Monday, January 29, 2018

Getting into the game

Yesterday I met David and Hoss at the game store and I got the opportunity to play one of my favorite games: Shipyard, by Vladamir Suchy. David was new to the game, so we needed to go through the rules. They took a while to get through, but if you're familiar with that type of game, you'll understand that you kind of need to know everything before you can reasonably do anything.

Complicated rules vs a complicated game

The rules of Shipyard aren't really complicated to tell you the truth -- you choose an action that isn't the one you did last turn, and isn't blocked by another player, and you resolve it. Optionally, you can buy a bonus action as well. There are a few details like the fact that you can do the bonus action and the main action in any order, and that you slide some tiles around (which indicate the actions) and you get income for taking an action that's "behind" other players' pawns, and of course there are details about how each of the actions resolves.

I have run into the same issue in the past teaching another favorite: Tzolk'in: the Mayan Calendar, by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini. The rules to that game are simple as well: either place workers (paying money), or remove them (resolving their actions). There are details such as the increasing cost for each worker you place in one turn, the fact that after a round, the wheels will advance, moving your worker to a different (usually stronger) action, the one-time power you have to move the wheel 2 spaces, and of course there are details about how each of the actions resolves.

The more you know...

In both of those games there are a large(ish) number of different actions or effects that can result, and technically you need to sort of know what each of them is so you know whether or not you want to perform them. But in both Shipyard and Tzolk'in the actions are grouped:

The first wheel in Tzolk'in provides food or wood. The farther along you are, the more food or wood you can get. The next wheel provides resources. The farther along you are, the more/better resources you get. The third wheel allows you to advance technology and build stuff. The farther along you are, the more or better you get to do that. Etc.

I've universally heard from players that Tzolk'in is "so complicated" because there are so many different action spaces. Maybe I've learned to sort the information in a useful way, but to me it doesn't seem very complicated at all. Obviously that's not true of all players!

In Shipyard, the actions are similarly grouped onto several different areas, and for the most part they all resolve the same way. If you want rail cars, ship parts, or canal tiles, then you simply buy them for $0/$1/$2 as shown on the board. The rest of the actions are on rondels of their own... If you take the green action, you advance the green rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take the item shown. If you take the brown action, you advance the brown rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take the item shown. If you take the employee action, you advance the employee rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take one of the employees there. Yes, there's 1 rondel where you can't pay to advance it, and which requires a little more description. And yes, there are a couple of details regarding the employees (you can't have both copies, some cost an extra $1 as shown on the tile, and the 3 Level II ones have a prerequisite of the matching Level I), but for the most part the information is compartmentalized.
A few turns into Shipyard, I asked David how he was enjoying the game. He said at that point he 'got it' and was enjoying it, but that he almost bailed on the game after the long rules explanation! He hadn't wanted to play after the teach, and only went ahead because he felt like we'd invested that time. And this is a guy who's played a fair number of games -- he's one of my regular playtesters!

Getting into the game

There are tips and tricks to teaching a game. Certain ways to organize and present the information so that it makes sense. Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules! fame) has adopted a potentially controversial stance for demoing a game at conventions (and perhaps he does it when teaching at home as well) -- he ONLY tells people what they need to know RIGHT THEN, and nothing more. This is a neat idea, one I've toyed with myself at times, though I've encountered a fair bit of resistance when trying to teach that way. Many players don't want to choose an action without knowing the consequences, even if it's a learning game. I myself have a pet peeve for when a game asks me as a player to make a choice without giving me enough information to decide which option is better for me, and this forces that dynamic on all players as they learn, with the logic being "see what happens, and when you play for real you'll be better informed." Also, when playing a deep game with your friends, having a new player play this way kind of sours the experience for the experienced players, so to play this way every time would be kind of a bummer for the teacher.

This novel approach can work, but I think it works better on modern games than it does on some of the more complicated games from a decade ago. Newer games seem to limit options in the early game, or give you a player power that nudges you (sometimes very strongly) toward one option over another. Many older games are more like a sandbox, with clear strategies that exist and emerge through game play, but myriad options in the early game, with no direction except your own forward planning. All those options can lead to a lot of strategy space, and a lot of depth, but at the cost of some accessibility. To an extent it requires the player to understand what they're in for, lest they be overwhelmed.

This sandbox nature is something I'm finding to be "old fashioned" about a lot of really good euro-style games. Personally, I enjoy the freedom of strategy and the depth provided by these types of games, but with the rate at which new players are coming into the hobby, and the rate at which publishers are churning out new games, we need to start finding ways to get people actually playing the games without requiring lengthy rules explanations. We've already seen a few attempts at minimizing rules, or removing them altogether:

Jamey Stegmaier's legacy euro-style game Charterstone was originally intended to have no rulebook. In the end he found that he needed at least a bare bones rulebook to express the core mechanisms in the game, and while I haven't played it, I suspect additional rules may be added to that book via sticker (as Pandemic Legacy did) as you play through the campaign.

Friedmann Friese's ambitious Fast Forward series (Fear, Flee, and Fortress) come without a rulebook at all. They're just stacks of cards which you're supposed to tear open, set on the table, peel the top card off and read it, following directions as they're given. This is a pretty neat experiment. I've played two of those games, and while the cooperative Flee seems like a decent group puzzle, the competitive Fortress seemed a bit lacking for my taste (I'm not really the target audience). But more importantly, I felt like there were some problems with the "no rules" format -- we came across a few timing or rules questions when things weren't crystal clear on the cards (and there's not a ton of space on the cards for rules text), and when that happens, there's nowhere to look for answers. Also, with the amount and intricacy of some of the rules given on cards, it seemed like a hard sell to call it "accessible" to a complete non-gamer.

Easing players into the game

What we need is for sandbox-y games with strategic depth that players can get into with minimal up-front rules explanation. Games that can be taught using The Grogan Method, if you will, without feeling like you're making choices at random and seeing what happens. Can this be done without losing the depth these games have? I think that's the job.

The question is... how?

Post script: Reviving old games

I see a lot of reprints of older games coming out lately. Classic eurogames from 10+ years ago, sometimes with updated art, but seldom with updated rules. When I think about the possibility of reviving an old favorite like Shipyard, I wonder if it would really go over well enough in today's market. Sure, hardcore gamers that know they like that kind of thing, or are willing to sit through a long rules teach in order to explore the mechanisms on offer, won't have any problem. But will people new to the hobby be willing to put so much effort into learning the game? Or will they instead opt for something simpler to learn?

Are there any adjustments that can be made to games like Shipyard and Tzolk'in that will allow players to get into the game a bit easier? Can those be made without losing what makes those games so good in the first place? I'd love to hear your thoughts or answers in the comments below!


Unknown said...

Geoff and I are going to do an episode on this at some point. We call the phenomenon "coupling," when there are related mechanisms in different parts of the game, and you need to understand one in order to understand the other. Vital Lacerda uses coupling like crazy. When used properly, coupling can lead to awesome combos and synergies, but it's really difficult to teach.

I use Paul Grogan's method to teach games at conventions - I call it the "running start" approach - but I only use it to teach partial-game demos at conventions. Since it's not a full game, players don't care so much about competition; they just want to know how the game plays. And since the convention floor is noisy and distracting, getting them to make decisions ASAP is critical to keeping them engaged in a high-stimulus environment.

But if we're playing a full game, I would never use a running start to teach a game! Players expect to be somewhat competitive, so I'd want to teach them everything they need to know to make a fully informed decision. That usually means communicating the whole ruleset, tight coupling and all.

Michael Brown said...

I personally prefer to know all the rules before I start playing. Reading the rule book is my favorite way of learning a game, however, which makes me a bit unusual.

Richard Clyne said...

I think Paul's methods are fine for a demo but really lousy when you are teaching people before playing the game. In a demo, I don't mind essentially taking random actions in order to see how various mechanisms in the game, If we are playing a game, which I consider that people are pretty much playing with an intention of winning, I think I should be taking actions that I think advance the chance that I win. In order to do that, I need to know far more about the game. I guess the difference is deciding if the session will have a result. If it does, I'm playing the game but if it doesn't, it is a demo.

Steve B said...

On your postscript: Some pretty rules-heavy games have made it big lately--Great Western Trail, Yokohama, A Feast for Odin etc. I don't think that would hold back the success of a game like Shipyard.

Al Leduc said...

I can only take in so many rules at once. I'll often just tune out of a long explanation, then I'll ask pointed questions later when the info is just more relevant to me. I like the idea of knowing everything first but it's just not practical with my learning style. I have to move some pieces around for all to really jell in my head.