I have a theory that we are ‘dumbing down’ family games for adults, rather than children. I think that a child’s ability to cope with complexity far outweighs a parent’s ability to learn and teach the game. Reading a rulebook seems to be the real hurdle in making a more complex game that has mass market appeal. 

I realised this was a problem when several adults (not regular gamers) said they didn’t play my coaster games because they didn’t want to read the rules. The rules are on the back of the coaster and obviously very short. It’s a problem.

I wonder if the drive towards language independent games (that can easily be distributed to multiple countries) has added to the density of the rulebook teach. Of course, we don’t want overly-wordy cards or components, but there must be some middle ground.

So, as designers, how can we be creative about the way we design games so that the game itself teaches you how to play? Video games do this all the time. You sit down and through playing the game you discover the rules, the controls, the mission and the powers. There are also a few good examples within the tabletop world.

Sleuth Box – one of my Coaster Games

Examples of games that teach you how to play

Some escape games use an ordered deck of cards, which instruct you in how to play as you progress through the deck. “Don’t flip the next card until…” for example. But these games are designed to be played once only. The system can be taught through the gameplay, because there aren’t any returning players to annoy

Friedemann Friese created a series the Fast Forward series – three games (Fear, Fortress and Flee), each containing an ordered deck of cards and no rulebook. The first few cards give you basic rules, then new rules are introduced later. These games are designed to be fully resettable and if you play them again, the experience won’t be exactly the same, but they don’t really offer the replayability most players are looking for.

Campaign and legacy games introduce new rules as you play – sometimes on new cards that come out – though most have a comprehensive rulebook to get you started, and again, they’re not designed for replayability. Not all, however… MicroMacro: Crime City is a great example – you can even start to play the game before you open the box. 

Then there’s Fluxx. The central premise in Fluxx is that the rules and goal keep changing as players play new cards. There’s a rulesheet included – much of which is FAQs. It would certainly be possible to transfer the base rules of Fluxx onto the top few cards and just have the FAQs on the sheet.

MicroMacro: Crime City

Perception of complexity

For a simple game, it’s possible that just by moving the base rules onto a few cards could alter the perception of complexity by some players. The rulebook – any rulebook – can be seen as a huge barrier. 

Those of us who are immersed in the hobby gaming world, may have a love/hate relationship with rulebooks, but mostly we accept that they are necessary. We expect to have to learn the game before we can play it. We probably have lots of experience with reading rules. We have knowledge of basic mechanics, game structures and language, which helps us interpret rules quickly. So it’s easy for us to forget how problematic rulebooks can be for people who don’t play games regularly.

How can we reduce the perception of complexity when creating games for the mass market?

Fog of Love uses a card-based tutorial system

Learn by using a play through guide

Some games have tutorial or quick-start guides that are designed to give an alternative way to learn the game. Instead of reading the rulebook (which will also be included), you can pick up the quick start guide (which could look like a rulebook or perhaps a deck of cards, as in Fog of Love) and follow some prescribed turns in order to learn while seeing how the game actually plays.

These quick start modes are of variable quality and provoke marmite responses. But in these cases, it’s not really the game that’s teaching you how to play – it’s a separate guide that you are following. These guides give a nod in the direction of a rulebook-free game, but don’t go all the way there. 

Different paths

Here are three different options. All have merit. All are interesting. All should be explored, though they are different. 

  1. Entirely rulebook free games. Games that teach all the rules in their entirety.
  2. Games that teach all the rules through gameplay but have a reference sheet for you to refer back to as needed. 
  3. Games that have very light rules – outlining only the base game actions and aim – with complexity added by the game. 

Tabletop Network

In November, I attended the Tabletop Network, a board game design conference which precedes BGGCon in Dallas, Texas. On the first day of the event, participants split into groups to do a deep dive on a design topic of their choice. I suggested this idea of ‘designing the teach into the game’ and it became one of the chosen topics.

Over the course of the day we talked a lot around minimising the rulebook barrier. Much of the discussion involved the role of the publisher. Publishers usually take most of the strain when it comes to deciding how to best teach the game to players. They will work on making the graphic design intuitive and easily understandable and create the layout and structure of the rulebook. We came up with a list of recommendations for publishers, which I shall perhaps share in a future blog. 

But what became clear during the day was how hard it is to actually design games that include the teach. We came up with a few ideas during the day and I’ve thought about these more afterwards. We were particularly thinking about games that are designed to be completely replayable. 

Attendees at Tabletop Network 2023

Some design ideas

Here are a few ideas. Some are more developed than others. Some are small ideas that could fit into a larger design, but don’t entirely solve the teach themselves. Some of these ideas are designed to reduce the complexity load of the rulebook and build/reveal complexity as you go through the game. 

1. Jigsaw player board. Players start with a 1 piece player board which explains one or 2 actions you can take on your turn (e.g. pick up 1 and play 1). The board will have at least 1 bump, like a jigsaw piece. Some sort of objective is shown on the bump. When you complete that objective, you add to your board, which gives you more actions you can take. It has to be obvious that it is an objective you need to meet and how you meet it – through good graphics, if possible. Kudos to Dylan Kistler for this idea.

2. Variable rules, objectives and rewards. Rules vary from game to game and are generated by a deck of rule cards. Shuffle and flip 3 or 4 to reveal the rules of this game. Similarly, with a deck of objective and reward cards, you could flip a card (or tile) that defines what all players are aiming for and possibly how they are to do this. E.g. “Fill 1 Bucket”. When this objective is completed (by anyone), flip a card that shows what the reward is for the first objective and flip a new objective. 

3. Audio teach. An audio component that is integral to the gameplay – i.e. the game absolutely needs the audio. This audio component could have two versions – the version that explains why you’re doing certain things as you do them and the version where you can silence the explanation. 

4. QR coded components. Each component has a QR code on it. The codes take you to very short (20 second) videos that explain what that component does. Yes, this may sit more in the publisher domain, but it would have to be designed into the game in the first place, because you would need to be able to learn about the components in any order as you pull them out of the box. Explanations could include links to overall game aims, theme and set up. (It’s worth noting that there is a technical requirement here, which could add a different barrier.)

5. Board as flowchart. Design a board around a flow chart that fully leads a player through their turn. For example, start at the top of the board, roll the dice, go down a path according to the dice outcome. Make a choice at this spot, which sends you down a further split. Pay a resource if you want to go down a special path. When you reach a dead-end, your turn is over. 

I know these ideas barely scratch the surface of what is possible. If you have ideas, I’d really love to hear them. If you’re struggling to think of ideas to add to this list, it might be a good design exercise to work backwards from a finished game – yours or someone else’s – and work out what design changes you’d make in order to integrate the teach. 

Some of our working at Tabletop Network