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.

maxresdefault.jpg

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.

600.png

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!

Thanks for reading! If you like our blog consider signing up for our newsletter. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Stay lofty!

On the Shoulders of Giants: Game Maker’s Toolkit

A few months back I wrote this blog post about one of my biggest influences, Egoraptor. And since I’m currently drowning in finals, now feels like a good time for another short shout-out post. This time I wanted to share Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit. I’ve mentioned his work a few times before in my rant about Mindtrap and in my blog post on genres, but given how much of an influence his work has been on me I wanted to take the time to give him the attention he deserves.

Game Maker’s Toolkit (GMTK) is a YouTube channel that focuses on game design. Their videos cover a wide range of topics including level design, difficulty, narrative structure, and game mechanics. I’ve watched every video they’ve made, and I find myself revisiting their older videos from time to time. I appreciate how clear and accessible Mark’s videos are, and how you can jump into any of them even if you don’t know anything about the topic he’s discussing. They are all well researched, engaging, and easy to follow. I’ve learned a lot from GMTK and incorporated many of their lessons into my own games. I even cited one of their videos in a paper I wrote for Games in Society last semester (this one if you’re curious). If you’re at all interested in learning more about making games, I highly recommend giving them a try.

This one is the first in a series about designing for disability. It really opened my eyes to how implementing some small adjustments can make your game more fun and accessible for everyone.

This one is part of GMTK’s Boss Keys series, in which Mark breaks down the level design in the Legend of Zelda. He’s also since branched out and started looking at the level design in other franchises, such as Metroid and Castlevania.

And finally, this one is about Roguelikes and progression. While I don’t personally agree with everything he says, the video still offers a really interesting perspective on the genre.

Thanks for reading! After you’re done checking out GMTK make sure to sign up for our newsletter. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Stay lofty!

 

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!

 

If you liked this blog post why not roll on over to our newsletter sign-up? That way you can keep up with all things Cloudfall. You can also check out our Facebook and Twitter.

Stay lofty!