In Real Life

Understanding Complex Board Games Doesn't Have To Be A Nightmare

Learning the rules is one of the biggest hurdles players face when learning board games. Players have to self-moderate, to learn the rules and make sure things go right. There are no board game police to monitor your table and make sure that you’re playing correctly. That’s okay. You can have fun making mistakes and learn a lot in the process. Games can appear complex and uninviting because of this.

Board game designers have a host of tools – from player guides to visual cues – available to them to aid players in learning the rules. One of the greatest tools a designer has available to them is jargon. Jargon is scary. Unfamiliar terms can scare people away and make a game appear much more complicated than it truly is. However jargon can greatly simplify rules once players learn the lingo. So don’t worry, you’ll be flooping the pig in no time.

When I first bought Android: Netrunner, I went cross-eyed trying to understand the rule book. The game is full of seemingly impenetrable jargon and I desperately wanted to cross out all of the specialised terms and replace them with something more familiar. Leaning on my experience with Magic: the Gathering, I mentally replaced stack with library, archives with graveyard and a whole host of other terms. That was silly. All I had done was replace jargon with jargon. Every time I read these terms on a card, I had to parse them into my own lexicon and then parse that into what was happening in the game.

Doing a mental replace all for these terms to more common ones, such as deck and discard pile, wouldn’t have done much good either. I still would’ve had to parse things multiple times over to understand what was happening. Instead I should’ve embraced the jargon. It would’ve greatly sped up my learning of the game despite front loading a lot of information and making the initial barrier to entry a little harder to punch through.

Jargon allows a preciseness of language without leaning on clunky or unwieldy phrases. Jargon allows for simple concepts that are inelegant to explain to flourish. Explain it once, explain it clearly. Then players are free to enjoy the game without worrying that they’ve got something wrong. Tapping is a great example of this. In Magic: the Gathering, players indicate a card has been used by turning it 90 degrees, a process known as “tapping”. Tapping cards makes it much easier for everyone to understand what is going on. The concept is so important that it has been pilfered by many, many games. These other games often use their own jargon to indicate the same thing as trademarks and patents prevented their designers from using the term “tap”.

That’s where it can all go pear-shaped. Jargon is best when it simplifies language by introducing a new term. Introducing more terms to mean the same thing only creates more confusion. It burdens the players and will likely cause them to go as cross-eyed as I did when trying to learn Netrunner. This is particularly painful if the replacement of common terms doesn’t serve any real purpose. In Netrunner, you don’t attack an opponent’s deck, you make a run on the corp’s R&D. This gives the the designers flexibility in game design while keeping the rules precise. Not only that but the world of the game feels much richer. The jargon in Netrunner turns it from a mechanical exercise in turn optimisation to a duel balanced on a knife edge between two players in a world somewhere at a crossroad between Hackers and Blade Runner.

There are times where rules can look intimidating and confusing even without jargon. Power Grid is a game played across three steps. Within each round of the game, players move through several phases which contain the triggers to move on to the next step. Confusion is commonplace for new players as steps, rounds and phases can all mean the same thing in other circumstances. By putting such similar terms so closely together, Power Grid’s rulebook can feel as intimidating as any jargon filled rulebook. After you’ve tried to play, it’s much easier to go back and realise how it all makes sense.

That’s the trick; being willing to make the effort. Why deny yourself a great deal of fun because it’s easier to stick with what’s familiar? With what you already know? When you dip your toe into the world of board games, the waters can feel chilly and uninviting. Dive in and you’ll find that the initial shock passes quickly while the joy of swimming freely through these waters is hard to match.

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