Design Tips: The 2-Turn Hurdle

I love board games. I’ve always enjoyed sitting down with a group of friends and playing them for hours. But one problem I’ve found with most board games is the harsh learning curve when you’re trying to play them for the first time. Digital games avoid this to some extent with tutorials and on-screen prompts, but often board games have hard time teaching new players everything they need to know quickly and clearly. Eventually most players will pick up on the mechanics and get into the rhythm of the game, but there’s the risk that they’ll get frustrated and quit if it takes too long. But how long is too long? After playing dozens of games, I’ve come up with a simple heuristic:

The 2-Turn Hurdle: By the time they have finished two full rounds of play, players should understand all of the game’s core rules and mechanics.

What this means is that, on average, players should have a good understanding of the core of the game by turn 3. If they get the hang of it faster than that, great! But if they don’t get it by then it means something is wrong, either with the game or the player’s understanding. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that board games can’t be complicated. Games can be as complicated as you want, so long as all the core rules and mechanics are clearly and quickly conveyed to the player.

Why does this matter?

For New Players, this means that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed when you’re playing a game for the first time. The first two turns are going to be rough and it’s alright if you get a bit lost. But by turn 3 or 4 you should be getting the hang of it. If you’re still not getting it by then, it means either you misunderstood something critical or the game is doing a poor job teaching you how to play.

For Veteran Players, this means you need to be patient when teaching people how to play. They are going to make mistakes and get confused and that’s normal. Your main job is to help new players get through the first two turns of the game. After that point they might still need a little help, but it should be mostly smooth sailing.

For Game Designers, this means you have a clear deadline for when your players need to understand your game. Any longer and you risk them giving up and playing something else. If you’re noticing that players are still lost by turn 4, it means that you need to make some changes to help them out. Not sure how? Here’s some simple suggestions of how you can help players understand your game faster:

  • Provide cheat sheets and reference cards

  • Remove unnecessary mechanics

  • Provide important information in multiple places so that it’s less likely to be missed

  • Streamline or simplify complicated mechanics

  • Stagger out the introduction of secondary mechanics

  • Reorganize your rules to make them easier to read

  • Use keywords and/or icons to reduce the amount of text

  • Provide suggestions for new players of what they should be doing for the first fewturns of the game, or what their goals should be at each stage of the game.

TL;DR: The first two turns of any board game are going to be rough, but you should expect to get it by turn 3. If you don’t, something is wrong.