Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TIMELY TOPICS - Getting it Wrong - Traps Game Explainers Can Fall Into

The other day I found out I've been playing a rule wrong in Troyes. Not horribly wrong as I don't think it would have impacted our games too much, but it also might have opened up the possibility of the game being played differently.

In this case, it was actually the ABSENCE of a rule - empty spots in buildings aren't filled in with gray citizens unless an event causes them to be placed (or when you place them during setup)! I had assumed all dice should be in the game and, therefore, all the spots should be filled in the buildings when 'Assembling the Workforce'. DRAT! I HATE getting rules wrong.... :(  It really bothers me, even if I know it might not have impacted the game much. I know some people might write these off as unintentional 'variants' (ok, sometimes you do this and end up with a better way to play, or at least a different interesting way to play) but it just irks me to get it wrong from the original rules. The absence of the rule along with an assumption is what trapped me here.

So, it got me thinking about some of the traps that Game Explainers might fall into.

Here are some common traps that I have (or seen others) fallen into:

TRAP: Forgetting to teach important rules.
Danger of the trap: Well, this one is fairly obvious - if you forget a rule you can completely change the game, perhaps even breaking it. Also, when you remember it later and let everyone know, they can think you were holding it back on purpose until the moment you 'remember' it and it's to your benefit. Or worse, it can completely ruin someone's strategy and take them out of the game. I have been on the receiving end of this before where I thought one thing and it turned out to not be allowed or something due to a neglected rule.

Example: CaylusIn a 2-player game I played a while ago, the rule not taught to me was where the worker in the Inn can be removed voluntarily the next turn when the Inn is activated or be left there if the other player has not pushed him out. Actually, this doesn't apply just to 2-player. I didn't realize I could remove that worker on subsequent turns - I thought it had to be forced out. I mentioned this and the person I was playing with seemed to confirm it would stay. On the first turn I had placed a worker there and NEVER got him back for the rest of the game as the other player never used the Inn to force me out. So, I was basically 1 guy short the ENTIRE game. The plus side was I never had to pay more than 1 Denier after the other player at least I had some benefit from it.

TRAP: Not teaching all the rules up-front.
Danger of the trap: Ok, sometimes it's not necessary to teach everything up front, but it's related to "Forgetting to teach important rules" in that, not knowing something until later may really mess up the game for someone at the time the rule is revealed which will influence how someone is playing earlier on. Yes, if it's a learning game then you can kind of let it go, but it's still irritating. Now, some games are so complicated this is fine, or the rules don't impact what you're doing now (such as with a wargame - you can't/don't need to learn it all up front), but I say that if you know the rules and know they are important, even to a small degree, it's best to teach it at the outset rather than at some inopportune time later as this can ruin a game for some people and they may never want to give it another shot.

Example: Downfall of PompeiiSome people think you can teach this game in halves - teach the first half then once the volcano starts erupting, teach the 2nd half. Now, the 2nd half rules just aren't THAT complicated in terms of understanding how movement works. In fact, you should probably teach the 2nd half rules FIRST so that when you teach the first half rules, players know WHY they might want to place one of their people in a particular building. Note there are some important movement rules in this game that also tend to be 'forgotten' so don't fall into that trap as well!

TRAP: Making an assumption about the game play that is incorrect. (aka: mis-applying a rule to an incorrect situation)
Danger of the trap: Some games lend themselves to this, especially if they have a theme that fits the game well. You can sometimes assume a rule is correct when, perhaps it is not due to something about the mechanics of the game. Or, what may seem 'intuitive' may not actually be correct, so making an assumption will lead you astray.

Example: Thunderstone - I had previously been taught this game (some months earlier) and when I got it myself I skimmed through the rules quickly then started playing with my friend Bob. Boy was the game rough. We had the hardest time getting any sort of attack to kill anything off, even with the 'suggested' setup. 

As it turned out, Bob later discovered that I had incorrectly taught that each Hero/Militia had to be equipped with a weapon before they could fight in the dungeon. I had glanced at a rule further on that discussed this but it was related to a specific situation. It seemed to make sense with the theme so I assumed it was correct and didn't think anything else about it. Man, it just about ruined the game for us. Luckily we still enjoyed the theme, so we kept trying to play it, but we found it odd that we were scaring off monsters just to get the game to progress towards a merciful end! 

In my defense, I will say the rules aren't entirely clear in this game sometimes. BUT, there are other ways to figure out when things have gone horribly wrong. My suggestion: If a game seems horrible or problematic, re-read the rules, check the forums and make sure you didn't play it incorrectly before dismissing the game completely.

TRAP: Assuming you learned the rules correctly and continuing to re-teach the game without verifying the rules yourself.
Danger of the trap: If you learn the game wrong, then teach it wrong and it propagates out, it continues to snowball and pretty soon there are large numbers of people playing it wrong. Check the rules yourself, even if it means reading the rules on your own before the next time you play. I've found many games where I was taught one way and then discovered that a rule or two were incorrect. This is ESPECIALLY bad if the incorrect rules essentially breaks an otherwise good game, thus potentially damaging the general consensus of the game.

Example: Monopoly -Yes, the old standby for this trap. When did YOU learn that Monopoly had auctions? I had NO idea when I was growing up playing it. I loved the game anyhow and didn't care it could go on for hours and hours. In fact, that's usually how I won because everyone else grew weary of it so sometimes I 'won' by default. Not that Monopoly is the end-all, be-all with the auction in it, but it certainly improves the game.

TRAP: Creating a rule when no rule exists and actually means NO RULE for a reason.
Danger of the trap: Well, most of the reasons already mentioned above - basically it comes down to ruining or changing the game, perhaps in a negative way. Every rule in a game affects how it is played. If you add a rule it may take away or change some of the important options in the game and it may become incorrectly balanced in some way.

Example: Troyes :) The reason I started this list. Yes, I assumed there was a need to do something when, in fact, there was never a rule that said so. It seemed implicit, but I have seen this sort of thing before in other games and you have to be careful about reading into game rules. If there isn't a rule to do something DON'T DO IT. The tricky thing here is you would think there would be a rule or something stating that 'you might not use all dice every round as a spot can be left open in the buildings' or something like that, just to make it clear. However, what is clear now may not have been at all clear that such a 'rule' or comment was necessary to the game designers or play testers.

TRAP: Learning a (difficult) game cold as a group reading straight from the rules
Danger of the trap: If you aren't familiar with it and particularly if it's complicated (say 6+ pages of rules) you're better off waiting and not wasting everyone's time while you try to puzzle them out. There are exceptions to this (kids games or simpler games; getting your hands on a game at a convention you've never played before and no one is available to teach but you are eager to play - although this is still dubious for some games) but I'm inclined to walk away and find something else rather than endure a group reading of the rules.

Example: Shipyard - When I first learned this the game explainer had 'skimmed' the rules beforehand. Ugh! It took at least 1-1/2 hours with 2 people (not me) trying to figure out the rules by the time we got the game set up and taught. The game took 3 hours to play so I had invested 4-1/2 hours in the game, on a day with limited time for more gaming. Once we got into the game I really enjoyed it but having taken so long definitely detracted from my enjoyment of it. THEN, I discovered later that several rules had been explained slightly incorrectly. Also, part of the setup was incorrect. I have since written up my own reference sheet (which took me several readings to get completed and I STILL got a couple of things wrong).

Now, in the game explainers' defense, the rules to this game were overly complicated in my opinion and also were confusing because 2 player rules were mixed in with the regular rules (which, I have found to often be problematic - keeping 2-player differences in one section near the end of the rules is a much better way to write rules in my opinion).

Still, my lesson learned was to never learn a game cold if it's an overly complicated game to begin with. Do the learning BEFORE offering to teach it, or don't teach it at all. This is why I didn't break out any of my new games @ Gamestorm - there are plenty of OTHER games to play, I don't want to waste precious gaming time trying to puzzle out the rules. You are under pressure and you're going to make too many mistakes and eventually ruin the game for at least some if not all those involved.

Another story along the same lines direct from Gamestorm -- one that REALLY bothered me and I'm glad we took action as we did. Rog wanted to learn the new Resident Evil Deck Building Game - I wasn't really interested but I thought I'd go check it out with him and decide if I wanted to play. Well, when we got there several people were already sitting there and they were going to make room for us, but as we were working that out they were mentioning no one had played it before (including the person running the demo!?!?) but it was 'Dominion -like' and should be easy enough to figure out. And, at least one of the players claimed to never have played Dominion. I said I was going to just watch and Rog had a terrified look on his face like "let's bail". So we did. Best decision we made at the convention I'd say. Man - I can't believe they had someone there running an official 'demo' of the game (presumably someone being compensated in some manner) and hadn't even played it before! That's a disaster waiting to happen....

Some guidelines I use to help avoid some of these traps: 
  • If you've never played a game before, review the rules AHEAD of time, set up the game and play a mock turn or two, most especially for more complicated games. This will save time for everyone involved. If you get caught in this trap as a player, cut off your hand and run away to find another game (or rather, just excuse yourself politely).
  • Spend time reviewing the rules to games, even if you've played dozens of times. Even just skimming through the rules right before won't hurt if you can catch yourself on something right from the get-go. Some games also have player boards/sheets/screens with information on them and reviewing those can help as well.
  • Create or print a player aid ahead of time. Having a summary of the rules helps give the game structure and people can read it themselves between turns to get up to speed faster. It also makes teaching the game easy as you can just follow along (and if it's well made it can help remind you of the smaller niggly rules). I almost always try to have a player aid for more complicated games, especially when teaching to new players.
  • Check the BGG forums and ask a new question if necessary. BGG is rich with information and full of knowledgeable people that answer most questions in a very timely manner (often a matter of minutes). Don't hesitate to look something up or pose your question if something is questionable, ambiguous or otherwise doesn't seem right. No one is going to think you're an idiot (well ok, someone may - but most people on BGG are polite at least, even if you ARE an idiot) and your game learners will be happy you made the extra effort.

This certainly isn't a comprehensive list of traps or solutions, but I think I have seen them enough to consider putting them on this list.

If you have any others, feel free to comment and offer them up.

Now go play a game (and teach it correctly, please!)


  1. Great points!

    I usually read through the rules of a game the day after we play as well, looking for where we might have gone wrong. Sometimes, I make notes of mistakes I have commonly taught wrong.

    Frank Feldmann

  2. Yes, reading the rules again after is a great way to discover if you messed up on anything. I will do that sometimes as well, especially after games that didn't see to go just right or had ambiguities/questions mid-game.

  3. Great post! Very helpful.


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