Monday, January 07, 2013

The Woes of Game 'Splainin'

Oh Lucy... You got some 'splanin' to do!

Obligatory nostalgic TV reference out of the way, I'll get on to the meat of this blog post. It's about teaching games.

In the past I have been referred to as "good" at explaining games. I used to take a lot of pride in that, and I actually put some thought into the process of teaching a game - there are definitely good and bad ways to go about it. If you explain things in the right order, and if you give the right amount of information each step of the way, then you can get through the explanation of even relatively complex games fairly quickly and get to the point where players get to actually play the game (which, incidentally, is where they really learn how to play anyway).

More recently I haven't taken as much care in my game teaching. Perhaps due to fatigue (I teach a lot of games nowadays, and often times it's the same one over and over, and in the noisy, distracting environment of a convention at that), or perhaps for another reason (which I'll get into shortly), sometimes I feel like I just don't have it in me to carefully peal away the layers of a game, revealing the magical and interesting inner workings that the players are about to explore.

One thing I've noticed more and more over the last few years is that the job of teaching a game feels a lot more like a chore. Rather than fun and exciting, teaching games has become laborious and tedious - and it's not just me who thinks so. By way of example, today on BoardGameGeek I read a post about Noblemen which mentioned an hour long rules explanation. In the comment thread, the OP said (in re: the length of the explanation):

Much of the hour was taken up by questions - how many points usually win in a five player game? Do the Follys have to be surrounded to score? Are there different ways to acquire men at arms? Are there advantages to placing men at arms on one type of land structure rather than another? Explanation of the cards took a while, as each new player wanted to see the cards. During the game I did not completely understand the point system, i.e. how points are scored using chapels, castles, and palaces, how influence is calculated, etc., but the rules do give examples. Everyone was seeking to understand the basics of how the game was played, as well as what it took to win, how you could foil your opponents, and beneficial moves or courses of action. With the many variants, an hour was not overly excessive.
I replied (as you'll see if you read the thread) that this does an extreme disservice to the other players trying to learn as well as the game itself as players may have a bad experience due to jumbled or lengthy rules explanation.

I've seen this type of thing more and more in recent years, perhaps it was always the case and I was simply more tolerant of it before, or perhaps people have literally become more difficult to teach a game to. I don't really know why that would be, but it's certainly something that's come up. I was discussing this exact phenomenon with a friend after last week's game night, and how it applies to certain people locally.

The BGG user who commented after my post in that thread said it well: "When I'm explaining rules, what part of "shut up and listen" is so hard to understand?" Maybe that's not polite, but frankly when 1 gamer is constantly burdened with the onus of reading, digesting, and then explaining the rules to a game, maybe I should worry less about being polite and consider who is doing who the favor. Hint: the people being spoon fed a summary of what is often a poorly written or translated rulebook are NOT the ones doing anybody a favor.

I don't know who reads this blog, and whether those people are the ones who have to learn all the new games the hard way and then teach their friends or not. But as a public service announcement - when someone is trying to teach a game, let them teach it. Do not interrupt with questions - if they're a good teacher they'll either answer your question by the end, or give you a chance to ask it later. Pay attention - do not space out or have a side conversation, and then complain later that you didn't hear some critical rule. In fact, for the benefit of everyone else at the table, maybe don't have a side conversation even if you aren't going to complain later!

The less people distract and interrupt the game explainer, the quicker you'll be able to start playing the game, and the better than rules explanation will be!

Luckily, this phenomenon is not universally true. I had the pleasure of explaining some games over the holiday season to various friends who are literally a joy to teach, because they're genuinely interested in learning the game, and they don't end up presenting road blocks to the teacher. If it weren't for people like them,I'm not sure what'd stop me from throwing in the towel and letting someone else be the game explainer.


Kai said...

Awesome, someone shares my pet peeves =)

"So, the game is Monopoly. On you turn, you roll the dice and..."
"How do I take money from other people?"
"When you land on someone else's property, you have to pay them rent depending on..."
"How can someone go to jail?"
"The game ends when..."
"Did you explain how I move around the board?"

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Another "good" one is the player that knows the game, but doesn't want to explain it. Instead, they interrupt your explanation by mentioning rules completely unrelated to what you were talking about...

Schissel said...

Having been on both sides of this process, I'm not sure I agree with you. I am very much a "constructivist" when it comes to learning theory, which means that I believe that we only learn what we can add into our own existing mental framework.
So, your method of explaining the game may be optimal for you, but everyone's existing mental landscape is different. In other words, there is no "one size fits all" method of game instruction.
When people ask questions, they are guiding the teacher on how to best interact with their own mental framework.
When you're teaching a game to multiple people, though, I can see how this can get unwieldy, especially if the spread of mental frameworks is large.
Personally, I like to actually run through a couple turns of a game having no idea what is going on, then restart the game once the whole becomes more clear. Learning rules out of context is hard.
I still think you're a good game teacher, though, Seth.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Shissel I think you responded to your own point the same way I would have... catering to each individual's mental framework individually makes it very difficult for both the teacher as well as probably every student who's mental framework isn't being tailored to at that particular moment, because it distracts from the teacher's plan.

The onus on the teacher to figure out a way to teach to everyone at the table. It may never be ideal, but disrupting it will never be better.

@Kai: I know that one all too well. I am probably that guy more often than I'd care to admit, but I will be more cognizant about it now.

Related: the experienced player who interjects with extra detail that you purposely left out, because it means nothing to the new player and won't matter until later, but just serves to confuse the issue.

Professor Beard said...

"the experienced player who interjects with extra detail that you purposely left out, because it means nothing to the new player and won't matter until later, but just serves to confuse the issue."

This, this, this. When everyone turns to you to do the explaining and then some smarty-pants interjects to point out what you 'forgot' when you left it out on purpose, it makes you question why you didn't just sit back and let someone else try to teach the game.

I need to work out a good way to teach the games I have to new folks to both limit the amount of talking at them (one of my players always says loudly, between 5 and 10 minutes of explanation of a game he hasn't ever played, "Come on, let's just PLAY!") and to avoid boring those who already know the game to tears.

I am starting to like the idea @Schissel suggested of playing a couple of rounds with no idea of the rules, combined with explaining things as they come up (at least for my experienced gamer group). Then the rules have context and while we screw up that test play, at least we have our hands on the game and can reset when everyone feels they have a grasp. This has been working pretty well for me online at sites like yucata and boiteajeux - my first games are a mess, but it is easier than digesting the rulebook without context.

truekid said...

I'm often a game explainer too, and I'm definitely of the "fastest explanation possible" school. Then I handhold people through turn structure during the game for as long as needed.

People can only hold so much in their short-term memory. If your explanation is long, unless it magically tailors to all present, it will disservice all present, because there will be inevitable missing chunks that grow in size the more time you spend trying to finesse something else into their head.

Seth Jaffee said...

As I was afraid, last night during a rules explanation I asked someone else to explain the game so I could observe myself and see if I was a culprit of the very things I was complaining about. And of course, I was!

I was finding it difficult not to interject, maybe because I'm so used to being the explainer, or maybe because I'm a buttinsky in general. So I did something which could be considered rude - I brought something up on my phone and went to show it to someone else (away from the table). I don't think that's bad if I do not need the rules explained to me because I've played the game before, so I am OK with that.

However, I did interject a rule that may have been omitted on purpose. I don't think it was omitted on purpose, but I also don't think it needed to be brought up right then, and because I had been away from the table I didn't actually know if it had been said. I phrased it as a question, the answer to which might have been helpful (of course, I knew the answer, but it was for the other new players' benefit).

I wish I hadn't done that.

I also looked something up in the rulebook while the teach was explaining, but I think that's ok because again, I didn't need to learn the rules, and I was looking up something specific that I don't think the new players needed to be burdened with (some detail of the turn sequence).

I will try to be more cognizant next time someone else is teaching a game. Also, it'll be a different story when I'm one of the players learning the game!

Seth Jaffee said...

There was an article in Spielbox magazine about this very issue! Check it out and leave a comment if you like.

I'm on my way to KublaCon where I'm likely to teach many a game... let's see if I can keep my cool (and my sanity) :)