Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Teaching People To Play Games

This post was prompted by a comment made by a Facebook acquaintance following a humiliating duffing up at Bloodbowl in a local shop.

I teach people to play games a lot, both table top wargames and proprietary board/card games. The reasons for this are mostly obvious. In the case of my own rules for wargames there's no one else. With proprietary or third party wargame rules it's often the same as I've got them and the figures and no one else in our group does.

In terms of board/card games I suppose I have an alpha male tendency, - plus I often seem to get the rules pushed at me from a new box. Sometimes I get the feeling that a game isn't being played right and check the rules and before you know it I'm teaching the game. This happened memorably with "Memoir 44". We were playing as a group with someone who had all the expansions and everything and claimed to have played it a lot. Turns out he had been playing it wrong. For ever.

I'm not complaining, - much. Sometimes it's nice to be the person being taught, but that depends so much on how the game is being taught.

I have played games for the first time where the person teaching the game is intent on ensuring he is going to win, regardless. That means a bare explanation of the rules, or, sometimes worse, a full and complete explanation/speed read out loud of the game rules. Whilst you try and assimilate not just the rules, but also what they mean your opponent is starting off a killer strategy ensuring your inevitable demise. To be followed by his wondering why you never want to play the game again.

I tend towards the minimalist approach, giving the core outline, then dripping in the rules as they become relevant. That leaves you open to the "If you'd told me THAT!" accusation, so it isn't perfect.

The other thing is that the rules themselves don't always tell you how to play a game. Why do you need to collect the blue blocks? Why is it a good idea to have spaces between those pieces? Rules do not always tell you what tactics to employ. In a wargame you can always fall back on historical tactics if you're not sure and hope the designed has got some sort of clue as to how the period works. The problem here is where actually the game is driven by rules-based tactics, - i.e. when doing something nonsensical in historic terms is a winner in the game.

I'm of the view that if you want to play a game more than once then it's a good idea to explain to the other players why you're doing things, so they get a grasp of what's going on. You can pull out the full bag of tricks in a later game. There's more enjoyment in playing someone who gives you a good game rather than just be a push over.

I think this is particularly true where there's a fair amount of set up time for a game. If you're shuffling a deck and dealing only three cards then it doesn't matter if it's over in 5 minutes as you can re-shuffle and replay quickly. With something like "Firefly", which takes a while to set up and is a real table hogger then your opponent(s) have got to get something out of the investment of time in setting up and playing.

I'm assuming here, of course, that we all learn games still from someone teaching us. Perhaps the modern way is to make sure you know what you're going to play and watch the Youtube video first.

10 comments:

  1. That is an entertaining rant. Teaching is a two way street. While I try to learn a game before playing, sometimes it takes a mentor to really figure it out. As for the examples you give regarding limited information sets and winning at all costs, my rule of thumb is "don't play with jerks."

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    1. I was going for a reasoned discourse, rather than a rant....

      I think it isn't simply a case of cutting out the jerks. Some people have a low "EQ" and aren't always sensitive to what other people are thinking or feeling. It's not quite as bad as saying other people are "on the spectrum" but I've war/gamed with a few who are, I suspect over the years, so it's a case of it not being their fault.

      If this helps people think about how they teach/play games then that's all to the good.

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  2. Jerks are why I don't play games at conventions unless I know the guy running it, and even then they can sneak in. As a staff member, I gave up my seat to a paying attendee, and regretted it immediately--the guy complained about the noise, the rules, the scenario, and the miniatures, some of which he actually threw to one side after they were eliminated! The moral: let's just say I will never be noble again...

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

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    1. That's not a good experience. I'm more interested in the approach of those who have to teach people games at the moment. Is there a perfect method?

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  3. Yes this, so this. Learning a new game is an investment in time and effort that can feel wasted if one doesn't enjoy the game. I try and always be relaxed when demoing a game: usually Ogre/GEV or BattleTech because realistically the chances are high that I will win despite my best efforts to help the other. AS you say rules don't teach you how to play the game to win, just the mechanics of the game and the victory conditions. This is what makes them a challenge and fun. Still, there are far too many players whose only goal is winning at any cost, which is not fun.

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    1. "the chances are high that I will win despite my best efforts to help the other".

      Yes. I understand. The aim with Northampton 1460 at shows is to give people a close and exciting game that they will win without realising I'm pushing it in that direction.

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  4. I would agree with your minimal explanation at the start style, Graham. I feel that with a new player, the activity is more in line with sports coaching. The new player MUST enjoy the experience - it doesn't mean that he/she has to win, but the player should feel they have had some control of the outcome, and not been sold down the river by the umpire (I've had some spectacular failures over the years), otherwise they are not going to come back. It was Paddy Griffith, who first identified ILSTGNF (I'm Losing So The Game Needs Fixing, and he produced some shockers, because he believed that the veracity of the game overrode participant enjoyment. We have both sat through the 30min fulle-read-through-of-ye-rulles experience at the hands of some otherwise very talented game designers.

    Regards, Chris

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    1. Agree with all that. Stuck in port for two hours with the winds against me. Dreadful game experience.

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    2. I think there's a difference between wargames and boardgames and the number of people involved. I think with multiplayer boardgames I try to limit myself to the the key stuff and fifteen minutes of explanation (assuming it's a couple of hours or so to play). This usually starts with 'the aim of the game is to win by X; to achieve X you need to collect W, Y and Z etc.'Then as you say onto the key mechanisms and any odd bits which can look like you're cheating if you declare it later - so make sure they know that the orcs can fly from the start because it's counterintuitive.
      With two players (and most wargames)it is almost a case of playing solo with an opponent. Explain the rules but then offer advice on moves s/he makes, or point out consequences and say what your own countermove is likely to be. Explain your own thinking as you make your own moves. The game is considerably less competitive this way and I just accept it as a learning exercise to get the other person hooked (the first one is always free). Actually more often than not I'll end up teaching two novices the rules to a wargame and play the umpire.

      Cheers

      Andrew

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    3. Andrew, I think you have it spot on.

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