I love playing board games. They allow you to interact with your friends in a way that video games rarely allow, but they can be problematic. You can’t really get a video game wrong. You can be bad at a video game, and you can fail in a variety of ways, but these blunders and failures usually result in some form of game over screen prompting you to load a previous save.
No such luck in board games, I’m afraid. As Rob Daviau recently said board games are the only form of gaming that require you to pass a reading comprehension exam to learn the rules, then a spoken exam to teach the rules to your friends. As a result of this, it is entirely possible to break a game and either make it unplayable, or unwinnable. There is no engine, no wall of code limiting what you can do with the components of a board game. As a result, if you misinterpret or forget a rule and don’t realise, you could quite easily waste an hour playing a broken game.
This happened to my group recently, playing our first game of Pandemic.
We’re all fairly seasoned when it games to games, both on a table and on a screen, so it might seem a bit strange that we’d never played Pandemic, a game widely considered to be an ‘entry level’ board game. We simply had never been drawn to it, until one of us picked it up and the cheap and we decided to give it a try.
Now the problem. Amongst my friends not only am I the most competent rules-learner, I am also the most competent cook. So, deeming food poisoning to be a higher risk than a broken rule, I delegated my learning and teaching responsibilities to our next best reader whilst I made dinner.
Aside from a couple of moments when we misunderstood the use of the country cards the game ran smoothly. That is, until we realised late in the game that we had already lost. With three of the four diseases cured, two of which had been eradicated, the world was doomed. Whilst our backup rules-master had understood and conveyed the basic mechanics well enough, he had failed to keep the end game and winning conditions in his mind.
Crucially, we thought the game would end when we cured and eradicated all diseases (in which case we would be victorious), or when the outbreak indicator reached the final space. What we didn’t realise was that when the player draw pile ran out of cards, the game would end and we would lose. Which is exactly what happened.
We were peeved, but not because of the loss. We accepted the loss. What irked us was the fact that we had been striving to eradicate a disease after we cured it, wasting precious turns attempting to fulfil a victory condition that didn’t exist. We were unaware that we only needed to discover a cure for the four diseases, not eradicate them entirely. Once our genius minds had discovered humanity’s means of survival it would be left to lesser beings to do the final mopping up, whilst we cleared away the game board.
No, what galled us was the fact that if we’d had one more turn we would have been able to cure the remaining disease and win the game. We wasted precious time chasing goals that didn’t exist, and as a result we failed the easiest difficulty level the game has to offer. That’s embarrassing.
So friends, this is a warning and plea. When you’re teaching your friends a game, don’t start at the beginning. Sure, it’s tempting to open the rulebook and start reading it aloud from front to back. It seems neat and logical. But it’s unhelpful. Always try to start by telling your players who they are and what their goals are. Then get into the nitty gritty of mechanics and strategy, how the game is played. Otherwise, you are doomed.
P.S. I’m thinking of making this into an ongoing feature, documenting the first time I play a new game with my group. A mix of first impressions, rules clarifications and humorous failures.