Monday, January 25, 2016

How to introduce games to beginners

Last few gaming sessions it fell to me to introduce relatively new players to games they've never played before. Of course explanation of the rules was in order, but I think there's a much more important part of the introduction that's going to set how the game is going to go - selling the game.

It's not a surprise to anyone who plays boardgames or has seen the filled to the brim shelves of a boardgame collector or a serious games store that many boardgames look intimidating. The size of the boxes, or the unappealing art, or titles that suggest ponderous industrial machinery
Doesn't he look like he's having fun?
may turn players away from what could actually turn out to be a really great experience. So selling a game involves both convincing players that it can be a fun experience and setting the mood of the game. So what I like to do when introducing a game isn't to throw out a bunch of terms like "it's a worker placement game" or "it's an area control game", or to immediately launch into a rules explanation ("in this game we are going to be collecting resources and then trading them!") but to describe the theme of the game and what the players are supposed to play as (not what they DO in game vis-a-vis moving tokens or playing cards, but what their characters/nations/merchants/whatever are doing in the game). So here are some evocative (or at least somewhat evocative) ways that I described some fun introductory games to new players.

Pandemic: there are viruses spreading unchecked! We are a bunch of scientists working together to cure those viruses before the human race is doomed!

Puerto Rico: we are governors of New Spain lording over towns and plantations, competing to see who can build the best city and send the most goods to Spain!

Francis Drake: we are English privateers sailing to the Spanish Main and then burning and looting right through it for a chance to win the favour of the Queen!

Orleans: we are French lords and we are building the best damn Medieval society we can! (this can also work for Castles of Burgundy)

Race for the Galaxy (or Roll for the Galaxy): we are developing our own unique galactic civilizations and creating an epic space opera.

Galaxy Trucker: we are building awful rickety spaceships, loading them up with goods and then racing them. Horrible hilarious things will happen to our ships!

Lords of Waterdeep: we are a scheming cabal working against each other to control a city from the shadows. We are going to send a lot of adventurers to their doom!

This tells the players the theme and get them interested. Now arguably the gameplay is more important than the theme (there are some really theme-less or bland-themed games with amazing gameplay, and some games with great theme but crappy gameplay), but the theme is what gets the players interested in trying the game in the first place.

The second thing I do is compare the boardgame to a video game or a movie or a book or a TV show that the players are familiar with and that invokes the mood of the game. Instead of comparing to another boardgame, compare it to Firefly (Galaxy Truckers or Xia), or Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica game or Resistance), or Apocalypse Now, or Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings and so on. When I bring up this comparison I also try to point out WHO in this movie/book/video game the players represent ("so some of us are going to be like humans, and some of us are going to be like Cylons").
I know at least one of you is a Cylon. I mean government spy!
 It gets players invested not in the gameplay mechanics but in what the game is like - what the experience promises to be. Why do I think setting the mood is important? Because that's what's going to carry the game. Introduce the game as something silly and fun and that's the mood that'll prevail at least with some players. Introduce the game as full of intrigue, paranoia and secrets and players will be more likely to mistrust one another. Mood makes people play a role (you could almost say ROLE play...?) and immerse themselves in the game. For example in Puerto Rico you build plantations and warehouses and put things on ships. Hardly immersive right? And yet, right off the bat the players - once properly introduced to the game - started playing the roles of a corrupt governor, scheming merchant, declaring vendettas against each other (even though the game doesn't have any overtly aggressive mechanics) and it was just FUN!

The last thing I do in the introduction is give an example of something cool that a player can do in the game. Long before explaining the actual rules I can tell the players "Oh yeah, and you can totally double-cross people or totally play it straight and still win" or "you can marry the King of France and then have him assassinated and it's GREAT!" or "you can summon this huge monster that can kick everyone's ass!" I believe that what people get excited about in a game isn't necessarily the actual winning but other things you get to do. You can accumulate victory points in nearly every boardgame nowadays so there needs to be something else cool about your game to get players (especially new players) excited.
"Sometimes I get hard thinking about victory points." Said by no one ever.
 I don't think that people get excited about play Monopoly (although I don't know anyone who does get excited about playing Monopoly) because they get to roll dice and the object of the game is to bankrupt your friends. They get excited because they get to hold big wads of cash and plop hotels down and gleefully tell someone to pay their rent for a change. So single out one cool thing you can do or have done in the past in the game and tell new players about it. It will also give them a potential strategy to think about when they start playing and I think that's more important than explaining every single rule in minute detail.

So TL;DR for introducing a game to new players:
A. Tell them who they are playing in the game and what is the theme of the game.
B. Compare the boardgame to a book, movie, comic book or TV show that has a similar theme.
C. Tell the players what cool things they can do in the game.

What do you think? What's the best way to "sell" a game to new players?