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Thinking about design thinking

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Game enthusiasts are natural pedants, and one of the surest ways to get the pedantry going is with a discussion on terminology. Are they "mechanics" or "mechanisms"? Is it a "theme" or a "setting" or perhaps a "metaphor"? We've all been there. It has recently occurred to me that perhaps the most inaccurately used term in gaming is designer. That's not to say that it's incorrect, but rather that it gives us too much credit.

bluetaj: Thinking like a designer

Today's post title did not originate from the Department of Redundancy Department. As part of a work assignment lately, I've been learning a bit about design thinking.

Design Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we're designing the products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user.

(from Interaction Design Foundation)
Design thinking is congruent with the "games are products" thinking that we discussed in the context of Candyland a few posts back, but it goes beyond marketability and even beyond user interface. It's really about the overall user experience.

Now in some ways we designers authors are user-minded. We want our games to deliver a particular experience, we want players to have fun, we test our games extensively with users to see whether they enjoy the game.

But where we fail to apply design thinking principles is perhaps in the place where they matter the most of all: in onboarding new users to the use of our game. I have played hundreds of prototypes over the years, from dozens of designers, and a very high percentage of designers are terrible at teaching their games, and that's to other game designers, who are familiar with gaming concepts. Just imagine how lost a non-gamer would be trying to learn one of these games from one of us?

I can speak from experience here. The Sands of Time basically flopped, not because it's bad or even because it's too complex, but because it's not easy to learn, particularly from the rulebook.

bluetaj: The Problem

People basically learn games two ways.

indigo The group breaks the shrink and someone reads the rulebook aloud to the whole group.

tobacco One person reads the rulebook in his/her own time, grapples with it, internalizes it, and then teaches the game to the whole group. ("How to play" videos basically work this way).

In both cases, the quality of the rulebook determines how readily the group or the teacher, respectively, can learn the rules, and in tobacco the ability of the teacher is also a factor, although usually the teacher is chosen because of his/her skill such that players learn more easily than if they used indigo.

But good or bad, both of these methods employ the same basic approach: The Lecture. This approach assumes that you must be told everything, up-front, before the game can begin. In the case of a simple game like Santorini or Animal Upon Animal or Happy Salmon, that's fine. In the case of a game of mild complexity like Ticket to Ride or Elfenland it starts to be less fine. And in the case of a complicated game like Terra Mystica or Maracaibo it's downright burdensome. And a heavily asymmetric game like Root, Fuh Gedda Boudit.

We can know this is the case by noting the most-familiar reaction that players give when being taught a game: "Ugh, can't we just start playing and figure it out as we go?"

The rules teachers among us find this sort of thing exasperating, but in fact the people saying it are 100% correct to complain. It's a game, people want to play it, they don't want to have to endure a 10-minute lecture before being given permission to play, that's like safety training at work!

bluetaj: Learn By Doing

Good design is intuitive. When you buy a new piece of electronic equipment, most people don't try to read the manual to learn how to operate it, they just fiddle around with it until they figure out how it works. Video games usually work this way. You put the game in the console and you start playing. Jonny Pac has said that his grail game design is a game without a rulebook, one whose visual presentation is so intuitive that it's obvious how to play just by looking at the components.

And good teaching of a new skill rarely entails The Lecture. If I were to teach you, say, how to operate a chainsaw (a lot more dangerous than a board game!), I'm not going to start with a ten minute lecture, we're going to have a chainsaw in our hands and we will walk step by step through the basic operations you'll need to perform to get it running and take down a tree safely.

Video games often include this on-boarding, with an intro level that you go through that introduces you to the gameplay concepts, e.g. what the different buttons do and what skills you as the player will have to use in playing the game.

As a kid I had the D&D red box, which had a similar step-by-step walkthrough of the things you needed to do to start playing. First use this crayon to color the numbers on your dice. Then grab a character sheet. Your first character will be a fighter, let's roll for stats. And so on.

From gallery of jwarrend

bluetaj: Design Thinking options for board games

Board game authors can increase their games' appeal by giving players an easier time of learning and getting in to the action. There are a few ways we might do it.

coffee Wrong way: the Worked Example

I remember learning Ikusa from the rulebook, and in the end it has a detailed example of a full game turn, "Hans does this, Betty does that", etc. This feels more like an exam that you have to take after you've read the rules, do you actually understand them? This has its place but is not the "learn by doing" approach we're talking about here.

coffee Learning Modes

Games like Arkwright have this, an "easy mode" version of the game where you learn some of the rules before progressing to the game's full complexity. Scenario-based games like Space Alert have this as well, with the simpler scenarios up front. This is better than the Worked Example but it still entails The Lecture to get started. And in some cases you have to unlearn some of the learning game rules when you progress to the Full Game, which imposes additional cognitive burden.

coffee Learn By Doing

The best solution is one where players are actually playing the game as they learn it. In playtesting Sidereal Confluence, I pushed very hard for the game to be able to start without players knowing almost anything. It works because the first step is trading. So, here are our cards, here are our starting resources. Now we will have ten minutes of trading. Try to make trades to get the stuff that your cards take as inputs. Here's a simple heuristic: 3 small = 2 big = 1 octagon. Go!

You could do the same thing with Wits & Wagers. Here's a question; everyone write down your best guess for what you think is the answer. Go! Ok now that we've done it, we're going to place the answers in order. Now, put your markers on the answer(s) you think might be closest without going over. Go!

I'm thinking similar thoughts about my theme park game, which is an action selection game, and those feel tricky because you'd think people want to know all of their options before they make any "actual" decisions. But not necessarily!

In Theme Park, usually the first thing you'll do is go on a ride. So, let's start with that. Everyone pick a ride you want to go on (it should be one that one of your "person cards" wants to ride). And here's how that works, here's how you move the time track, here's how you award points. Oops, one of your people is cranky now. Let's learn how to go to the souvenir shop or meet the character to help with that. Soon your people will get hungry, let's learn how to eat food.

And you could do this with other action games, e.g. TTR. Mostly you'll draft cards. Let's all go around and take a card from the display. Pick a card that will help you make a set, the bigger the better, or if you don't see one, draw from the deck. Now on your actual turn, you get to take two, and we refill the display after you draw. Ok now let's put down some trains on the board. Here's how you do that. Etc.

Thus this method is particularly well-suited to games like Theme Park or TTR, in which you're only availing yourself of one or two of the available actions early on, and the other ones don't matter until slightly later. So, just teach the stuff you need to get started and add the other stuff when it's needed.

bluetaj: From Design to Product

It's one thing to teach a game in this learn-by-doing way, but how to include this approach in a commercial product? The answer would seem to be a separate document from the rulebook that walks players through a similar process. It has to be written in such a way that it can be used either by a person learning the game cold, or as a guide to steer a person in teaching the game to his or her group.

There's no universal formula for how to do it, because every game's mechanics are different and will want to be introduced in a different way. Doubtless there are some games for which it would be difficult. For games with phased gameplay it should be easy. My new approach to Lost Adventures, which has a Map Phase and a Temple Phase, is to only teach the Map Phase rules initially, and since the turns have four steps, just have players, for the first turn, all execute the first step in parallel, then the next, and so on.

In an industry where first impressions are so important, the publisher response is to attempt to create a positive first contact with the game by slathering attractive visual presentation all over the game, but not nearly enough attention is paid to ensuring that players have a good first experience playing the game, and that means teaching them effectively. Design thinking would benefit games generally, and in particular in worrying about the experience of the user learning the game for the first time. It's well and good to hire a how-to-play video maker, but better still would be to move to teaching methods beyond The Lecture as a way of introducing players to new games.


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