Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Be Prepared Teaching Games

Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

Louis Pasteur

I wasn’t in Boy Scouts very long, probably about a year, but I learned a few things (many of them not well). How to use a pocketknife safely. How to tie knots. How to navigate using a map and a compass. How to endure the mistreatment inevitably coming your way as the shortest, scrawniest kid. And, of course, the importance of being prepared. I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind as I’ve stumbled through all the challenges life has unexpectedly dumped on me over the years. I’ve found having a mindset of preparedness has helped me introduce new games – or the new experience of games – to a host of people. Sometimes I’ve done this with a few friends in the comfort of our home. Other times I’ve prepared for games in more public venues like museums, libraries, and conventions, often for strangers. I’ve learned from experience...both successes and failures. In a world where “overthinking things” still retains a societal stigma (though more of us admit and accept it), it’s nice to know being well-enough prepared can pay off. Especially when teaching games to new players.

I’ve witnessed (and also been responsible for) flagrant lapses in game preparedness when sharing new games. Like the time I was enamored of a new, streamlined fantasy roleplaying game system and decided to run it at a convention foolishly relying on my cursory familiarity with the mechanics (including character creation, when I usually rely on my own pregenerated characters). Like the time someone had a complex board game requiring four players (at least) and, after having us all help punch out and sort all the tokens, struggled collectively through the rulebook and turn procedure...only to find we’d overlooked one player’s unique special ability necessary to have any chance at winning. Like the time I joined a convention wargame with which I had some familiarity only to find the organizer and his friends had an incomplete understanding of the system, were in fact missing an entire page of charts necessary for combat resolution, didn’t have markers to indicate unit strength, and were using a large battlefield strewn with too many units for the game to smoothly handle. None of these experiences proved entertaining for me, either as the host or a player.

This isn’t to say puzzling through a new game’s rules isn’t a valid activity; that’s a game exercise of it’s own kind. It’s one thing to try this with patient, gaming-savvy friends, but an entirely different process with those unfamiliar with games (or a kind of game) or with little or no experience with the adventure gaming hobby. This process can frustrate folks who just want to learn a new game from someone familiar with the rules and get on with playing it. (Although I have encountered players who – regardless of how well a host knows and explains the rules of a new game – must thoroughly scrutinize the rulebook beforehand, often under the assumption that, if the somewhat knowledgeable host gets a rule wrong or forgets a rule, the host is intentionally cheating.)

Gamers, uh, find a way.
At the very basic level, to teach someone else the game we ourselves must understand the game. A good deal of this comes from reading the rules and examining the components and how they all work together. But we have no substitute for the knowledge and experience gained from playing the game, which poses a paradox when we aren’t familiar enough to teach others to play it in the first place. Yet gamers will find a way. Perhaps wargamers are most familiar with the idea of solo play – the kind where you play against yourself as opponent – as a practical means of exploring aspects of a game. Wargaming doyen James Dunnigan summed it up best:

Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers. The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent.... For those players who do like to play with opponents, solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success.”

Solitaire play of this kind – as our own opponent – enables us to test-drive a game by ourselves without having to teach anyone else how to play. While this can provide a satisfying game experience on its own, it also proves an ideal way of learning first hand how a game works so we can teach others how to play based on our own experience. We can take the time to consider moves, consult the rules, fumble through turn phases, re-do turns or actions we mess up, and better understand how all the components and procedures work together. This varies among game types, being a bit easier for board and card games, board wargames, and even miniature wargames. Roleplaying games seem a bit more challenging in this regard, but activities like creating characters, using them to try out rules, and running some sample encounters, or even an entire adventure, can go a long way toward a greater understanding of game mechanics. Cooperative games with solitaire mode remain ideal for this kind of learning, as they have a built-in capacity for solo play; although, one might argue, they’re probably the easiest to figure out the rules collectively as a group, since everyone’s working together.

In this Internet Age we also have plenty of resources to help us learn games beforehand and to teach them to others, most notably “how to play” videos like those from the affable Watch It Played folks. (And I’ll confess to searching for such videos before deciding to purchase games about whose mechanics, themes, and play style I know little.)

Teaching folks a new game is like hosting a social gathering (and often I’ll use the term “host” in place of “referee” or “gamemaster”) The paradigm of “host” helps attune ourselves to the importance of preparation when teaching others a new game. When we host a social gathering we have plenty on our checklist to prepare: tidy and clean the house, plan a menu, buy snacks, line up potential entertainment or activities. We also approach it with an eye toward gracious hospitality, doing our best to take care of all guests and make sure they feel comfortable and welcome.

It’s easy to let our enthusiasm to bring a new game to the table override the need to fully understand it to teach others how to play. Some in the adventure gaming hobby still express a stigma about playing games solitaire, especially those meant for multiple players. Using all the tools to prepare ourselves to teach a new game can help contribute to a more positive experience for newcomers, especially non-gamers, and make it more likely they’ll come back for more.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin

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