Learning how to play a board game is hard. It’s not because board games are inherently more difficult or complicated than other types of games (they aren’t), but because of how their rules are enforced. In a video game, the game itself enforces its own rules. If you attack an enemy, the game knows exactly how much damage you are supposed to do to that enemy and will make sure that damage calculation is done correctly. It doesn’t matter if the player doesn’t know how those calculations are done, they’ll be done correctly anyways. But with a board game, it’s up to the players to enforce the rules. If you don’t know how damage is calculated, the game isn’t going to do it for you. Or worse, if you think you know it is calculated but are wrong, the game isn’t going to step in and fix your mistake. Because of this, players need to know all the rules of a board game before they can start playing. Otherwise they are likely to either get stuck or break the game. But what is the best way to teach someone how to play a board game? As part of my Game Research course this semester I ran a small preliminary study testing out different learning methods for teaching board games, and I’ve got some cool initial findings to share with you.
What did we do?
Given time and budget constraints, the study we ran was kept pretty simple. In total, we collected 27 participants (16 female, 11 male). Each participant first picked one of five different board games to learn (7 Wonders, Bang!, Scythe, Thanos Rising, or Carcassonne). Once they had picked their game, each participant then picked which learning method they wanted to use. They could either 1) read through a pdf of the rules booklet for the game; 2) watch a YouTube tutorial on how to play the game; or 3) use the digital rules available on the Dized app. Dized is a board game companion app that uses searchable rules and interactive tutorials to help players learn how to play board games. It’s currently in beta and hasn’t fully launched its tutorial functions yet, so we were only testing the digital rules function for this study. Once they were done learning how to play, the participants then filled out a short survey based on their experience. We used a mix of qualitative and quantitative measures to assess what they thought about their learning method, why they chose their learning method, how likely they are to use that method again, and how well they understood the rules of the game.
What did we find?
To avoid boring people with a big pile of stats, here are our main condensed conclusions:
1. People who chose the rules booklet chose it for authenticity and fidelity. They chose the rules booklet because it was the “most original one” and they wanted to know they were getting correct information. A lot of our participants did find the rules booklets somewhat confusing, but still ultimately found them detailed and satisfying.
2. People who chose the app wanted something new…and were disappointed. Our participants were super intrigued by the app and thought it was going to be a clear, novel, and engaging way to learn. Unfortunately, they didn’t get want they were hoping for. Our participants had a lot of difficulty navigating through the menus and found the whole experience a lot more annoying than they expected. To be fair, I think this is mostly because the tutorial function isn’t available yet. From what I’ve seen of it so far, the tutorial function looks really promising and could be an excellent, step-by-step guide for new players. But as is, the participants felt they would have been better off using one of the other methods.
3. People who chose the video tutorials got an engaging and informative experience. Based on our findings people who used the video tutorials understood the rules better, were more likely to play their game, and were more likely to use their method again in the future. This method was both the most chosen and most effective of our three methods, which really highlights the usefulness of video tutorials.
4. Most people don’t like reading and want other people to teach them how to play. This was a fairly common trend we found in our participants responses. Participants who used the app or the rules got bored because they had to sit and read through the rules, and many people chose the video specifically because they didn’t want to read. As well, several participants expressed that they wished they could have learned their game by having a real person explain it to them.
Obviously since this was only a preliminary study with a relatively small sample size, you should take all this with a grain of salt. But I think there’s some practical things we can learn from this.
Game Designers: First, I don’t think you need to design the rules booklets with all players in mind. Don’t get me wrong, you should still try to make them as clear and easy to read as possible. But it seems like the kinds of people attracted to the booklet are expecting to read through detailed and dense instructions, so it doesn’t matter so much if they are a bit long and boring. However, I think that board game designers should make video tutorials for their game or collaborate with some of the awesome content creators on YouTube (such as Geek & Sundry, Teach the Table, Triple S Games, or Watch It Played) to make it for them. Based on how many people gravitate to these videos and how effective they are I would also recommend that video tutorials should be the default teaching method for players rather than the rules booklet. It might be a good idea to put a link or QR code to a video tutorial right in the rules booklet or on the game box to help direct new players towards them.
Dized Developers: I think that the Dized app has a ton of potential but has some room for improvement. For its rules function, I think it should try to incorporate more of the images and visual flow you get in the physical rules booklet so that it’s easier to read through in one go. The menus and searchability are useful if you already somewhat know how to play the game, but can be overwhelming for new players that don’t know where to start. I’m also very excited for when the tutorial function gets released later this year, as I think it can address all of the criticisms our participants had of the app (and I’d love to do a follow-up study looking specifically at this feature in the future).
Players: If you take anything away from this, I hope it’s that there are lots of different ways to learn how to play a game. You don’t always need to learn by reading through dense instruction manuals if that’s not your preferred way to learn. You can learn how to play through video tutorials, through apps, from game gurus at a board game cafe, or even from your friends. There isn’t a right way to learn, only the way that works best for you. And once you’ve learned how to play, consider teaching other people how to play too so that our community can continue to grow!
Special thanks to Steve Kaltenbaugh, Wentao Zhuo, Sharmarke Alisalad, and Benjamin Stokes for their help running the study! If we ever do a deeper follow-up study, I’ll make sure to share what we find. How do you like to learn to play board games? Let us know in the comments below!