Theory: Rule-Learning as a Campaign

Earlier today, Eric Zimmerman posted this:

Learning the rules is a journey, with a destination and trials to be faced along the way. It maps very nicely onto a strategy campaign. Why don’t games do this?

I can think of several reasons:

The game’s rules are too simple to warrant it. Love Letter is a fun game that doesn’t need an elaborate teaching process.

The game isn’t much fun until all the rules are in place. Formula D has an introductory version that actually turned off some folks I played with. It was so easy that it removed the decisions that made the game interesting. Only when the more challenging mechanics were added in did they understand the game’s appeal.

Resource considerations. Making a tutorial campaign that’s fun enough to be worth playing is a lot of work. It’s hard to blame designers for allocating their time and budget elsewhere.

How to teach the rules isn’t often thought about as closely as the core design. If the preceding reasons are understandable choices about how to teach a game, this is the unfortunate counterpart: the failure to recognize a possibility. Sometimes a game would benefit a great deal from what was once called “programmed instruction,” but has to soldier on with a shaky rulebook or poor tutorialization. The designer(s), heavily focused on the game, don’t give enough time to working out how it ought to be introduced to others.

I’ll cheerfully say I’ve never made a campaign out of learning rules. However, it’s a neat idea. We know that a game about figuring out the game can be a lot of fun. Expanding that out to a whole narrative experience is a neat idea that’s worth pursuing.



2 thoughts on “Theory: Rule-Learning as a Campaign

  1. Thanks for the article! This is exactly how I’ve designed the rules for Charterstone. The “rulebook” starts off completely empty–it’s one of those books of cards sleeves, like in Mage Wars. There are no rules to read in advance. Players simply open the box, look at the first card, and it tells them what to do. It’s a shared act of discovery, as no one goes into the game knowing more than anyone else. During that first game and throughout the campaign, more rules cards are added to the rulebook.

    One of the biggest challenges for this system is the second point you mentioned: “The game isn’t much fun until all the rules are in place.” It’s tough to give players interesting choices when they don’t know what those choices are. That’s compounded in a legacy game like Charterstone where there really aren’t many choices in the first game anyway. But I think the shared act of discovery makes up for it.

  2. Fascinating! I love the idea of using cards as an easy-to-manage way to build up a rule set. That’s a brilliant approach.

    I know Charterstone’s forthcoming–I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

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