Have you ever gotten lost playing a game? (No, I’m not talking about Pokemon Go)
One of the biggest draw backs and therefore mental blocks for playing any board game, is learning the game for the first time.
I’ve been playing a bunch of new games recently, and I’ve really struggled with this one problem. How do you learn a new game without getting lost? Instructions seem like the perfect solution right? Wrong.
Instructions are hard. They’re complex and detailed. They’re long and draw out the process of playing a game. The person writing them already knows everything inside and is writing for someone who has no idea what they’re doing. Sometimes, they’re not in your language or have been translated 2 or 3 times. Even as someone who loves reading manuals and instructions, I have to mentally adjust to reading instructions out for other players and can’t constantly be consulting them. But there is another option…
You may have come across this yourself when introducing a game to a friend or when someone suggests a game they’re super fond of. However it may be initiated, having someone who knows a game explain it is ten times better than reading through 20 pages of instructions.
This past week I played an incredible game by game designer and university tutor Richard Hall called Die Rich. Aside from the gameplay being strategic and immensely fun, one of the most enjoyable parts was having the creator explain the rules and gameplay in person. This vastly helped with not only understanding the game but with clarity. We played this game over and over because of its easy nature and fun twists. After this, I took the game over to some other friends and taught them the game I had just learnt. It was fantastic.
I’ll give you a rundown of the game.
The game is a strategic card game with a Roman setting. Richard explained that his inspiration came from the Second Punic Wars in which general Hannibal invades Rome with elephants through the alps, surprising Rome. This setting envelopes the game through its artwork, names, gameplay, and even timing.
The game ends when the Hannibal Death Card is drawn from the deck and that turn is completed. Points are then totalled, and a winner announced. The excellent mechanics twist is that this card is always mixed into the bottom quarter of the deck through the game’s setup. Allowing for an element of controlled randomisation.
The other three quarters of the deck are each responsible for a different phase of the game which is similarly randomised. These phases allow for extra points.
These two features, built out of the game setup, really made this game unique for me. I am a huge fan of card games and this created a whole new feature that was so simple to set up and made the game fun. What’s better is Richard’s description and personal instruction allowed both the game to play smoothly and us to learn easily.
Next is the actual gameplay. This blew my mind. Not for the difficulty, but the sheer rarity in coming across this mechanic for me. This was the turn order.
Unlike many card games where players take turns placing or picking up cards, Die Rich uses a simultaneous turn mechanic, where players select which card they wish to play and when all are ready, they each play their card onto the table in-front of them at the same time. This blew my mind. It created a really fun exercise in strategy and paying attention. All of a sudden you have to notice what other people are playing, because it may affect you.
Players then take a moment to notice what cards take effect and initiate any actions that may take place.
The cards have one of four Roman themes to them, allowing for competitive play and strategic choice. Bacchanalia, Politics, Property, and Market.
Politics, Property, and Market use a complicated mechanism on a scale of 1 to 6. This allows for a powerplays as players decide what political stance they might take, market prices, or how they may expand their empire. Whilst freshly played Bacchanalia are always trumping any Bacchanalia played before them.
The Roman theme really shines through these cards. The Bucchanalia reflects the aristocratic culture of partying by following the most popular or recent party. Markets only retain points if they have the lowest prices. The value attached to a Property determines its ability to join other properties as renovations, creating mansions and villas. The value of a players Politics determines how votes sway, giving points to people with the biggest sway.
This mechanism was another new one to me. I really enjoyed struggling with this new concept.
It made me wonder though, how can you create fun through instructions? Especially for complex games?
Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Fun isn’t a state that can just poof into existence. The tricky part is that fun is a state of mind. A state that you slip in and out of after letting go of the world around you. Dutch scholar, Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens, talks about a magic circle in which players agree that there is a world that they are playing in, that doesn’t affect their real world. Its why when this is disrupted, everyone will stop, check the time, someone will get up for a drink, and the whole game pauses.
So, what is the solution? Is there one?
Instructions are still important. Only passing games down from one player to the next is completely ridiculous, at least, in person.
One solution might be to take a similar approach to the famous Exploding Kittens. In which they have a short video version of their instructions. This creates an intricate and detailed explanation of how to play, whilst still being clear and fun. It adds that human element of explaining the game in the words of someone who has played it themselves.
Personally, I am a fan of this approach. I do like having a physical set of rules in-front of me, but maybe the era of big booklets is over for games and a new era of short-funny-slightly-ridiculous YouTube videos has begun…