Establishing a low barrier to entry in board games

posted | about 4 minutes to read

tags: board games

Part of the fun of just writing for myself is that I can just kind of pick whatever I want and write about it, which is why today I’m going to talk a little bit about board games, and how to move past playing Parcheesi or Yahtzee or whatever with people who typically aren’t interested in more complicated games, and things that might turn people off from getting into more interesting tabletop stuff. I wrote some thoughts on this once upon a time but it was off-platform and I didn’t really write as much as I wanted to about it, so I wanted to revisit it and dig a little deeper.

There are, I think, a couple of things that are really important when you look at how to get people introduced to more complex games. The easiest one to discuss is accessibility; it’s easy to look at something like, say, Agricola if you’ve been playing nothing but Monopoly all your life and think “oh my god, this is way too much stuff, I just can’t do this and keeping track of all the fiddly little things is going to be Not Fun”, and honestly, that’s a thought process that I can completely value and understand. Working up to more complex games takes time - and the easiest way to get there is one step at a time. Look at stuff with more simple mechanics - games like Dominion, Star Realms, Tokaido, or the mint tin games from Five 24 Labs spring to mind as good entry points. Stuff where you’ve got clear objectives, the mechanics are really straightforward to grasp, and it’s easy to understand how to win.

The other one, and I think this is where things get a little more complex, is player agency. To really illustrate the point, I want you to think about some prominent cooperative games - specifically, perhaps, Pandemic and Magic Maze. Both of these games fit my criteria for accessibility - Pandemic’s “move around the map, cure diseases” mechanics are easy to grasp and Magic Maze’s “here is your one move action, use it if you think it is useful” is about as simple as you can get. However, I think Magic Maze is much better for introducing new players to more interesting games! The key difference, if you’re familiar with these games, is that one of the core mechanics of Magic Maze is NO TALKING. What this does, at least in my experience, is open up the game for new players by avoiding “follow the leader” situations, where you end up with the more experienced players just telling everyone else what to do. Pandemic is, I think, especially vulnerable to this simply because even with experienced players, winning can be a knife’s edge proposition, so there’s incentive for that to happen in order for the team to win. When I talk about player agency being important in a cooperative context, I’m focusing in on the idea that a new player should feel able and empowered to contribute constructively, and Pandemic and games like it strangle that.

As far as this applies to competitive games, you could make the argument that a complicated game for someone who’s not prepared for it also leads into this; when they’re overwhelmed with mechanics and potential choices, they’re going to start just picking the easiest things, or the first thing that they see, and they’ll just get blown away by the more experienced player who has more familiarity with the game mechanics. While there’s no explicit shutting down of player agency, the complexity itself does this by overwhelming new players - so these points of agency and accessibility are tied very closely together. Easing players into these games with more involved mechanics lets them grow at their own pace and get more comfortable slowly.

I guess above and beyond any of this, it’s worth nothing that not everyone is going to want to move past the old standards anyway; as much as some of them may just not seem fun to you (and trust me, I can sympathize with this!), there’s a reason for their popularity. If your Great-Aunt Beth wants to play Parcheesi, just go play Parcheesi with her. It will be okay.