What was the middle part? – On rules explanations

Whether a new game gets to return to the table after its inaugural play, often comes down to how well it was taught. That‘s partly because an introduction to a game‘s rules sets the tone for what to expect. An aimless, vague explanation can turn a game like LAMA into a confusing, complex rules mess, that you can only really grasp with sufficient tenacity and experience. Whereas a clean and well-structured introduction can even dispel the intimidating aura of complexity of a game like Twilight Imperium 4.

It‘s rarely a question of player motivation or affinity. Sure, it helps if students have some prior knowledge or interest in a new topic. But in a small group of three to four people, a decent teacher should be able to communicate ideas without being given a leg-up like this.

Preparation (or what am I talking about?)

This is the part that I often mess up myself. If you skimp on your rules prep, you will invariably end up with a slow, oft interrupted and aimless rules explanation. I often find myself paging through the rulebook, looking up the exact phrasing of a rule, because I foolishly thought I could wing it. You need to pay quite a bit of attention to learn the rules of a new board game. If you keep getting interrupted, because the person explaining the game quickly needs to look something up, it doesn‘t just affect your understanding of the game but also your first experience playing it. Especially during the first rounds, play will feel bumpy, halting repeatedly to ask questions that have already been answered. The first, and often only, impression of the game will end up being that it has a steep learning curve but ends up playing smoothly after a while.

If I can manage it, I make sure to read through the rules beforehand multiple times. I also try to come up with a plan how to sum up and explain the core ideas of the game. That requires a firm grasp on which rules are important for the game‘s flow. By which I mean the rules that, if misapplied or accidentally omitted, would fundamentally alter the experience of playing the game. The point of a good rules prep isn‘t to have all the details and edge cases of the rulebook memorized, but to have an iron-clad grasp on the game‘s core. At any given point I must be able to explain the rules that set up objectives and incentives for the players.

rules aid flipped
What a rules aid looks like to the uninitiated

Objectives and Incentives (or why are we doing this?)

People act in pursuit of actual objectives and for specific reasons. Whether their actions will actually lead them to their chosen objective, is usually answered through play. Regardless, we evaluate our options based on how well they help us reach our objectives. If we can‘t get a good handle on what those objectives are, we lack the solid footing to act sensibly. If I don‘t know where I want to go, I will have a hard time choosing between a bike, a train or simply walking. But these objectives shouldn‘t be confused with victory conditions. Any game that actually needs a rules explanation offers interim objectives, you need to fulfill to qualify for a victory condition. Part of understanding a game requires the ability to recognise what those objectives are. Knowing that I need 10 points to win in Catan, doesn‘t really help me understand the game any better. It won‘t help me understand the point of trading resources or why it might be more beneficial to expand a road than to upgrade a settlement. But once the game‘s interim objectives, that help me gain VP, are laid out, I have a way to measure the usefulness of individual actions.

In order to figure out how to play a game, I have to understand how and why certain rules relate to each other. Once I understand their purpose, the game makes sense. A good rules explanation lays out these things, so that players can make reasoned decisions. Understanding a game is more than simply knowing how a round or turn is structured. It means you‘re able to make purposeful and intentional decisions.

Context (or how does this make sense?)

In most cases a game‘s objectives are an abstract thing. It might be points on a tracker. It might be the ratio of blue to red cubes behind your screen. With enough practice and experience, this level of abstraction isn‘t a hurdle to understanding a game. Eventually all you see on the table is abstractions. I imagine this being like the climactic scene in The Matrix, when Neo sees only code around him as opposed to the photorealistic reality he moves in. This perspective on a game does bring a lot of its own problems with it. Like turning the act of play into an elaborate form of competitive arithmetic.

Some games are designed to explicitly counteract this kind of shift in experience. It‘s with those games in particular, that I‘ve had some success in using the game‘s setting to illustrate many of its rules. Although it‘s rarely enough to just use the thematic terminology of the rulebook to refer to the game‘s components. I try to stay away from explaining rules as simple causal connections, but embed them into the game‘s background. This has two benefits. First, it puts an emphasis on theme being an essential part of the experience. But what‘s more important, is that the compact way of feeding new players dense layers of information is opened up a little. Combined with the occasional repetition of previously mentioned rules, your head gets to breathe for a moment. Two yellow cubes turn into one brown cube. Out of two wheat, you create a batch of bread. Your field worker‘s bring home the day‘s crop and after a quick chat they head to the mill, where the miller and the baker make bread for your village. A short narrative detour can help players who need a moment to digest a new rule. But it can also annoy players who are already eager for more input. It‘s usually a good time to lean heavily into all the emotional intelligence you can muster here.

Games with abstract rules and a tenuous connection to their setting are easier to grasp, by explaining how an action affects other players. What do you reveal indirectly, if you only identify one card in a player‘s hand as being green? What does it say about a player‘s hand of cards in The Crew, if they can‘t follow suit but instead discard a high-numbered card? By illustrating a rule through the game‘s theme or its effect on player interaction, these things are grounded in something tangible. They give the rules substance and open up the experience.

I‘d love to say, that I follow those three concepts consistently and without fail, which is why every one of my rules explanation goes down perfectly. I‘d be quite impressed with myself, if that were the case. But I often find myself not having spent enough time prepping the rules, keeping some game objectives too vague or rattling off a rule without proper context. Yet I can trace back my successful and failed rules explanations to how closely I stuck to the principles above.

Maybe they‘ll be of help to you, too.

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