Processing a first play thrashing

As I play more and more board games with family and friends, one of the things I am starting to notice and examine is the way people react to the first play of a game. This is obviously a very important discussion for any game designer as they are going through the prototype stages of their game.

The key difference is that with a final product, the game isn’t going to change (excluding an expansion…of course, publishers ask for more money to acquire those little beauties).

I am the type of player who can enjoy most styles of board games — I won’t say all — but most. Several of the individuals who I generally get to play with have more direct, more black-and-white responses to a game. So, I want to discuss a few of my observations of other players and also discuss what I have noticed about my own internal reflections of a new game.

  • Lengthy rules. For some people, lengthy rules are a huge barrier. For a person who doesn’t like sitting more than 3-5 minutes listening to rules, a game already has a big hurdle to get over because the initial impression is sour. I have seen examples where enjoyable experiences overcome this, but starting out negative towards a game isn’t the best situation. Because of this, I am constantly trying to improve the way I introduce and teach games. That said, some games just require a lot of ‘education’ before you play –> and appreciate the ones that create tutorials to teach you the game as you play.
  • Harmful interactions. There are also players whose opinion of a game will deteriorate throughout the play if there are harmful interactions (oft referenced as ‘take that’). For some, a fun strategic board game experience is a personal quest — my board, my actions, my points — let me do my best and see how I do. These players may despise seeing their plans interrupted because a competitor forced them to do this, or that, or the other (changing an action, reducing abilities, enforcing damage, ruining a construction, stealing a resource).
  • Unenjoyed mechanism. Now this is probably true for any game player, but some players have harder stances and pre-conceived notions going into a game…once again, creating a negative start (if they even sit down to play the game at all). Maybe its social deduction, story-telling games, area control, dice rolling for combat, etc. I have played many games that managed to utilize a mechanism, that I don’t generally enjoy, but make it work in an overall composition that exceeds expectations.

One specific situation that I want to focus on today, though, is when a player experiences a really bad loss in their first play.

Now, one thing to address is the purpose of playing the game. For some, the goal is simply to win. With players focused on outcomes, sometimes you get individuals who generally just like games they are good at winning — in that case, losing a game the first time it is played can be an immediate turn off. That is not at all my style, but I guess I can understand — if you prefer winning, why continue playing a game that you lost at — aren’t as good at. Another version of the outcome-focused player is the individual who loves great competition. In this case, a loss is frustrating, annoying…but if the game felt either “competitive” or “conquerable”, it may very well achieve many more plays.

For the remaining group, it is my belief that ‘fun’ is the top priority of playing a game — and honestly, one of the least fun things in gaming is to get mightily beaten in a Thrashing!

Good times, Rangers fans….good times!

And so, let’s now focus in on this gaming scenario. You sit down to learn and play a new game and you come out of that experience having, not only lost, but lost bad….quickly, by a huge margin, or something along those lines. A thrashing is not always quantitative, but you know it when it happens to you. For some, that ordeal alone could be the death knell for a game, regardless of its quality.

What takes a person beyond that encounter, though? For some, it may simply be the attitude that I only have a few games and I will keep playing what’s around. Others have passive attitudes and will continue to play a game just because someone else really enjoys it.

I’m more interested in discovering the desire to keep playing a game after a major defeat:

  • The learning experience — I think this is a key factor. After the game is over and there’s a chance to think about the defeat and what happened -> is it possible to identify poor decision points, to notice what worked for another player, to learn…? If this is the case, then many times playing the game again is actually an exciting prospect, “You know, I’m pretty sure I can do better next time.” These lousy gaming experiences can actually translate into wonderful, future moments — it is wonderful when a game provides us the means to see ourselves grow, to learn, to unlock the puzzle.
  • The mechanisms and/or the story — In other situations, after a sound Meeple Beatdown, I believe it is possible to still have a positive outlook on the board game because we simply enjoyed the mechanisms involved in playing the game; or in some cases, the journey or story that is told through the gameplay. Maybe you are horrible at the Game of Life, but you enjoy moving your car along the track, getting a job, getting married, having kids and sticking those little pink and blue sticks into your car…. Maybe you love worker placement and just getting to tell your little Meeple sycophants where to go and what to do gives you the smiles regardless of the outcome. Or maybe you are bad at bluffing and never win One Night Ultimate Werewolf, but you love the social interaction, the laughing, and fun that occurs each round. It can be wonderful when you find a game that goes far beyond winning and losing — that is just simply fun to play.
  • Hope. And maybe this one is similar to ‘learning experience’ listed above — but here I am specifically talking about the hope of being able to figure out a game. I will tell a story about my wife –> the first time we played Space Base, she lost (playing ‘from behind’ the entire session) and didn’t come away from the game with a positive attitude towards it. Why? I believe it is because she didn’t feel like she knew how to win. It can be mighty frustrating to play a game, do the actions you are allowed, but never really “get it.” At the end of the game, though, I talked about what I had done and why I thought it worked well — and even showed her some of the cards and explained some combo scenarios that could really make a strong engine. She is a wonderful wife and later on…in a larger family gathering…agreed to play Space Base again (this time with 5 players). She took to heart some of the strategy opportunities that we’d discussed…she learned from a couple mistakes in our first game…and in a really tight finish, managed to win the game. Suddenly, her attitude toward the game changed and Space Base has become one of her top suggestions. What changed? Well, not only does winning help — but more than that, the hope and understanding that came from this 2nd play. She now believes she can win — she understands the game, the strategies, and what it takes to play well. Personally, I learned plenty from this adventure as well –> the key thing being that if you want to get others into board gaming, or maybe just into a specific game you really like and want to play more, put in the extra effort to help that player understand the game and succeed at it.

I would love to hear some other players’ stories about boardgame Thrashings they have undergone and what (if anything) kept you interested in the game.

If you’d like to hear more, follow me on Twitter @boardgamecrock1

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