The lessons of ludology

This evening, I’ll be teaching a group of people how to play Dominion. This is something I have done many, many, many times before; I suspect that I have introduced the game to somewhere between fifty and a hundred people over the years. When it comes to that first game of deck crafting goodness, I have the patter down cold.

In general, though, I feel like I flounder a bit when it comes to showing people how to play new games. This may come as a surprise to some folks reading this, as I am pretty much always the Designated Teaching Authority™ if I have even the slightest passing knowledge of the game at hand. It’s not that I think I’m a bad teacher, really; it’s just that I think I could be a lot better.

Education is a hard problem in general1, and teaching people how to play comes with its own set of additional complexities that can make it even more of a challenge. Let’s go over some of those in convenient bulleted form:

  • People are being taught how to play a game because they want to play a game, and so every minute spent explaining is a minute spent not actually playing. This encourages glossing over important details, makes it easy to forget steps when you’re just trying to get to the end of the explanation, and brings in all of that “I have to keep their attention so they don’t decide to just bail” tension that makes teaching a new thing extra fun and exciting.
  • Gearing a teaching session appropriately given a mixed group can feel impossible. This is obviously a problem all teachers face, but most educational milieus have a relatively captive audience: the kids are in a structured school system, or are paying for their education, and so have incentives to stick around during an explanation they already understand–or ask questions about ones they don’t–so that they can come out the other end with, well, an education. You can always just throw your hands up, say “it’s too much,” and walk away from a board game. And there’s almost nothing more distracting to a teacher than someone pulling out a phone and poking at it because they’re finding the explanation too simple… particularly when said person asks questions because they weren’t really paying attention. Not that I’m referring to specific instances. Cough.
  • As a leisure activity, it’s not uncommon for some people at the table to not really care that they’re “doing it wrong.” Other people at the table can take this very, very poorly2. Since the majority of board games are shared experiences, different levels of engagement in terms of absorbing how the game works can have a large impact on how other people experience the game session, so finding a way to teach “the right way” without ruffling feathers or sounding insulting is something that has to be navigated constantly even once the game has started3.

Teaching something well requires a solid grasp on the subject, which means I often spend a non-trivial amount of time poring over rulebooks before first plays, but if it really is my first time playing then there’s a whole lot of guessing as to what bits need emphasis, what rules will turn out to be the most confusing or relevant, and so on. For a game like Dominion or Hanabi where I’ve played hundreds of times and seen all the common mistakes over and over again, those details are easy to incorporate, but for a big-box Eurogame I’ve only played once or twice it often feels like shots in the dark.

Still: I try. I watch facial expressions and try to gauge comprehension, I stop and ask if people have any questions, and I work on my explanations of situations both simple and complex in an attempt to make them both educational and engaging. I think I get a little bit better each time, although I can’t be sure; I try to see what parts went over peoples’ heads, what I didn’t explain well enough, and incorporate that into the next time. The proof, as always, is in the play, and I can only hope that I can keep playing to find out.

  1. And obviously way too large a topic to cover here; professional educators, please forgive my shortcut-y ways.
  2. I can definitely be in that camp, given the game, although error due to ignorance doesn’t really bother me at all. Error due to not caring, though… imagine cartoon steam coming out of my ears.
  3. If you want to get me ranting good and long, ask me in person sometime about Durak and That One Guy.

3 thoughts on “The lessons of ludology”

  1. Nice writeup!

    In my experience, having solid ‘tangible’ examples of how scoring or interactions work really help move things along. An example of a [mechanically] relatively simple game is Arboretum. The actions of drawing cards from discard piles/mystery meat, playing a card, and discarding a card is super simple. The scoring mechanisms are the most complicated part of the game. When teaching the game, I try to have a layout that goes over the numerous possibilities in a concise manner and set the cards out as I’m explaining. I often find youtube videos where people talk about “concepts” or a “finished game” and it leaves me frustrated because I can’t see the tangible product being produced.

    Just my 2 cents. Once again Phil, great writeup!

    1. Yeah, I think that covering concrete goals is actually really helpful, in that it gives the floundering new player something to grasp. Dominion‘s helpful in that its first game is trivial to score; it’s the face value of all the green cards in your deck, so there’s not a lot of questioning the process, and you can spend your time talking about the Action cards that make up the meat of the thing. Games like Concordia make it a lot tougher, in that in the abstract the way the game scores is trivial to understand, but when you actually play the game it’s a lot more nuanced. The early-game scoring round helps a bit, but it honestly happens too early for it to give a real understanding of how the game’s gonna work out at the end. In the end it just comes down to experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.