Theory: Providing Zero-Level Heuristics

Suppose a brand-new player understands the rules to your game, and further has a general grasp of what each of the available options is meant to accomplish. The next thing that player needs is a zero-level heuristic: a rule of thumb that guides the new player’s tactical decision-making. Providing zero-level heuristics makes people’s first games more enjoyable, which tends to ensure that they’ll come back for a second.

We’ve talked about this issue before in the context of chess. It’s not hard to understand the rules of chess, but it’s very difficult for a new player to figure out what moves might be good. “Capture the opponent’s king”—yes, but how? It’s not easy to envision how one might get there from chess’ neutral starting point, and many people won’t grind through the frustrating initial games required to develop basic strategies.

Luckily, there are a number of ways to provide zero-level heuristics. Here are a couple of options; I’m sure there are more.

1. Player powers

Making players better at doing things tends to suggest that they should do those things, which gives them a basic goal to get them through their first few turns. Pandemic’s medic is a great example. As soon as someone gets the medic role, they know they should be treating diseases; that simple guideline will be enough to carry them until they’re in the swing of things and able to engage with the game’s decision-making more fully.

The recently-released starter set for Warhammer 40,000’s Space Marines uses a similar technique. It comes with a special rule for the pieces within; roughly speaking, the leader can make some of the other models stand their ground and fire twice in one turn. New players will naturally want to take advantage of that rule—and while doing so, they’ll discover that their troops are very good shots! That knowledge will help them plan their turns going forward.

2. Graphic design

Imagine a board laid out in an elaborate series of fractal spirals. Should you go left? Right? Who knows! The board twists in on itself, again and again, defying any attempt to parse the game just by looking at it.

By contrast, imagine a board that’s a straight line with “start” on one side. Everyone knows what to do with that board: get to the other side. Long experience with other games will tell new players that any move that gets them closer to the opposite end is probably good. Relying on that intuition will get them underway.

(Implicitly, this means that you probably shouldn’t create straight-line boards with “start” on one side when the goal is not to reach the other end.)

Obviously, not every game can have a linear board. However, many can have “juice” that tells new players what to do. Sparkles when they make a good move; bright, strong lines pointing toward one of the actions on the play aids; color-coded actions with the most basic and important actions being the same color as the goal on the board. Just about any game can use its art to communicate what a new player should focus on.

3. Give a small number of very good options

By and large players want more options. There are occasions when it’s appropriate to give them fewer, however, and the period in which you need to give new players zero-level heuristics is one of them. Allowing a player only a couple of choices that all lead to obvious gains ensures that they’ll begin the game by seeing something they can do to progress.

Advanced Civilization executes this technique brilliantly. There’s a lot going on in Advanced Civ, but in the first turn all the player can do is expand to a single new space. Both of those spaces will then produce an additional figure for the player to work with. Expansion is central to the game, and so new players get to take a turn (a) figuring out how to do it and (b) discovering its power; with that knowledge they can focus on expanding for the next several turns and do just fine.

Taken by the hand

Zero-level heuristics don’t take over for new players. Rather, they help make first games entertaining by providing context and the information necessary to evaluate options. Give thought to how you can provide zero-level heuristics as you work on the new player experience; those just picking up your game will thank you for it.

Theory: The Best Game You’ve Never Played

I was honored recently to have the opportunity to play Advanced Civilization with Geoff Englestein. Professor Engelstein was a superb teacher (not to mention a most skilled player!), and Advanced Civ proved even more fun than its “Grail game” status had suggested. It’s an exceptional design, more ambitious even than most civilization games but nevertheless approachable, fast-moving, and fun.

“Fast-moving” probably deserves some explanation, given that the game is listed as being six hours long and is actually much longer. Advanced Civ is not long because it’s fiddly or burdensome to play. It’s long because it’s sweeping in scope. You’re playing across continents and thousands of years. The length feels like an appropriate design decision, rather than being a byproduct of uncontrolled complexity.

New Advanced Civ sets are pretty expensive at this point, but used ones are reasonably available, and the game is easily recreated in print-and-play form. Finding or building one is well worth the effort; I 100% guarantee you that the game has great lessons to teach, even if you have no interest whatsoever in its genre. (For example, Professor Engelstein pointed out that the game’s complexity is only revealed over several turns, so it’s a surprisingly easy game to teach and to learn.) Seek it out and play it at least once; you’ll be glad you did.