Explaining Games – and Other Stuff (part 2)

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Personally, I have never tried to bribe a pirate. I understand that some people may enjoy the activity, and in principle I am not opposed to it, but it just doesn’t appeal to me as an individual. Fortunately, should I ever be compelled to bribe a pirate, the details of how to do it have been concisely summarised for me in the text pictured above. This shows a representative two page extract from the fifty page long rule book to the game Viceroys. This particular part covers fleeing from combat, the weather gauge, bribing pirates, taxation, inflation and war in Europe. Being two pages out of fifty, it constitutes 4% of the overall text. Yay.

I suppose, when I think about it, that it pays to be ready. Who knows when my friends will get together and peer-pressure me into giving it a go. I’m sure that they must all have tried bribing pirates at some point in their lives. I’m not sure exactly what one would bribe a pirate to do. Perhaps to harass your enemy’s trade routes, or maybe to not provide your IP address as part of a plea bargain.

So, to continue my explanation of explanations, another important point is not to get distracted. It is easy to verbally wander off and start talking rubbish about an unrelated topic, or discussing fine detail that will not be relevant until later. This must be avoided at all costs. Stick to the point, and explain the most important parts first.

A good place to start is with how to win. This information is often useful when formulating a strategy. The next thing to explain (if it isn’t the same as the win condition) is how the game ends. Once these two waypoints are in place, everything else will make more sense.

I think that the importance of this travels well beyond explaining a boardgame. Too often I have seen “teaching” in which people are told to do x followed by y followed by z, before anyone has ever bothered to explain what they are actually trying to do or how doing x followed by y followed by z is going to help them achieve that. Let someone know what problem you are trying to solve at the outset and they will not only be more interested in how you propose solving it but may even come up with solutions of their own.

Another important point is to explain things in the right order. There is no point explaining how a special ability gives you a discount on building a trading post if the person you are explaining it to doesn’t yet know what a trading post is. No-one is going to get a reference to something you intend to say in the future. People can be very temporally limited in this regard.

This is one of my personal dislikes about how scientists tend to explain their work to the general public. They always want to try to explain cutting edge research, no doubt because it sounds cooler than old hat. Unfortunately, understanding cutting edge research often depends on understanding a lot of old hat first… The usual result is that the scientist ends up waving their hands around and talking some meaningless waffle for a couple of hours without imparting any genuine understanding. If they tried to explain the basics first they might get somewhere, not to mention that the basics are going to be much more useful to people who aren’t actually working in the field. But then who wants the public to actually understand things like logical reasoning and basic maths? Surely it’s much more important that they all know that quantum mechanics is weird, cool and somehow related to cats?

One final point is that explaining should be interactive. Don’t just real off an explanation and assume people have followed it. Keep an eye on them to make sure that they are following, and be prepared to repeat yourself or answer questions if you have to.

Of course, some players don’t like to have a game explained to them fully in advance, and would prefer to simply jump in and bite the game on the bottom. This is fine – provided they don’t mind losing when they find out that their master plan doesn’t actually work. Just make sure in advance that they understand the disadvantage and are willing to accept it in preference to listening to the rules. Perfecting an especially dry and monotonous rule-reading voice will help you to enjoy this advantage over your opponents more often.

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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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