Learning Board Games Is Hard

I love to play board games, but despite being able to buy new games for like $10 off of Tabletop Simulator on top of practically unlimited free mods in the Steam workshop, I find myself only playing occasionally. A major contributor to this is undoubtedly that I would rather be playing with people, but rarely get to, because my evenings are busy with my professional D&D, but that’s certainly not all of it. I love a good solitaire board game. Partly this is because I don’t like playing the same game over and over again after I’ve already beaten it, nor do I find it easy to muster up the willpower to try again soon after a defeat. But given the number of new (in the sense that I, personally, haven’t played them) games available, shouldn’t that just lead me to trying out new games, failing, rotating other new games in, and eventually coming back to the failed games for another crack at them until they are finally rotated into my “won” pile?

The reason why this doesn’t happen is because learning board games is hard. And I am undecided as to whether this is because rulebooks and YouTube channels are bad at explaining them or because I am bad at learning them. Rulebooks might be chained to some bad habits from the stone age of board games, sure, a poor rulebook will impact sales almost not at all because by the time someone even has the rulebook they’ve already spent $50 on the game and will undoubtedly take the trouble to learn how to play, even if the rulebook isn’t very clear. Fine. Why aren’t “how to play” explainer videos rapidly optimizing? That begs the question, of course, as to whether there are optimizations to make.

And I think there are. The best method of opening a board game explanation I’ve ever heard came from a board game group I was part of back when I wasn’t doing the D&D gig, and it went like this: “Start every explanation by explaining who the players are, what their goal is, and how they’ll accomplish it.” Arkham Horror LCG? “You are an investigator in 1920s Arkham, you’re trying to solve a Mythos mystery, and you do that by collecting enough clue tokens to advance through the act deck before enough doom tokens accumulate to advance through the doom deck.” Castaways? “You are stranded on a deserted island, you must signal a ship for rescue, and you do that by reaching the headland after retrieving and constructing enough items to successfully signal a ship.” Nemo’s War? “You are Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, you’re trying to accomplish one of the four objectives of exploring beneath the ocean, making scientific inventions, liberating oppressed people around the globe, or destroying shipping for revenge on the imperialist powers, and you do that by allocating actions that advance your chosen objective while managing limited resources in an ocean constantly filling up with more and more hostile ships.”

For some reason, these summaries never seem to appear in rules explanations. The premise is often explained to hook an audience, y’know, the whole “this is who you are, this is what you’re trying to accomplish” thing, but rarely do they make it to “and you do that by [insert actual mechanical method of measuring win condition here].” Diving into the mechanics of set up and lists of actions you can take on your turn without establishing what the mechanical end goal is makes it difficult to see why various actions are relevant to victory, doubly so if the game is even slightly abstract.

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