Making gamers great again.
Gaming standards have fallen far too low recently. I used to try to advise other players about how to improve their play, but nowadays the advice I feel most like giving is “Perhaps Exploding Kittens would be more your thing…” The time has come for a revolution. Too long have we allowed hipsters to infiltrate our ranks, using the fact that boardgames have become trendy to inflict their finely-groomed beards and complete lack of any understanding or reasoning ability whatsoever on innocent gamers. Too long have we put up with people who build stables in Agricola, who think that the Terra Mystica factions are balanced and who say things like “It was a really great move – he set it up so that he got loads of good stuff if he rolled a six and then he did!”
Beginners and bad players are a scourge on the gaming community – they slow games down, they inadvertently king-make and their unpredictable behaviour makes games more luck-based and less strategic. We should rise up and drive them from our gaming-tables with fire and blood, or possibly patronising comments and occasional mild criticism.
Of course, an alternative to the “fire and blood” option would be to change how we see inexperienced gamers, and to realise that they do have some benefits. For example, although they add luck, new players also add unpredictability. Games that have otherwise staled because there are only a few viable strategies when everyone plays optimally can be re-enlivened by having to respond on the fly to unusual behaviour from a beginner. Experienced players may have to deviate from their standard plays and actually start thinking constructively about their strategy again.
We could of course go through the motions of the “We were all beginners once…” argument too, and although it is valid it has been so thoroughly done to death that I think I would probably prefer to play Saboteur than re-iterate it here. I will therefore skip to the conclusion of the argument, which is that we ought to try to provide a welcoming climate for beginners in our boardgames, particularly if we want to have anyone to play them with in the future.
There was no collusion…
So, having established that we ought (albeit grudgingly) to be nice to beginners and include them in our games, there is one obvious and important question that we need to answer: what are the best ways to manipulate them so as to serve our own interests?
I find that beginners tend to fall into two categories – those who want to follow advice and those who don’t. Try to establish which kind you are dealing with before making any big manipulation attempts.
With the latter kind you will only get away with a few bits of manipulation per game, after which they will get annoyed and play more or less randomly, so pick your battles. You also shouldn’t try to directly tell them what to do – instead, try making general comments about the game slightly in advance of when you want to influence them, or if you are feeling brave use reverse psychology. My personal favourite is the method where, when you want player B to do something, you advise player A to do it instead but then change your mind. Tell player A that they are lacking some ability or resource that they need to make it worthwhile – an ability or resource that they don’t have but player B does.
With the former kind, simply go for direct advice, but don’t be so pushy that it’s too obvious what you’re doing. Give them a few options to choose between rather than insisting on a single course of action. If you can establish yourself as an authority figure by, for example, explaining the game to them, this will also help. Try to blend seamlessly from giving an explanation of the rules and some impartial advice before the game into full-on in game manipulation.
It’s gonna be great!
One final comment I would add is that playing a game with beginners doesn’t have to be all about teaching them. It can also be about the satisfaction of mercilessly crushing them and achieving an all-time high score! Er… what I of course meant to say is that there are ways to play a game competitively with players of very different experience levels. The most obvious is to handicap the experienced players with some small disadvantage, and a great way to do this in games with drafting mechanics is for the beginners to draft normally while the experienced players “anti-draft”, i.e. they pick the worst possible set of things from the draft and then pass the resulting piles of junk to each other. This evens the game up nicely without making it too dull for the experienced players – nothing is more fun than passing an old rival a set of cards so bad that they don’t manage to make constructive use of any of them!
Another good option is to play in teams, adding the score of a beginner to that of an experienced player at the end of the game to see which team has won overall. This also adds some interesting interaction mechanics that sometimes improve a game – in particular you can play an excellent team version of Seven Wonders where you sum the scores of each pair of adjacent cities at game end. This adds a lot of extra tactics to the game, and I often try to play it even when I’m not making up for an imbalance of player experience.
In short, new players can sometimes improve a game, and novice and experienced players can participate in the same game competitively, so don’t be afraid to welcome beginners into your games and teach them!