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.


    I recently played and then immediately bought Dominion. It's a great card game and by the time your 2nd turn has come around, you've got the gist of it. I've played it with a number of people and this has been true each time. Just a quick explanation at the start, state what you are doing during your turn and boom.

    I've never played anything super complex but I'd be open to it. I'd probably need to go to a game night where someone had it, I've been hosting my own since I got Dominion. Also added SpaceTeam into the mix last time.

    The best way to learn how to play a game by far is to have it explained to you through a play through with an experience player, THEN read a Manuel.
    This makes even the most intimidating games relatively simple to learn.
    Games that cone with turn reference cards (like Warhammer 40,000 conquest, and X-wing) also help greatly if you lose your place.
    At PAX this year I learned both Conquest and Magic incredibly quickly simply because an experienced person was showing me how to play.

      It's also worth pointing out that I taught my brother-in-law to play Warhammer 40,000 with this same method when he was 9.
      I was fairly impressed at how well he picked it up haha.

        Your sister got married young.

          That logic would have works except for if it was my sisters son it would be my nephew... haha

      A good teacher goes a long way. A ridiculously long way. When you're picking a game off a shelf off of someone's recommendation, you may not have that teacher. It's a shame but it's also the only way that board gaming can spread through the population without relying on person to person contagions.

    Youtube makes it a whole lot easier. I find you can learn even the most complicated tabletop games in a 15-20 minute video. Well, to some extent.

      The Esoteric Order of Gamers also has simplified versions of quite a few rulebooks. It's better as a resource to refresh your memory than to learn a game the first time but it's still a good resource.

    Last year a friend got me into Netrunner. I played it way back when, when it still a pen & paper D20 game before the first card game incarnation.

    It's a very complex game but the asymmetrical nature & differing rules is what makes it so different & addictive.

    It relies heavily on specialisation & sticking to certain builds, runners & corps.
    I started off as an Anrach runner & Jentekai but that was because they were the decks that my friend had.
    When I got my own I moved into Kate (Shaper) & Hass Bioroid. Upped my cards with the Creation & Control pack. Also had a more experienced player help me build a deck from the starter deck. Splashing in other corp & runner cards are a massive boon.
    No just need a Jackson card from the Opening moves pack & I'll be right.

      all hail our lord and saviour. Jackson really opens up play as a corp.
      I hate playing against kate so much but HB is my corp.

        HB is awesome & Kate is great to play as but sucks to verse.
        My hated corp to go against is NBN with full toll gates in & "Action" Jackson on field but protected by dense ICE.

      I've been playing a fair few games lately with a fair few different decks. I'm really enjoying an Anarch build called Fury Road. Here's a decklist that's mostly the same as mine.

      Trying as many different decks as I can has taught me a lot about how to play the game. Not only do you get a better feel for the game, when you lose you learn what needs to be done to beat what you're doing. Losing a lot to fast advance NBN? Play a lot of fast advance NBN and start doing everything your opponents do that makes you sweat.

      The good news is that Opening Moves is slowly becoming available again. There was a recent reprint of it that's hitting Australian stores. Three D6 in Canberra has a handful of copies and I expect most stores that care about Netrunner will have their own stock sooner rather than later.

    As a pesky public servant, I have a lot of dry and convoluted legislation to deal with. I tell people that the only reason I can parse them is because I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out rules for role playing, tactical miniature and board games by reading the sometimes impenetrable manuals/guides/telephone books.
    Working out if you can get a tax break or strength bonus is basically the same thing: You can get X if you are Y and Z and have A and B, unless you have i, ii, and/or iii, in which case you're prohibited from #, but you can still have :S.

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