Thursday, July 19, 2007

Game Instruction: Where to Begin

From personal experience, I’ve discovered that many gamers are lousy game teachers. I’ve already written previous articles on general principles of effective game teaching but this article is a specific look at what I perceive to be a big stumbling block to many game instructors – namely: where to begin.

This may seem like a simple subject. However, where a person begins their explanation of a game can have a profound impact on the receptiveness of their learners to the teaching process. Too often, gamers just start in by describing the first rule that comes to mind or the rule/mechanic that is their favorite rule or aspect about the game. The problem with such an approach in the beginning is that many rules need to be described within some sort of perceived context. In other words, a groundwork of understanding has to be established first before certain rules or mechanics will make any sense.

My Personal Approach

To ensure that I always establish that context in the beginning, I’ve personally adopted a somewhat consistent formula that I tend to use when I approach a teaching session. Using this formula helps me remember the essentials of establishing a foundation of perception for the game first and it helps me describe rules and mechanics at their proper time and in a proper context. Here is the general formula I follow:

The name of the game is (game name).

The theme of the game is that each player is (provide player role description) trying to (describe winning conditions in general terms) by (provide general description of methods).

(Identify the nature of the game. Ex. Cooperative, teams, etc.)

(Describe the flow of game: rounds, phases, turns, etc.).

On a player’s turn they will (describe what happens on a turn).

(Continue to describe details of the game, always beginning with the big picture first and then narrowing that big picture down to what happens on players’ turns - defining what a term means before using it and describing what different components and areas are called before referring to them by their proper game names.)

The game ends when (fill in conditions here).

Any questions? (Have brief Q & A session before beginning).

An Example:

So, let’s look at an example of this formula in action using the game “Saint Petersburg”:

The name of the game is Saint Petersburg.

The theme of the game is that each player is an investor spending money to try and gain the most prestige. Prestige is obtained by scoring points in various ways.

The game is competitive – meaning that each player is out for themselves.

The game takes place over the course of a number of rounds. Each round is divided into four phases:

-The Worker Phase
-The Buildings Phase
-The Aristocrat Phase
-and The Upgrade Phase

You will notice that there are four decks of cards – each corresponding to one of the four phases. These four phases proceed in order from left to right beginning with the Worker phase and concluding with the Upgrade phase.

….(continue description)…

On your turn, you may chose one of the following three options:

1. Buy a card off of the board
2. Take a card off of the board and put it into your “hand”
3. Pass

…(continue description – explaining what each of the three available options on a turn mean and how they work)…

…After you have taken your turn, the next player to your left takes their turn and play continues in clockwise order…

...(describe how a phase ends)…

…(certain exceptions to basic game structure often need to be covered) For example…

…if you have previously bought the “Observatory”, and if the game is currently in the Buildings phase, you have a fourth option available to you on your turn. If you choose, you may turn your purchased Observatory over so that it is face down and then select the top card from one of the four decks (continue with description of Observatory)…

Without continuing on, this example should help clarify what I mean by starting the explanation with laying a groundwork of understanding. This is important to grasp because, if a gamer has played a particular game a lot, it can become all too common for the gamer to have lost any perception of what it means to not know the terms and names of the game. For example, if the explainer begins teaching the game by discussing aristocrat endgame points first (perhaps because it is that aspect of the game that most engages the interest of the gamer who is doing the explaining), then here is an example of what is said versus what is understood/thought by the learner.

What is said:

“Okay, let’s begin teaching. With this game, you want to make sure you get a larger diversity of aristocrats because you will score more points at the end of the game if you do...”

What the learner is already thinking:

“What are aristocrats? How do I ‘get’ them? What does he mean by ‘diversity’? Is he referring to just the total number I ‘get’ or does he refer to unique types? Are there other ways to score points?”

The previous example of questions that can arise in the mind of the learner brings up the topic of a good habit to have when explaining games. One might refer to it as "forecasting". Here's what I mean:

When explaining a game, there will always be questions that come up in the learner’s mind and there are times when explanation and clarification of those questions will have to be delayed until enough information has been presented such that the answers would make sense. However, teaching in an ineffective manner raises too many questions too quickly such that the learner is distracted by all of those questions and, thus, isn’t as open to new information. By "forecasting", the explainer helps the learner positively anticipate future information by providing a "forecast" of explanations to come. In other words, you actively help the learner know where you are going with your explanation. Here is an example of forecasting in explaining the game "Ticket to Ride":

"On each turn, you will have three specific options available to you - from which you will choose one on your turn. Your options are:

1. Taking cards
2. Playing cards
3. Taking tickets

Now let's look at what each option means. You can take cards by..."

By forecasting, the learner knows that you will be addressing a topic that they may have a question about - thus allowing them to focus on your current explanation. Without forecasting, the learner may be distracted by trying to make sure that they remember to ask you about that one thing they had a question about.

The opposite of forecasting is simply mentioning each item as it occurs to you. Such an approach can come off as scattered to the learner which makes it more likely that the learner will be distracted by questions that they will need to ask later as they will not feel confident that you are going to cover all of the topics about which they have questions.

The "Story" of the Game

Taking a larger, big picture approach that couches new terms and concepts within some sort of context helps the learner make sense of the new information a lot faster and much more effectively. Essentially, you help establish the "story" of the game from the beginning. Unfortunately, establishing that all-important context at the beginning of the game is something that many gamers neglect when explaining a game. That’s why I have come to use the general formula that I do. It requires me to understand the game’s context well enough to present it in an organized fashion. For example, how would you describe the “role” the players are playing in “Ticket To Ride”? I usually describe it like this:

“The name of the game is Ticket to Ride. The theme of the game is that each player owns a railroad company. Your goal is to establish your railroad company as the most successful by scoring points. You do this by….”

Later on, I might describe “tickets” in this manner:

Think of tickets as contracts that you have made on behalf of your company. By taking a ticket, you have promised someone - be it customers, investors, whomever - that you will connect those two cities with your routes before the game ends. If you have successfully fulfilled your promise at the end of the game by connecting the two cities indicated on a ticket, you will gain the points on that ticket. If you fail to connect the two cities on a ticket, you didn’t uphold your promise and, thus, you lose points.”

This is simply one way of describing what’s going on in the game. The point with this example is that it is an attempt at helping the learner think of the game in terms of some kind of story being told through the game. It provides a context for understanding the mechanics in such a manner that the player’s imagination is more fully engaged in the process. Granted, there are exceptions to these points. If you are explaining a purely abstract game, then there is no story to tell. Nevertheless, appealing to metaphors from time to time during the course of the explanation may help certain mechanics make more sense or at least can make the workings of the rules easier to remember.

The Beginning

If a person begins their explanation of a game by laying the important, initial, contextual groundwork in a logical manner - making sure to use forecasting such that the learner can focus on current explanations with the assurance that as yet uncovered topics will be covered in due course - the learning process can "get off on the right foot" so to speak and the natural flow of the explanation will be greatly enhanced. Where and how a person starts with their explanation can make a big difference.


themothman421 said...

Thanks for this article Mike. I have no shame I have had some horrible teaching experiences due to my teaching method. But your personal approach is great! I was able to teach Shadows Over Camelot to 4 others without a hitch! :)

Mike Compton said...

You're welcome. :)