A Way To Make Big Board Games Easier To Learn

You've finally gotten a big board game. It's a huge box with hundreds of different pieces, eliciting an eye-roll or two as people glaze over at the 30-page plus manual. "It's Civilization in space," you mention, not realising that your partner is suddenly calculating how many games of Patchwork she can play on her phone while everyone tries to comprehend the first of four phases for every turn.

No-one wants to spend two to three hours learning how to play a game, and sitting in front of a screen watching a video tutorial for 15 minutes isn't fun either. So what can be done?

One of the worst experiences you can have with a bad board game, and something you'll never truly know for yourself until everyone sits down and invests their time into seeing a game out, is how bad the manual can be. My regular group had an experience a few months ago when we played through a game of Badlands, a Mad Max-esque board game that, at most, is supposed to take 60 to 120 minutes.

In reality, a single game ended up taking six hours? Why so long? Because the manual was so badly written that even basic interactions and mechanics — like acquiring certain items, and what happens with basic combat encounters — were unaddressed or not spelled out clearly enough. I ended up spending the second half of the game searching forums for clarification from the designer.

Gaia Project presented the group with a similar problem. The early game quickly became bogged down in lengthy double-checking and triple-checking just trying to understand what players could do. We tried speeding up the process with a video walkthrough, but when some "how to play" videos are over an hour long, it's not hard to imagine why half the table has sworn never to play Gaia Project again. It's a similar problem we have with Star Wars: Rebellion — we own multiple copies amongst our regular board game group, but the supplied Learn to Play books are poorly written, requiring a few playthroughs before you get the turn order down pat. Nobody wants to subject themselves to that.

But there's a simple mental change that can make the experience of those bigger board games — think Fallout, the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games, Terraforming Mars and anything that pushes up against the three or four hour mark — a lot more palatable.

When you crack open the manual, and you're past the initial setup, the first objective is generally trying to understand how a turn works. Who goes first? What is that player supposed to do? What are they supposed to look for and, crucially, how do they win?

But something that can make the process of picking up big board games easier is by flipping the thought process. Instead of working through a turn with an eye towards what moves are possible, it helps if you adopt the process of elimination. By looking at what resources/pieces/materials are required for a certain move, you can quickly work out whether it's possible and, from that point, whether it's something you need to actively think about for a while.

It sounds like two sides of the same coin. But it's actually a huge time saver when you think about how people unpack a new game. One player wants to do something. Someone else at the table is holding the rulebook, so they ask them: "So, what can I do this turn?" The person looks at the rulebook, and goes through the phases. Option one is to Build A Thing. Building A Thing will give you certain resources, unlock a certain thing on your board, and offer other bonuses.

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That's how most rulebooks are written. They explain the action, the benefits of the action and what it means to the player, and then they outline whether they can do it. But it's infinitely faster — and much easier on people's capacity for absorbing a lot of new information quickly — to just outline what the cost of something is. Do you have X resources? No? Then it doesn't matter what the action offers or does. You might want to take it later, and you might even want to build up to it later. But in those first few rounds, where people are just trying to compartmentalise the 100+ bits of plastic, cardboard and iconography, quickly culling the options down is the easiest way from stopping the table from hating every second of the experience.

You've still got to get over those first-time humps, and bypassing the lengthy explanations means you'll inevitably miss some info that you'll inevitably have to return to. It'd help if more publishers left the rules to the rulebook and provided a separate player guide sorted chronologically, provided it's not terribly written like Rebellion. Alternatively, some kind of simple flowchart to help cut through the noise would be nice. Manuals shouldn't be strategy guides. That's what we have the internet for.

Still, I don't think my regular group is going to play Gaia Project ever again. Games where you regularly and openly fuck each other over are much more their style. Which gives me some hope that Outer Rim will go down a treat. Who doesn't want to be a scheming bounty hunter?

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    Before playing any game, at least one of the players should have thoroughly read and understood the rules. It is way easier to have someone to explain stuff on the fly than having to stop and search through a manual.

      Not it!

        Fuckin tell me about it, I am super forgetful so I am pretty useless introducing people to games. I finally pulled the pin on Scythe and thankfully the rule book is actually really efficient in how it tells its rules.

        I still have ptsd from Kingdom Death Monster.

          To be fair pretty sure KD:M was made to cause maximum PTSD =P

    I know it sucks, but sometimes setting up the game as a 2 player and playing a few turns helps the person who read the rulebook to understand the flow of the game and what actions people will want to do first.

    Also any game with a player aid helps EVERYONE! Nothing worse then getting a complex game with no player aid.... Resorting to scouring boardgamegeek for any tips/tricks or downloadable files from other players to help.

    The main put off for myself is rulebooks are just walls of text (Looking at you GMT). Not every rule needs a picture explanation of how it works, but for the more complicated ones it is welcome. Look at any rulebook where they explain line of sight, you can tell me it goes from corner to corner of the grid followed by many exceptions, or you can show me one picture with multiple examples.
    Older Fantasy Flight games are notorious for being badly written. Nothing worse then playing a game for the first or sixth time and still having to flick between multiple pages because they have separated certain rulings for no apparent reason. I do appreciate that they now have a learn to play and complex rulebooks, even if the learn to play can be hard to comprehend without knowing the ins and outs.
    Then there is KeyForge. 4 page leaflet in the corebox on how to play while the full rulebook is online. This imo is very poor. I play games to get away from technology and engage with others, only for some games to refer us back to technology. It's fine if the game is centred around a device because we go into it knowing this.

    *Rant over*

      So right about player aids - one of the many reasons Settlers of Catan is such an easy staple is compact and intuitive guide cards so everyone always knows what everything costs. Nexus Ops is another favourite with most things covered on the player dashboards. But as much as I love the minis in games like Super Dungeon Explore, the volume of status effects and targeting patterns meant it's been more a display piece than a game.

    Recently started a new one and we found a couple of minute video review/walkthrough of how the game works. Was really useful. Ideally, someone should have a look through this stuff beforehand if starting a new game in a group.

    How do you win > how can you lose > what can you do on a turn > how do you start

    That's the best way to explain rules, I've found. Backwards. If the rulebook isn't written too well, just see if you can run it through the steps in that order.

    I like the idea in the article that during play you have someone tell a player what their available options are based on their current standing (resources, position, etc). Might have to consider that.

    First games are always rough. I try and print off player aids from bgg (if the game doesnt come with any).

    Sometimes a 15 or 20 minute video guide gets everyone up to speed quickly. Rodney Smith (Watch It Played) is my preferred explainer, but of course he cant cover every game.

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