The World Chess Championship

I am bad at chess.

That’s something I admit with regret. Chess is a wonderful game, and I’d love to be good at it. As a competitive player, I’m drawn to its formal tournament structure; as a student of the history of games, I relish the idea of participating in one that that has lasted through so many years. Not having invested in chess is something I view as a failing.

My lack of chess knowledge, though, has done nothing to dim my enthusiasm for this year’s World Chess Championship. By all accounts–I don’t feel qualified to judge–it’s been a great one. Mr. Carlsen’s final victory has been detailed in the New York Times with just enough information to get a sense for what happened without overwhelming jargon; I’m sure there’s other good coverage, and I’d urge everyone to seek it out. Love it or hate it, chess is worthy of study–perhaps not least for the way such a slow-paced game can create such excitement.

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: Explain the Purpose of Options

So you’ve designed a game where it’s hard to transition from reading the rules to playing  intelligently. Maybe the player has options whose import–the “why” as distinct from the “what”–aren’t clear just from reading the rulebook, or perhaps the game is just too complicated for new players to be able to devote much thought to strategy. Everything is fine once someone is invested and has discovered the game’s tactical nuances, but the learning curve is more like a cliff. How can you help new players understand their choices, so that they don’t just quit in frustration?

There’s an often-overlooked solution: simply tell them.

GMT makes Fire in the Lake, its excellent-but-complex simulation of the Vietnam War, approachable using that exact method. Fire in the Lake has two big humps in its learning curve: first getting through the dense rulebook, and then understanding how the rules are applied on the tabletop to make progress toward winning. By being straightforward about what each maneuver is intended to accomplish, GMT gives players a tremendous boost over the second hurdle.

You see, there’s a lot for new players to take in when they start to learn Fire In the Lake: four factions, each with their own victory conditions and unique actions. It doesn’t get easier when one considers that each action has multiple parts. A US player, for example, can assault with her own troops in any of several locations (which costs no resources), then has the option of forcing her ally to attack (which does cost resources). How many pieces are removed by the assault depends on who’s attacking–the US or her ARVN ally, the terrain, and whether or not the US has established a base at that location. The US player also has three other actions she can take, plus three additional helper-actions which can’t all be combined with all of the main options. Her choices are also, by the way, contingent on the monsoon.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to see the forest for the trees at the end of all this. After going carefully through the rulebook before my first game I was so busy juggling the technicalities in my head that I wasn’t sure how to fit my choices together into a strategy. Then I looked down at the player aid, and saw this:

"Why you would do this," helpfully spelled out.
It’s the first line that’s key.

Having the execution details of a patrol–the cost, where patrolling troops can move–was useful. The greatest value, though, came from that first line: “Purpose.” Here’s why you would do this; you’ll get the following out of it.

All of a sudden it was possible to make meaningful decisions. I had been getting ready to take actions “just to try them out,” accepting that the match would basically be an extended tutorial. Equipped with some basic information about what I could expect from each action, however, I was able to pursue a coherent strategy right away.

It’s worth pausing to reiterate that. A few lines on the player aid saved me from a four- to six-hour tutorial, and launched me right into the exciting part of the game. Those couple of sentences granted an enormous return in player engagement.

Fire in the Lake isn’t the only game that can benefit from explaining when and why certain moves are useful. Consider, for example, chess. The rules of chess are quite simple. Even small children can easily learn the game.

However, the strategic implications of the choices available are complex and often opaque. On his first turn a player can move a pawn, or jump with a knight. When is one better than the other? Why? If he should move a pawn, which one? How many spaces forward? I’ve never heard anyone say that they stopped playing chess because they couldn’t learn it, but I’ve heard people say that they just found it overwhelming.

Now imagine how much more accessible chess would be if every set came packaged with some basic information about what various moves accomplish. This opening brings the bishops and rooks forward to useful positions; that maneuver threatens the opponent’s pieces. Suddenly the player could to evaluate positions, at least in a simple way, and make informed choices. If he wanted to bring the bishops and rooks forward, he might try these moves; if he preferred to get his queen involved, he would at least have an example of what not to do.

Of course, that sort of information is readily available; there are any number of chess resources out there. Seeking them out, however, requires a level of investment that cannot be assumed of new players. When the problem is getting players engaged in the first instance, there’s no better solution than putting valuable help in the one document they’re most likely to read: the rulebook.

As always, this is not a tool suited to every game. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition doesn’t need to expend energy telling people what the “Warfare” and “Production” roles are for. Netrunner can safely assume that everyone will understand the use of “purge all virus counters.”

When there’s a divide between a game’s rules and its strategy, however, a little explanation can go a long way. Helping players out with a brief statement of how each option might contribute to a strategy does a great deal to bridge the gap between reading the rulebook and having fun with a game. If nothing else, it avoids four- to six-hour tutorials!

Theory: Making Barriers into Benefits

When someone purchases FFG’s X-Wing, this is what comes in the box.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

When someone purchases a box of Warmachine, he or she gets this:

12-31-14 - Warmachine BoxLooking at those pictures, one would expect Warmachine to be the province of the hardest of the hardcore, true grognards–but it is instead, as of last time I saw sales figures, the second most popular miniatures game on the market. Part of that is simply because Warmachine is a superbly designed game. Part, however, is that Warmachine turns its barrier to entry into a strength, using it to generate engagement with the game.

Every game has barriers to entry. Usually they must be purchased, sometimes at great expense. Rules must be read. The game must be set up on the table, which is easy enough in the case of something like Tsuro but which can be quite laborious in the case of wargames and RPGs.

In general, these barriers to entry are undesirable. They prevent people from buying, playing, and enjoying a game. Minimizing them is thus usually viewed as strictly beneficial. Designers try to make rules easier to learn and publishers look for simpler, less expensive components, all in the name of lowering these barriers.

X-Wing is a superb and successful example of that process in action. The minatures are ready-to-play right out of the box, fully assembled and painted to a standard much higher than most players could achieve on their own. While the game is not exactly cheap, lots of starships are available at the $10 impulse-buy price point online. FFG has done as much as possible to make getting into the game painless.

Warmachine, on the other hand, makes few concessions. Its miniatures come unpainted and in pieces. Most boxes of Warmachine minis don’t even have an instruction manual; one is expected to figure out that this piece goes here and that these arms are bent just so such as to fit those torsos. It’s not uncommon for miniatures to have flaws straight out of the box requiring non-trivial modeling skill to fix; from the beginning of the game to today, people have been fixing the “Khador gap.”

One might expect that all of this would render Warmachine the nichest of niche games. Instead, however, it’s enormously successful, begging the question of how an expensive game that requires tremendous amounts of setup could ever overcome its barriers to entry. Warmachine is a superb game, yes–but many superb games fail for lack of players willing to invest in them. That alone did not propel the game to the heights it has now achieved. How did Warmachine manage its barriers to become a key player in the miniatures space?

The answer is that Warmachine’s greatest barrier–the tabula rasa nature of its pieces–is a strength in the eyes of a substantial proportion of the player base. They become an artistic outlet; one is not just going to field pikemen, one is going to field one’s very own pikemen, with paint schemes and poses chosen in accordance with one’s taste. Many players end up involved the game just for the painting, playing only rarely as a way to show off their work.

Personalizing the miniatures in that way invites other forms of creativity, such as biographies and backstories chronicling the achievements of one’s troopers. Ultimately all of this can even feed back to the tabletop, with players devising campaigns in which rivalries between their armies are settled and new ones created. Again, these opportunities to craft something unique are the result of what would otherwise be a barrier to entry, and are an important draw for many players.

Not every game can do what Warmachine does, but it’s a possibility for more games than one might think. What if Agricola required players to build little parts of houses, instead of just using tiles? Would that lead to a greater sense of ownership over the homes, and more incentive to play? Would players be less likely to shake their heads at the depth of chess and give the game up if they painted the black squares on the board themselves?

Barriers to entry are always going to be a problem. However, it’s possible to approach them imaginatively, and ask how they can be used to encourage player investment.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have some pikemen to paint.

Theory: What to Do If Your Game’s Not Random

Riffing on the idea that the promise of a rare lucky moment is attractive, I thought it might be interesting to look at the fate of VS System–a game where people didn’t get those lucky moments. I should say up front that I only have this story second-hand, but even if it’s wrong it’s still interesting as a thought experiment. It’s a cautionary tale about a game that ended up being unfriendly to new players, and a chance to learn lessons about what to do if your game doesn’t randomly offer new players help.

VS System was a superhero card game. If you wanted to play something Magic-ish, but instead of knights fighting dragons you wanted Captain America fighting Doctor Doom, this was your game. Its crowning achievement may have been its substantial tournament popularity; lots of people got very good at VS System, played it very seriously, and won quite a bit of money in the process.

Part of what made VS System so popular among tournament players was that, even though it was a card game, luck actually had very little to do with the outcome. Better players almost always beat worse players. For heavily-invested players who had spent a lot of time practicing, that was a valuable feature. Their hard work was consistently rewarded.

New players, however, found VS System quite frustrating. Since everyone was better than them, they lost almost every time. They couldn’t hope for a rare lucky moment; no such moment was coming.

Losing is, of course, part of getting better. I have vivid memories of going to the local arcade in Japan once a week and getting trounced for a full year before I managed to win. However, at that point in my life I was dedicated to improving at fighting games. It’s not unreasonable for people to try a game that they’re only casually interested in, get clobbered, and decide that this particular mountain isn’t one they’re interested in climbing.

That was the decision people often made about VS System. Although a dedicated group of old-timers kept the game going, fewer and fewer new players appeared to reinforce their ranks. Tournament players who moved on were not replaced, and ultimately the game folded for lack of sales.

Compare VS System’s experience to Magic: the Gathering. In Magic, the better player wins . . . most of the time. The fall of the cards can give the worse player a chance, creating the openings they need to win. When it happens it makes the better player crazy–but even Mark Rosewater believes the game is better because those moments can happen, and the sales data support him. Magic lets new players get the lucky moment they need once every so often, and as a result it can appeal to a much larger player base.

So, judicious use of randomness can help new players win, and in the process can contribute to keeping a game popular. What if a game has no randomness? Chess has no dice, no cards, nothing that’s outside the players’ control (and I depart from Mr. Rosewater’s view that opening moves are random; a decision made with incomplete information is not random, it is simply risky). Yet, Chess has lasted for a very long time. Diplomacy has a less impressive pedigree, but it’s also a popular game of long standing with no random elements. How do they keep going?

I think there are two key things that non-random games can do to avoid frustrating new players:

Ranked play: Chess’ ELO system helps players find others at the same skill level. Weaker players can avoid being clobbered by playing people at the same ELO–or can opt into a challenge by finding someone at a higher level. Players control how much frustration they experience.

Make it hard to lose quickly: Even an extremely bad Diplomacy player can’t be eliminated in the first few turns. (The writing, admittedly, might be on the wall by then.) Furthermore, the early turns are often when most of the wheeling and dealing at the heart of Diplomacy occurs, so even the newest player gets to experience what the game has to offer and feel like he or she got to participate meaningfully.

I’m sure there are more approaches to this problem, but I feel that these are particularly effective. If your game doesn’t enjoy the luxury of offering rare lucky moments to give new players hope, doing one or both of these will help ensure that they still have a positive experience. That, in turn, will contribute greatly to the long-term health of your game.