On a snowy evening when winter was coming, I sat down to play A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (second edition) by Fantasy Flight Games, introduced to me with much excitement by my friend Emily. And then, as with most complex board games, we sat for about an hour before playing while Emily patiently read out the instructions and explained how the game worked.
As we asked endless questions about the rules, I could feel my enthusiasm ebbing away. My excitement to play was fading because we had to spend so much time learning how to play first.
Board games, it turns out, have one of the worst new player onboarding experiences of all time.
Game of Thrones is a complicated board game, with many layers of interaction. So, it’s the perfect game to use as a case study for how game designers can improve the painful process of getting started playing. In fact, the answer to improving player onboarding in board games is deceptively simple.
Board games need to have varying difficulty levels.
Video games often open with a tutorial, in which the first few easy levels gradually introduce new mechanics to the player. Board games don’t have this tutorial. They plunge players into gameplay that is far too advanced, too quickly.
But we can fix this. Imagine a board game manual that provides rules the same way a video game tutorial does. Instead of giving the player a massive information dump about all the components and what each does, it introduces the components gradually, on a need-to-know basis.
This ideal manual is organized by difficulty levels, containing sections ranging from “just starting out” to “expert”, which each provide the minimum amount of information to get players into the game as quickly as possible. (Of course, more difficult sections would build on previous, easier ones.)
For example, instead of describing what ALL the action tokens do in one section, the manual should introduce only the basic action tokens in the “just starting out” level. In a sense, game designers would need to reverse engineer their complicated systems in the full game to develop playable partial versions.
In stripping the Game of Thrones board games to its bare bones, I’ve outlined five steps for creating a basic board game, based on establishing purpose, developing mechanics, and finally adding flavour (such as randomness).
Five steps for designing a board game
1. Determine goal and win condition (what is this game about?)
2. Establish the game’s turn structure (what happens each round?)
3. Introduce necessary frameworks
4. Introduce necessary interactions
5. Add elements of randomness and flavour
Each of the steps above can be embellished as much as the designers choose in the final product. However, initially, it’s important to include all of these elements but keep them at a bare minimum for the lowest difficulty level. This will introduce players to the game and familiarize them with how it works, giving them a groundwork to build upon.
To illustrate the complexity of the Game of Thrones board game without going into as much detail as the 32-page instruction manual, I have prepared this chart that shows three potential difficulty levels. These levels add layers of complexity by tweaking design elements across purpose, mechanics and flavour of the game.
|Basic||Intermediate||Advanced (full game)|
|How to win?||Conquer 5 castles||Conquer 6 castles||Conquer 7 castles|
|Units in play|
Consider that only the “advanced” level is in the real game rules, so you have to learn all the information at once.
Managing difficulty is an important task for any game. For board games, giving players the option to have an easier point of entry would greatly reduce frustration. It would reduce the time between wanting to play and being able to play, and allow players to have a smaller, more manageable ruleset to remember when playing for the first few times.
Different difficulty levels would also allow players to learn the game by actually playing a version of it, which makes a lot of sense. Additionally, it would extend the longevity of the game by increasing its replay value, because there are “new” things you would not yet have tried.
Be your own game designer.
The next time you are faced with the frustration of playing a really complicated board game, I encourage you to take the game apart, strip it down to its core elements, and tweak its rules to simplify it for a first playthrough. Then, when you’re ready, increase the difficulty of the purpose, and gradually add mechanics and flavour back to the game.
The board game designers have provided you with a framework and their rules, but you don’t have to listen to them. You’re in control of designing your experience, so go on, reduce that initial frustration, or take out the parts you find boring.
Design how you want to play the game.