Dized and Confused: An Exploration of Board Game Learning Methods

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.

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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.

What now?

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.

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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!

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Why Themes Are Impactful! Century: Golem Edition

Good themes can make games better.
Let’s see why, then ask what this means about us as humans.


Case Study: Golem Edition

Century: Golem Edition is basically the exact same game as Century: Spice Road. Some players like the theme of Spice Road because of the wooden bowls and/or the familiarity of the theme. I much prefer Golem Edition, however. The ‘story’ of Golem Edition - discovering crystals, trading them up for better crystals, crafting golems - feels way cooler than farming and trading wooden cubes (spices) for what Spice Road vaguely labels as “score cards” (pictures of cities).

First I’ll describe three good parts of Golem Edition’s theme. Then, we’ll talk about human experience!

1. The theme is unique and invokes wonder.

Exploring for crystals, trading them up with friendly folk, getting big golems that do stuff like build boats or play music: this is a unique theme, and an idyllic world.

To play this game is to be a part of this world. If nothing more than curiosity for what it feels like to DIY golems, this theme makes engagement with Golem Edition sound appealing even before knowing the rules.

2. The crystals feel cooler than wooden cubes.

Fun fact: these crystals are all the exact same cut. However, their design (weight distribution, balancing points, translucence) makes them look unique from one another. Nice!

Considering that players hold and move crystals dozens of times each game, the amount of quality that goes into those pieces is very important as it’s the primary point of contact. Luckily, they feel great, look great and even make cool colour palettes with each other.

The fact that these actually look like crystals is a victory over the abstract cubes that Spice Road uses. Players of Golem Edition engage with the theme (crystals) almost every turn, keeping them in the fantasy of the game.

3. The art is cute - each golem tells a story.

This is how I got my parents into Century. Each golem does something different! These giant powerful beings, acting as playgrounds and anchors and grape-stompers… it’s super endearing. The constituent crystals are even visible in the golems!

This art sets great tone and makes each golem feel desirable; e.g., instead of working towards “score cards” (as labeled in Spice Road) you work towards making giant rock friends. Yeah, they’re also only worth points. But on the other hand, you’ve just assembled a roaming desert house. Acquiring cards to your section of the table, in a direct physical way, lets you look closer at the art and appreciate what’s going on.

Playing any game multiple times wears away its theme, but giving you extra reasons to want these cards is a great way to get you into the game in the first place.


Extrapolation: “Experience”

There’s plenty of games without themes. Many puzzle games like Tetris do just fine.

But when games do have themes, I believe they provide opportunities for us as humans to live multiple experiences: we simulate multiple lives through the lens of imagination and the robust ability for us to (amazingly!) draw experience and conclusions from the things we imagine.

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It’s altogether not that different from practicing instruments or doing mock presentations, except with one additional layer of abstraction.

I posit that when we practice most things, it makes us better at the specific thing we’re practicing. But when we use imagination [whether in a book, movie, game, etc], in exchange for not developing one focused skill, we see a multiplicity of experiences that we can draw from.

For example, while one person’s experience playing Golem Edition may develop efficient planning ability, another person’s experience with Golem Edition may develop their ability to set goals and highlight what they need to get there. Still, others may get value and rejuvenation out of spending time in an idyllic setting with no visible human conflict.

A good theme makes games more interesting to play, yes. But more than that, a good theme makes it easier for players to extrapolate experience from whatever’s going on in a game. Themes helpfully demonstrate how mechanics relate to real-life problems like ‘thinking ahead’, ‘finding efficient opportunities’ or ‘setting goals and working towards them’.

Experience is difficult to qualify yet seems to be an integral focus of desire for many humans in their everyday lives. Seems good if a game can do that.

 

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