Explaining Games – and Other Stuff (part 1)

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As a fully trained physicist, I know the secret of explaining something well: you just have to remember that the most important thing you need to get across is how much smarter you are than the person you are explaining it to. The more you ridicule and patronise them the better – nothing will make people like and respect you more than conclusively proving your intellectual superiority.

So, since ordinary people are often very bad at explaining things, I will now tell everyone how they ought to be doing it. Be sure to pay close attention. This can be a challenging subject for people – such as yourself no doubt – who have only limited experience of thinking.

Explaining a complex game to someone who has never encountered it before can be a long and painful experience. I remember once sitting through an explanation of Terra Mystica that took over an hour. Obviously I didn’t take that long to learn it myself, but one has to make allowances for those of lesser ability.

I have also been on the receiving end of some incomplete explanations that have proved troublesome later. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you about this rule which means that now you lose.” So, the question we have to ask is how best to balance the desire for accuracy and completeness with the desire to start playing before everyone falls asleep. Those of you fortunate enough to have attended a physics lecture will no doubt remember which side of the debate I and my colleagues are generally on, and to bring a pillow next time.

My opinion on the subject (which I am aware is not shared by everyone) is that the best thing to do is to explain all of the rules but none of the implications of the rules. If all of the rules are not explained then some players are at an unfair disadvantage, and their lack of knowledge can potentially be exploited on purpose by the person who failed to inform them. This is generally an undesirable situation – the exception of course being when you are the person doing the exploiting.

However, figuring out what the rules imply about how best to play the game and construct an effective strategy is part of the game. You might feel like you are helping a beginner by giving them strategy tips, but in my opinion you are in fact taking some of the game away from them. Also, they might actually have better ideas than you do. If you give people strategic advice rather than a full rules explanation they have no choice but to follow your favoured strategies, when really they should be developing their own.

The above is certainly true in competitive games. In a coop or team game however you might need to discuss the implications of rules with people in order to get them on board with your plan. This is perhaps more representative of the real world, where you will presumably not be hoping that everyone else does as badly as possible… However, I maintain that even in these situations it is more important to present your raw data and/or reasoning than just your conclusions in isolation.

Firstly, giving a detailed explanation of your reasoning might allow one of your teammates to spot something you have missed or come up with a way to enhance the plan.  Secondly, particularly in a game like Battlestar Galactica where there are questionable loyalties involved, it is important that people know that what you are saying is accurate. If you present your reasoning they will hopefully analyse it in order to determine whether or not it makes sense, and thus whether or not to listen to you. If you don’t they’ll have to try to guess whether or not they can trust you – a rather ridiculous process in which people invariably assume that they can actually tell something about you from factors that bear no relation whatsoever to your actual character or intentions, and ultimately come to a conclusion pretty much at random.

Now that I think of it, perhaps even in a coop game it isn’t really worth explaining your reasoning. Normal people can’t really be expected to reason properly about things. Just tell them something and hope that their random choice as to whether to believe it or not comes out in your favour. It seems to work for politicians.

Ideally of course, people who were having something explained to them (provided they are not in a time-sensitive situation) would demand a full explanation of the basic underlying principles. This way they can form their own ideas about the implications rather than blindly guessing at whether or not to trust the person giving the explanation.



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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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