”Experience is the quality that lets you recognize a mistake when you make it again…”
In this post I wrote about feedback loops in board-games. I left out one very important feedback loop though: The one that happens in the head of the player.
When we play a game we get better. We try a strategy and see it work or fail. We find that this card is strong and that one is weak. We learn.
Now you might be going: ”Well, duh!”. But bear with me, because this has some interesting consequences for board-game design.
The joys of learning
Humans are learning machines. You can see this when you observe kids: Infinitely curious, happy to try anything. Which makes sense: Imagine a kid that wasn’t interested in learning to walk; they wouldn’t be particularly effective in later life… And so the desire to learn is hard-coded into our being.
As adults we’ve left the exploration phase behind. We know it’s a bad idea to grab a burning stove, how our hands work, that bees are to be avoided and that ice-cream is delicious.
That doesn’t mean we stop learning though. Or that the craving for new things to learn goes away. It just means that we have do a bit more work to get to something that gets our neurons firing.
Which is where board-games (and really any form of entertainment) comes in: A system all set up with juicy and intricate rules that we can figure out!
Three levels of learning
Board-games offer three levels of learning:
- The rules
- The system
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Learning the rules
The first part of learning a game is learning the rules. These are what is written in the rulebook or what is explained by someone who has played before.
For most people this is not a particularly enjoyable experience. This is because it mostly comes down to memory; can you remember the rules well enough to get to the next level? Because of this player-aids (and simple-to-remember rules!) are a big boon to games.
For some people (myself included) learning the rules is enjoyable as well. I think this is because simply by learning the rules you already get some insights into the system behind them, which is the next level of learning.
Learning the system
The second part of learning a game is understanding the system. This is how the rules and components interact to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.
In poker the rules say which hand beats which and that you can bet chips based on whether you think you will win the round. Just from reading that however you most likely wouldn’t realize that it’s possible to bluff.
The system is all the interactions that are possible. It’s the difference in Dominion between playing a Smithy and a Village, and then seeing what could happen if you play them both.
For many people there is real joy to be found in this phase of learning the game. That’s because true insight is created. By playing, you figure something out that you hadn’t known before. Eureka!
Learning to win
The final part of the journey is to learn to win. This means understanding the system well enough to know which option is better than another, to find new and more intricate combinations to get even more bang for your scarce resources (see this post for scarcity in board-games).
It is here that you are trying new tactics and strategies, optimizing a single turn or getting the best out of your entire play.
Better: To win, mastering the system isn’t enough; you also need to outsmart your opponent(s), taking the experience of learning to an even higher level!
This is what we mean when we say that a game takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master: Rules that are simple to memorize, but a system that is interesting to delve into and a game that keeps on bringing up new learning experiences.
Learning and replayability
One of the holy grails in board-game design is “replayability”, the possibility to play a game multiple times without it getting boring.
A very good bad example of this is tic-tac-toe. No one in their right mind would play this, right? Well, not true: Kids actually really enjoy this game. For them it is not obvious that you can always play to get a draw. They haven’t learned yet that this is the case. And so they’ll happily keep at it, throwing their full intellectual capacity at it. Until they get it. At which point they’ll be like you and me, not touching it ever again.
The lesson is that as long as there is something to be learned in a game, it’ll stay interesting. I think I’ve played 50+ games of Agricola in my life, but I’ll gladly play another round, because there really is more to be explored.
The way then to increase replayability is by allowing a lot of things to be learned within the game. There are two ways of doing this:
- Adding depth
- Adding ambiguity
Learning in the deep end
“Depth” is one of the other holy grails of board-game design (mostly because it gives replayability!) and it would take an entire blog post (and more!) to go into it (many others have done so, a bit of Googling should get you far).
Just scratching the surface, I would say that depth is “interesting complexity”. One way of incorporating this in your game is having multiple viable tactics and strategies. Each of these can be tried out and players can learn how well they work, which are the best and which combine well.
If it takes 3 tries to really work out a strategy then adding one more strategy just increased the replayability by 3 games…
Once you know something, there is nothing left to learn. It’s gotten boring and thus not worth any further effort. Tic-tac-toe as explained above is a good example of this.
But what if you sortof know what’s going on, but not entirely? This is extremely tantalizing for the human brain: “I’ve figured it out so far, now I want to know the last bits as well!” As long as there is ambiguity, the brain will continue to work on it.
One way of introducing ambiguity is by creating situational dependence. This means that your strategy depends strongly on tactics and the state of the rest of the game.
Imagine you have a good strategy, which needs a combination of resources. In some games you can get these reasonably well, but in others they are scarce. You need to learn more (namely, how to ensure that you get those resources)!
But what if there is no sure-fire way of getting them? Then your strategy will mostly win, but not always. And you’ll continue to wonder what you can do better.
This ambiguity can be the result of randomness. As long as you don’t draw too poor cards or you’re not rolling only ones, your strategy does well. Figuring this out is more difficult than a strategy that does not involve any randomness. At some point however the player is going to catch on and accept that the strategy just can’t be improved, that in the end it’s lady Fortune that decides whether it succeeds or not. And they’ll stop playing the game (or latch on to a new strategy to try).
This is especially the case since randomness tends to be rather “heavy handed”. Sure, sometimes you’ll be exactly 1 resource short, but in many cased you’ll really have way too little (or you’re drowning in the good stuff). When the influence of randomness is so un-subtle, it’s easy to see that it’s the culprit.
A more interesting way of creating ambiguity is through player interaction. This is the way the typical “Euro” game works: ”I could execute my strategy perfectly, if it weren’t for the others players getting in my way!”
If you’re short wood this game, then next game you’ll pounce on it more aggressively. With as a result that another player has a chance to take the stone that you also need. Your priority shifts again next game, but once more you’re missing something. Is this because the strategy is flawed, or does it mean that you just have to be even better at foreseeing what your opponent will do?
Maybe one more game to see if it works this time?
Learning, hard choices and ambiguity
In this post I looked at what makes for interesting choices in board-games. I concluded that an interesting choice has to be hard to make – it should not be obvious which of the options gives the best result.
The learning process in a board-game then is working through the hard choices and – through experience – finding out which option does give the best results.
This allows us to rephrase the part about ambiguity from above in different terms. If there truly is an optimal choice then we need to learn this once and then we (our brain) is done. If however the choice is only optimal part of the time (because of randomness or the actions of other players) then we’re not done learning (and enjoying!) yet.
A tip when playing
Winning is a big part of the enjoyment of playing a game. I hope though that the above has shown that learning the game is just as big a part of the pleasure.
Therefore: Optimize your learning pleasure – don’t look up tips and tricks online. Figure it out for yourself. Even if that means taking a beating.
Board-games give an opportunity to learn, something that isn’t present a lot otherwise in adult life. It is one of the joys of playing and as such should be in the forefront of a designer’s mind.
To allow players to continue to learn within the game, there should be a lot of game space to explore. This can be in broad strokes, in the form of different strategies to try out, but also at a micro level, when trying to get the best out of a chosen strategy.
Ambiguity in outcomes means that the brain hasn’t learned all it can, resulting in a drive to learn and thus to play more.
I already mentioned that “depth” would take an entire blog post to delve into (see what I did there?), so I probably will take the plunge at some point (see what I did there? I’m on a role!).
Ambiguity in board-games is also something I feel that can be explored further. Above are some good opening thoughts, but this can definitely be expanded upon.
I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!
Hi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.
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