Tuesday, January 27, 2015

High Difficulty Threshold

Many aspects of the adventure gaming hobby present high difficulty thresholds for newcomers unfamiliar with activities such as roleplaying games, wargames, specialty card games, and particularly miniature wargames. This barrier to entry can discourage many people interested in dabbling in such supposedly enjoyable pursuits (and I’m not even going to mention the issue of the financial cost of immersing oneself in the hobby). Different elements of the hobby have tried to address the difficulty threshold with various “beginner” or “quick-start” products. Certainly the recent popularity surge in Euro-style board games (or whatever you want to call them) has successfully presented any aspect of adventure gaming to engage the general public.

Top: AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
Middle: Panzer Leader Rules
Bottom: Settlers of Catan Rules
A simple graphic comparison of some of the materials from the early days of the adventure gaming hobby show major differences with rules for modern Euro-games. I took a look at the rules and handout from Avalon Hill’s classic Panzer Leader game (1974) and flipped through TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) before looking at the game rules for Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan, arguably the first Euro-style game to break into the mainstream American gaming market and possibly ignite the recent interest in quality board games. All rules are black-and-white, but the earlier ones present readers with a “wall of text” on most of their pages, while the Euro-game rules employ plenty of white space, larger type, clear organization, and numerous images of game components. Now certainly wargames and roleplaying games have since modernized their graphic design and approach in rules presentation – with collectible card games sporting wonderful graphics yet still employing multiple layers of increasingly complex rules – but they still require a serious investment in time and comprehension to play.

Most people familiar with typically mundane “family” board games like Monopoly, Sorry!, and Battleship expect rules to take up no more space than the inside cover of the box (as they used to, instead of separate rule sheets nowadays) and trust the core mechanics remain simple enough for kids to understand. Making the leap to more involved games requires time and effort to comprehend complex rules and unconventional components, beyond the other barriers of price, availability, and social stigma. To further complicate the issue, each type of adventure game presents its own challenges:

Wargames – arguably the oldest of the adventure gaming hobby pursuits – continue as an extremely niche market, especially when most wargaming activity now occurs on computers at every level from straight simulation of a chit-and-board game to first-person shooter combat games. They can sometimes overwhelm newcomers with wall-of-text rules presentation, small chit-pieces crammed with coded numbers and symbols, a host of different unit types, and numerous rules for movement and combat taking into account unit differences and terrain. Some have long set-up times and most take several hours to play. The recently published wargames I’ve seen still cling to this format. Some other games might fall into the wargaming category – particularly “battle games” like Richard Borg’s Battle Cry and more recent Memoir ’44 – but these often rely less on small cardboard-chit units and maps with similarly sized hexes and more on plastic miniature pieces and large hex maps with customizable terrain tiles, as well as full-color, graphically pleasing rulebooks, simpler mechanics, and shorter play times...more akin to Euro-games than their wargaming ancestors.

Miniature wargames sometimes offer a more appealing visual presentation in their rules, including photos of painted miniatures on crafted terrain, but they also suffer from a high financial cost beyond the rulebook and lots of additional work to paint miniatures and prepare terrain. They can consume an entire tabletop and can take hours to set up and complete. The rules themselves can prove complex in their own way.

Collectible card games – relative newcomers to the adventure gaming scene – might seem accessible to new players at first, but their complexity of rules and the exponential combinations of card effects interacting with each other as exceptions to core mechanics can quickly escalate frustration. The collectible card game model relies on continued expansions adding more cards, more rules, and more exceptions to enhance or complicate play. Organized play can also prove discouraging to newcomers just starting to learn the game but frustrated with power players at tournaments.

Roleplaying games often have large rulebooks, multifaceted systems, and sometimes unfamiliar settings; they also face the challenge of conveying what to many is a completely new form of game experience that – despite some degree of acceptance in popular culture – extends beyond the usual public’s experience with traditional fare like the family board game. Despite the prevalence of numerous “beginner” editions of various roleplaying games, Dungeon! remains perhaps the best transition between traditional family board games and roleplaying games by introducing the dungeon delve concept with various elements of Dungeons & Dragons (characters and classes, monsters, traps, and treasure, all ruled by the ever-powerful random die roll).

As critical – and broadly generalized – as these assessments might seem, I remain a fan of most of these game forms, but only after persisting in my desire to understand and play them. As a teenager I spent an entire weekend reading and absorbing the Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and even then didn’t fully comprehend all the rules. I’ve owned a few chit-and-board wargames in my time, usually those that don’t really rely on the traditional half-inch unit chits (Kingmaker was my first, B-17: Queen of the Skies arguably remains my favorite, though I recently gave 1776 a solitaire play). I continue dabbling in miniature wargames as my budget and painting-time allows, though I’m more inclined toward “light” miniature wargames with pre-painted components and easier rules like Wings of War/Wings of Glory and the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game. I’ve tried introducing newcomers to my favorite adventure games through running numerous Star Wars Roleplaying Game demos and games, participation in public library gaming events, designing quick-start and beginner-friendly introductory material, and developing games specifically for kids and newcomers (including Valley of the Ape).

Bringing newcomers into the adventure gaming hobby has long been one of my core missions as a participant in the adventure gaming hobby, both as a consumer and producer of game materials. Part of this stems from many gamers’ constant need for additional players; part comes from an enthusiasm for sharing my particular entertaining and sometimes educational hobby; part comes from a parental urge to tear kids away from the ubiquitous and overwhelming electronic media and introduce them to a more social hobby; and part bleeds over from my interest in other geeky fandoms, particularly those focused on Star Wars and other media properties. My efforts in this mission have ranged from introductory adventure games and quickstart handouts to solitaire tutorial adventures and kid-friendly games.

Mission Objective

So how do we introduce newcomers to the more complex aspects of the adventure gaming hobby? Presenting established rules so newcomers can read, comprehend, and play them often poses a dilemma: how can one distill an existing game into a form both comprehensible to newcomers yet still retaining the spirit of the original?

Thanks to its specialized and often personally customized nature, much of the adventure gaming hobby relies on the more effective demonstration approach for teaching rules rather than book-based instruction. Most games by their very nature rely on social interaction, so it only seems logical that showing proves more effective than simply reading, even if that approach hinders a more rapid spread of gaming. Reading, however, still remains the principle means for newcomers to explore adventure gaming on their own before stepping forward to seek other players or experienced groups.

Adventure gaming materials in general have evolved toward far more appealing designs than those pictured above. Full-color rulebooks have almost become standard – with appealing artwork and diagrams showing off the color printing – while hard-cover editions or boxed sets filled with novelty components offer a higher perceived value to attract customers. In some cases game designs have included more clarity or simplicity for ease of play, but many adventure gaming products still cater primarily to an existing hobby clientele familiar with the intricacies and eccentricities of such fare.

Goodness knows the roleplaying game industry has tried every tactic creating suitable versions of its games for a newcomer audience – I should know, I designed a few – but no solid evidence beyond the anecdotal exists to demonstrate how such efforts attract even a small portion of those tempted to pursue the hobby beyond their initial foray. You can even find websites introducing newcomers to roleplaying games like Learn Tabletop RPGs; its impressive array of examples, videos, and suggested games seems like a good starting point (though I’m not sure all its suggested games are appropriate for beginners).

I’ve previously featured different games for both kids and adults that stand just beyond the realm of comfortable family board games, ones that expose them to the possibility of more involved rules. Games like Robot Turtles, Forbidden Island, Dungeon!, the X-wing miniatures game, and King of Tokyo, and Tsuro stray from the norm, introducing engaging themes with unconventional gameplay (from the perspective of family board game fare) and whet their appetite for more.

Euro-games have made inroads in exposing the general public to more substantive board gaming, having gained a greater presence in Barnes & Noble bookstores (along with a host of other toys and non-book materials) and have even found their way into mainstream big box stores like Target, primarily thanks to the effort of the YouTube Geek & Sundry channel and Wil Wheaton’s engaging Tabletop YouTube series.

A few other venues exist for introducing more substantive gaming to the general public, most notably public library game days (usually geared toward teens) and events at the Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). Game conventions serve as excellent places for newcomers and kids to learn new games, though children attending cons tend to have parents actively engaged in the hobby and are thus somewhat more predisposed to understand and enjoy such games.

These various issues centering around the high difficulty threshold raise yet another question: do publishers and players have a mission to actively ensure the hobby’s survival by attracting newcomers, or does the hobby simply continue through the very existence of core producers and a die-hard audience? Is the basic act of players inviting newcomers to try their games – in a self-serving yet necessary mission to find new players – enough to perpetuate and even advance the hobby?

Want to share your strategies for introducing games to newcomers? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.