Enjoy Learning Board Games: 3 Reasons to Play like a Fool

Are new games stressful when the optimal strategy isn’t clear? Does not-knowing come with negative feelings about your own aptitude or character?

I have an approach to learning board games that’s helped me have more fun, and I hope it can help you too.

Play Like An Absolute Fool:

Make The Most Baseline, Impulsive, Low-Hanging-Fruit, Obviously-Noob Decisions Possible

Sometimes you know a strategy is suboptimal, but there’s only one way to figure out why

Sometimes you know a strategy is suboptimal, but there’s only one way to figure out why

Basically… while the goal of most games is to win, that doesn’t have to be your goal for playing - especially if it’s your first time. There are plenty of other goals…

  • See how far a specific strategy or gimmick can take you.

  • See how much you can [responsibly] upset or amuse someone.

  • Play as if you were a character/faction in the game. Only make choices that your character/faction would ‘realistically’ make (ie, roleplay) and see how you’d fare.

  • See what a ‘default idiot’ strategy looks like, so next time you play, you can learn what differentiates it from a thought-out strategy.

Today we’ll explore three reasons to do that last one.


1: You Learn Faster

It may seem like you wouldn’t learn as much by playing like a fool, but by making incredibly short-sighted and baseline decisions, you make a great control group for yourself. You’re free to experiment, you’re free to take risky moves, and you’re generally able to see what the ‘default’ progress looks like before layering on strategy. That way, once you actually do start using strategy in future games, you can compare to your original fool-game to see exactly how good your strategy fares compared to before.

2: Choice Paralysis is Diminished

“I have to choose it because it has ‘log’ in the name”

“I have to choose it because it has ‘log’ in the name”

Usually choice paralysis comes when you’re having trouble calculating the long-term benefits of each option available to you, and you get nervous about doing the inferior option. I acknowledge it’s easier said than done, but if you can relinquish the need to make optimal decisions and become comfortable with just playing ‘to see what happens’, then there is no longer such thing as the right or wrong choice. Instead, they become ‘tested’ and ‘untested’ decisions, and it’s always up to you which one gets tested.

3: Winning Becomes Less of a Worry

Playing like a fool doesn’t mean disregarding the race for victory, but it does shift the ‘point’ of playing. Instead of your decisions revolving around point-optimization, they’ll revolve around heart-listening-optimization. You’re playing to observe the result of your actions, to see what happens, and that somewhat shifts your goal away from winning this specific game in lieu of better teaching you fundamentals for any games you play in the future.

And, since it’s ‘obvious’ to that you’re probably not going to win this specific game by playing in such a way, with that acceptance comes a freedom to enjoy yourself in every other way.

Learning board games is kind of always rough, but nobody is great the first time they play. It’s okay to be suboptimal. My advice is to lean into that, since you won’t know the best strategy anyway, and to spend your first game exploring your options instead of trying to win.

It’s not necessarily an easy transition to becoming a fool, but if you can swing it, I hope you may find yourself feeling just a little less apprehension when someone decides to bust out a new box on board game night.


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GM Tips: You Don’t Always Need to Roll

In most roleplaying games, rolling dice is an essential part of the game. It adds a nice spice of randomness in determining whether you succeed at something. Want to hit the monster with an axe? Roll to attack. Want to pickpocket the shopkeeper? Roll to steal. Want to move silently past the guards? Roll to sneak. It’s a pretty good system, and most of the time rolling dice is a lot of fun. But I want you to read this example and see if you notice anything off about it:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. Damn, 9. Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: Nope.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Okay.
P: [Rolls] 11?
GM: Nope.
P: [Rolls] 14?
GM: Nope.
P: [Rolls] 18?
GM: Yes, that’s high enough! You slam your shoulder into the door one final time and finally it gives way and thuds to the floor. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

Scenarios like this one happen all the time. The player wants to do something, rolls, and fails. So they try again. And again. And again. Until finally they succeed and the game moves on. So what’s the problem here? The problem is that the rolls are pointless.

Think about it this way: when should we be rolling dice? In my opinion, there are two conditions we need to meet to justify a die roll:

1)     The action has both a chance of success and failure; and
2)     The action’s success or failure carries consequences.

In the previous example, neither of these things are really true. While we could fail an individual roll, since we can keep trying over and over at no cost we are guaranteed to eventually succeed. There’s no real risk of failure. Frankly, the door might as well not exist since we know for certain that we will ultimately break it down.

So as a game master, how could we improve this door challenge? I have four suggestions:

Option 1: If Success/Failure is Guaranteed, Don’t Roll

We already do this a lot in game without realizing it. We don’t ask players to constantly roll Constitution checks to see if they suddenly stop breathing, or Dexterity checks to see if they trip while walking down the street, or a Strength check every time they want to pick up an item. Instead, we only call for these rolls when there’s a chance they might not be able to do it. We ask for a Constitution check when they are trying to hold their breath underwater, or a Dexterity check when they are running on ice, or a Strength check when they try to pick up a massive boulder. Same thing goes for if something is impossible. For example, if a player tries to throw their dagger straight in front of them so hard that it flies all the way around the earth and hits the enemy behind them, in the vast majority of cases we don’t need a die roll (unless there’s some magical shenanigans going on). The game master can just say “nope, that did not work” and move on.

So if you want the players to break down the door, just let them do it:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: Yes you can! You slam your shoulder into the door and it gives way and thuds to the floor. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

And if you don’t want them to break it down, don’t let them try:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: No, the door is too strong. You’ll have to find another way.

Option 2: Make Failure Add Pressure

While option 1 is valid sometimes, it gets boring if you use it too much. After all, dice rolling is fun! So what if failing once or twice isn’t the end of the world, but if you fail too many times there will be consequences? Here’s an example:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. Damn, 9. Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: Nope.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Unfortunately, before you can try again you hear a group of guards shout behind you. They must have heard you banging against the door and have come to stop you. You and your companions turn around and ready your weapons. Everyone, roll Initiative.

Adding in a combat encounter is an easy way to add pressure, but there are tons of other ways to do it. Maybe if they take too long the evil wizard will escape. Or maybe they’ll summon a giant demon. Or maybe they’ll murder some puppies, idk, evil stuff. The point is that if you keep a tally of how many times the party fails at a given task (or how many times they fail across an entire dungeon/campaign), you can use it to create scaling consequences.

Option 3: Make Failure Limit Options

This is a pretty classic solution. If you fail at something, you can’t try it again and are forced to try something new:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: No, the door is too strong. You’ll have to find another way.

While this might feel bad to the player, it actually is an opportunity for the whole party to flex their problem solving skills. Now instead of trying to smash it over and over again they’ll need to get creative. Maybe they could search around for a secret button that unlocks the door. Or maybe they could backtrack and try to find another passage forward. Or maybe they can use a teleportation spell to warp the door to another dimension, idk, players are weird. Keep in mind that if you want to use this option you should think of at least a handful of ways your players could solve their problem. A good rule of thumb I use is think of at least three ways the party could succeed. If you can think of at least three the party can probably think of something.

Option 4: Make Success Into a Spectrum

This one involves a bit of planning. Instead of using a normal Difficulty Check (DC) to determine if an action succeeds, you could set multiple DCs which indicate varying degrees of success (i.e. <6 = critical failure, 6-10 = failure, 11-15 = success, >16 = critical success). Here are some examples:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. Natural 20!
GM: Nice! You manage to shatter the door with one mighty punch. Because you did it so swiftly you are confident that no one will have heard it. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: You slam into the door and the impact echoes down the hall behind you. You charge again, harder this time, and you can feel it begin to buckle. Finally, with one last hit you break the door off its hinges and tumble with it into the room. Just then, you hear a group of guards shout behind you. They must have heard you banging against the door and have come to stop you. You and your companions turn around and ready your weapons. Everyone, roll Initiative.

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. Oh no, a 1!
GM: You charge into the door and feel something crack. For a moment you think it was the door, but then the pain begins to radiate through your body. You’re pretty sure you’ve broken something in your arm and you take [rolls] 8 points of damage. The door looks unharmed.

You as a game master have a lot of creative freedom with this method, which can lead to a lot of interesting scenarios for your players. You can also tinker with the DCs the create the perfect challenge for your players (i.e. How many DCs you want? How spread apart are they? Do you want a DC for critical failure? Do you want one for critical success?), but I’d suggest having around 3-4 different potential outcomes. Keep in mind though that it can take either a lot of preparation or improv skills to do convincingly, so you may not want to use this method all the time.


That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ve got you to think a bit more about when you should roll dice and when you shouldn’t. If you’ve got any other tips about dice rolling, please leave them in the comments below!

 

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Hot Take: I’d Rather You Cheat Than “Play”

This post might be a bit weird and confusing, but this is something I’ve wanted to try to explain for quite some time now so I’m giving it a shot. I’d love to get other people’s thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment. Cool? Cool. Okay, here we go.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater

Cheating is when a player purposefully violates the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage. Think of card counting in Blackjack, stealing money from the bank in Monopoly, or using an aim bot in an FPS. In most cases, cheating caries consequences that extend beyond the game (such as being forced to forfeit the game, being banned from playing again, or having previous victories nullified). The decision to cheat often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, where the player weighs the risks and consequences of getting caught against the benefits and rewards for getting away with it (if you want to learn more about cheating, you can check out this video).

Now don’t get me wrong here, cheating is pretty awful. Cheating can very easily ruin the game for everyone and you shouldn’t do it. But there’s a key idea behind cheating that I want to highlight, which is that cheaters acknowledge that the game matters, but choose to disobey its rules. While this is certainly disrespectful to the game and the players, it at least acknowledges that the game exists and has some value. Which is why there’s something I think is worse than cheating: “playing.”

Magic Is Everywhere…Until Its Not

Magic Circle copy.png

Originating from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and popularized by Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, the Magic Circle refers to the boundary between the game and the real world. It acts as a barrier that allows players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the game. For a moment, the Magic Circle allows the game to matter, even if the game has no impact on the outside world. This might feel a bit lofty and abstract (and if you want to learn more about it this video might help), but the main point here is that the Magic Circle is necessary in order to facilitate play. If the circle is ruined, play is ruined along with it.

This is where “play” comes in. Have you ever played a game with someone that just doesn’t remotely care about the game? Someone who doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening, doesn’t try to learn or understand the rules, is always distracted or on their phone, or belittles the game constantly? In my opinion, this person isn’t playing the game, they are “playing” the game. “Playing” is when someone participating in a game makes no active attempt to engage with the game’s systems or rules. Why do I think this is worse than cheating? It’s because, unlike cheaters, “players” don’t acknowledge that the game matters at all.

Like I said before, maintaining the Magic Circle is critical for a game to exist. If that circle breaks, so does the player’s suspension of disbelief needed to play. But when someone cheats, as awful as it is, it doesn’t necessitate breaking the Magic Circle. Sure, if the offense is severe enough it can shatter it, but cheaters want to maintain the Magic Circle because they believe that the game has value. After all, you wouldn’t cheat if you thought the game was unimportant. This is part of why cheating is typically done secretly, because cheaters don’t want their violation to be known because it would break the spell. But “players” don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about the game and have no desire to maintain the Magic Circle at all. This means that they are constantly openly eroding away at it, until eventually it doesn’t exist anymore. And once that happens, the game is ruined for everyone else that actually wanted to play the game. So while cheating can break the circle, “playing” will break the circle.

“GAME used RULES! PLAYER is confused!”

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just can’t get into a game. Maybe you find the game too confusing, or too complicated, or you just straight up don’t find it fun. And that’s okay. Not every game is for everyone, and you might not find out until you’ve started playing that a game isn’t for you. But whenever you agree to play a game with other people you are making a promise to them that you will attempt to maintain the Magic Circle as best you can. Sometimes, if you’re having a particularly terrible time, you might fail at that. But you can at least say you tried. But if you come into the game intending only to “play,” you’re going back on that promise. All you’re doing is dooming the game from the start and wasting everyone else’s time.

If you want to play, you’re always welcome. But if you only intend to “play,” please stay out of the circle.

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