Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Learning New Games

Learning new games is not always the easiest thing to do. As my group's primary Explainer, however, it's important for me to be able to learn them quickly - and well.

Here's how I've learned to learn games:

Step 1: Read The Rules
I know. It seems too basic. But there have been times when I learned a game from a friend and found out years later that I'd been playing it wrong. A good example of this is Monopoly. When's the last time you read the rules?
BUYING PROPERTY… Whenever you land on an unowned property you may buy that property from the Bank at its printed price. You receive the Title Deed card showing ownership; place it face up in front of you.

If you do not wish to buy the property, the Banker sells it at auction to the highest bidder. The buyer pays the Bank the amount of the bid in cash and receives the Title Deed card for that property. Any player, including the one who declined the option to buy it at the printed price, may bid. Bidding may start at any price.
Anyone remember that rule? It dramatically changes play, and makes the game interesting. Certainly more than just another roll-and-move.

When reading the rules, make sure you have the components out and in front of you so you can reference them - usually the rulebook will have one or two images of some of the components, but they may not be the best possible representatives.

Step 2: Play Some Practice Turns
Since you have the components out already, play a few turns with yourself. This will help you figure out how a round feels. It won't help you figure out the rhythm of the game, as that requires actual opponents - but you'll be able to get an idea. It'll also highlight areas where members of your group are likely to have questions.

Step 3: Find A Guinea Pig
If you're going to be playing the game, you'll eventually need to teach others. Start small, with someone you know.

When I'm learning a new game, I'll often ask my wife if she wants to give it a shot. If she's not available, there are several others I'll talk to. Sometimes, I'll bring a new game to Game Night and look for a straggler. "I notice you're not in a game. Want to help me figure this one out?"

Step 3a: Screw At Least One Rule Up
It's not a deliberate thing, but, when teaching a new game, I always overlook one critical rule. The first three times we played Power Grid, we limited people to buying into only one city per turn. It made for an exceptionally boring game. I almost didn't give it another shot.

When you do find a missed rule, by the way, you have a few options:
1: Start Over
If it's a rule that would significantly alter the game and completely change the strategy, this is sometimes a good idea. Most of the time, however, I tend to suggest the other two options.

2: Correct The Rule At The End Of The Round
This is risky - If a player's strategy is built on the rules working a certain (wrong) way, correcting at end of round can screw over a small number of players while giving others a significant advantage. In games where each round involves a board reset, however, this is a viable option. Poker, for example - each hand has almost no connection to the preceding hand.

3: Finish the Current Game With The Wrong Rule
This is what I prefer for fairly short games. Fess up - "Oops! Looks like I was wrong. You only need ONE Flood, no matter how many Nile Tiles you have. Shall we finish like this and fix it next time?"
Step 4: Play Again
The more you play a game, the better the grasp you'll have on the rules. I try to play two full games in an evening (time permitting) when learning a new game. Two games in an evening is enough to cement the rules faily well in my mind.

By following these four steps, I've managed to learn a number of games well enough to be able to teach them without referencing a rulebook. Knowing a lot of games can also help teach people other games - you can reference one game when teaching another. "Remember how, in Ticket To Ride, you can't use other people's trains? Transamerica is the opposite of that." A broad knowledge base is helpful when you're part of a demo team for this exact reason.

Finally: A boardgaming post! :)


  1. Anonymous7:01 PM

    Whether we correct a rule by method 2 or 3 usually depends on the significance of the mistake. If the difference is minor, we tend to change play immediately. If it's likely to affect the progress of play or who will be the winner, we keep playing with the incorrect rule.

    Of course, this is complicated by the fact that most often a mistake is found because a player is looking at the rule book because the rule being played works against him.

  2. I recently played Monopoly with the auction rule.

    It made it interesting for, like, the first 15 minutes.

    Then it became roll-and-move-and-wait-for-the-inevitable.