Theory: The Power of a Fun Tutorial (R.I.P. John Hill)

Earlier this week John Hill, designer of the classic Avalon Hill wargame Squad Leader, passed away. Squad Leader should be of interest to every game designer, because it includes what might be the single greatest learn-to-play scenario ever devised: The Guards Counterattack. The Guards Counterattack did not stop at teaching the rules; it was a fascinating exercise that advertised the depth of its game and the fun to come.

Squad Leader is certainly a game that needs a tutorial scenario. Like many wargames of its day, Squad Leader’s rules were so numerous and complex that only someone with a photographic memory could master them just by reading. “Programmed instruction”–the then-current term for “peppering the rules with scenarios that reinforced what the player just read”–was vital.

Most of us hear about programmed instruction, think of video game tutorial levels, and sigh. Do this, then do this, then do this. Instructive, but joyless. The incentive to play the game is the promise of fun to be had after completing the tutorial’s lessons.

The Guards Counterattack turned all of that on its head by being a learn-to-play scenario that’s also a challenging tactical puzzle. The Guards in question are Russian infantry trying to retake buildings from the Germans during World War II. Each side has an advantage over the other: the Russians enjoy the weight of numbers, but the Germans begin with strong defensive positions. Leveraging those numbers and finding ways to hold back the tide are still compelling problems almost 40 years after Squad Leader was first published.

Simply by being fun (though, to be fair, it cannot have been simple to achieve such fine balance), The Guards Counterattack completely changed the role of the tutorial. It became an advertisement: if the game is this awesome with only the most fundamental rules, imagine what’s in store in the pages to come! Rather than being daunting, the many pages of reading to follow suddenly began to look full of promise.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past weeks working on a basic version of Lines of Questioning, one without special rules for off-topic witness answers and the like. That’s because I’ve never forgotten playing The Guards Counterattack, and how motivated I was to work through Squad Leader’s rulebook afterward. A great tutorial scenario, one that goes beyond teaching the rules to showcase the game’s depth and fun, is an irreplaceable source of player engagement.

Here’s to John Hill, and to his contributions to wargaming and to game design as a whole.

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