twine could be really effective!

Max - that is an absurdly good idea (using Twine).

I tried making one for tiltfactor's game POX (www.poxgame.com, the walkthrough is in the links section), but I haven't had a chance to compare it to teaching in person or reading the instructions. If anyone tries a twine tutorial for any game I'd love to know how it goes!

I'm going to try to do it for my new game, Draftaria.

Another great article Grant! I'm trying to use all of these methods for teaching my games personally. I've tried to make the visual tutorial method for the rulebook. I think videos are very important for the Hobby. Almost any new game I get is something that I've either seen played or watched a video on how to play. A video for me is crucial before I even think about buying the game.

I really like the idea of creating an exceptions glossary, and I'll probably add that into my rules for Firewall. Have any of you other designers found something you'd like to implement in your rulesets to teach your games better?

Ugg- hose should be those. Fracking iPhone ;)!

Grant, Nice post. I recently got Eldritch Horror and was worried about the two rule books. It was once I set up the game and played a few solo rounds with the "rule book" that walked me through every phase of the game that I realized how great an idea this is.

I have now gotten a few plays under my belt and have only referred to the "rule book" during setup. On the other hand the "reference guide" has become a fantastic resource during our plays. Throw in a quick 15min video to that mix and you would be all set.

Well said. This also speaks to good game design. Fewer rules means players are playing your game, not your writing. Advanced Squad Leader is probably the most extreme version of this.

Also key is how well the game components serve game learning clarity.

Great contribution! Good point sir.

Damn that stray line break!

Very cool post here.

One minor quibble: I don't think all books or movies are just sit-and-play. The really hard and heavy stuff is similar to a heavy game. When you start reading a book like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, you're spending the first few hundred pages learning how to read that book.

Figuring out the author's approach, what the characters' relationships are, and so on. In a way, the beginning of each story is its own tutorial, and the more difficult stories have less of a tutorial and force the reader/viewer to figure it out for themselves.

An easier form of entertainment (like a Dan Brown book or a dumb, formulaic sitcom) is simple to digest because we know how to read or watch it when we begin. Same with a simple party game. The heavy stuff, be it a TV series with many seasons of canon to catch up on, a 1,000-page novel that universities dedicate entire semesters to, or a 2+ hour strategy game with a huge rulebook, requires a lot more from the participant in order to pick up. All the things you list definitely help bring something from the level of, say, Gravity's Rainbow to The Crying of Lot 49.