Most of the time when you sit down to play a game for the first time, a few things happen, more or less in a set order:
- You read the rules (or have them taught to you in some way)
- You set up the game, board, cards, dice, pieces, etc.
- You learn the goal of the game, and the specific things you can (or can’t) do to achieve that goal
- You learn the strategy of the game, and specific things you should (or shouldn’t) do to achieve that goal.
- You learn how to play competitively, which often means watching opponents and considering what they might do.
I’m going to make up some terms here, and if we’ve playtested together you might have heard me use them.
Watch out for these legendary PowerPoint skills….
Mechanical competency is gaining the basic understanding of gameplay, or being able to take a turn without breaking the rules (accidentally or intentionally) and without help from other players or the rulebook. The training wheels are off, so to speak, and you’re able to play a correct move on your own. You’re not yet sure if it’s a good move, but it’s a legally allowed move, and that’s what matters. What matters here is that the training wheels can come off now. You might still need a reference card or an occasional look at the rulebook, but you’ve got this.
Mechanical competency is the absolutely essential building block here – without it, at best you’re playing at random or not investing enough attention in the game to care. Ideally, you want players to feel mechanically competent as quickly as possible. In party games, one round might be all you need. In gateway-level games, you might need a few turns. In medium-weight games, there’s often talk of playing a ‘learning game’, and that’s fine in those cases.
What do you do if mechanical competency is taking too long to get?
From my experience, mechanical competency correlates with the complexity of the game, but there are a few things that can make a lightweight game unnecessarily complicated:
- Unclear order of operations – do this at the start of your turn, then do that next, etc.
- No reference card / information – make one up for playtesters to cover the basics
- Exceptions to the rules – ideally it’s engineered out, but there may still be some
- Lots of choices that need making – self-explanatory
- Lots of things to look at to make one strategic decision – plot it out for yourself. How many things do you need to look at? This might be my hand cards, my player board, the common board, other player’s boards, the score tracker… it adds up quick.
- Lots of things that need moving / manipulating – self-explanatory
- Non-intuitive / counterintuitive elements or unconventional reasons for where things are played – self-explanatory
Once you’ve gained mechanical competency, you can begin learning the strategy of the game, and the specific things you should (or shouldn’t) do to achieve that goal. That’s strategic competency. Beyond playing correctly, you are also thinking and playing strategically. There’s a reason or a purpose for what you’re doing on your turn, and though that strategy may change, it’s not being done randomly or just copying what another player is doing.
You recognize the many possible moves the game allows, along with the goal of the game. You have a strategy in mind, as best as you can figure one out, and it’s generally consistent from one minute to the next. You might be exploring different or multiple strategies, but you have a strategy both for this turn and future turns.
Mechanical competency always comes first, and you’ll get better at it over time. Strategic competency comes in layers, but the first level is where the game begins to ‘click’ for people. That’s the level I’m focusing on here. Games like Chess or Go have plenty of deeper strategic layers to the game, but those come with your 50th play, your 100th play, your 1,000th play, etc.
The complexity of the game roughly correlates to the amount of time to gain mechanical or strategic competency, but it’s not perfect. As you’re playtesting, this is one of those things you’ll want to notice and think about. How long should it take to feel like you’ve gotten the hang of what you do on a turn? Party games and games for kids should be pretty quick and intuitive, while people playing Twilight Imperium or another heavy/long game accept it may take some time to gain mechanical competency.
What if strategic competency is taking too long to get?
It’s worth asking what strategic competency looks like for your game, and what layers of strategy your game might have. One more term to throw out here (last one for this post, promise) is strategic horizon – how far ahead can you plan / think / strategize ahead? In games with perfect or near-perfect information (think chess or Go), this can be several turns or more).
Some questions worth asking:
- How easy is it to identify, then follow, a strategy?
- How many strategies make sense?
- How easy is it to switch strategies? This might take turns, actions, or a mental shift to use what you currently use in a new way.
- How can the main strategies be discovered more easily?
- Are there ‘trap’ or ‘red herring’ strategies that lead people down a bad path? Can whatever is making them attractive be toned down or discouraged in some way? In some cases, does changing a rule remove that strategy?
Once you have strategic competency, it’s time for…
Now that you have strategic competency, you’re looking at more places before making a decision. You might be considering the central board, the resources available, your own player board, or other places in the ‘central’ / ‘shared’ part of the game.
Competitive competency takes this one step further. You’re increasingly familiar with how the game works, so now it’s time to see what your opponents are up to. It’s not that you’ve ignored them (though that’s also possible), it’s more that their play probably hasn’t been all that consequential to your own.
One playtester had an excellent way of framing it. Strategic competency was like ‘playing defensively’ to them, since you were typically responding to something that someone else (or the game) has done. Gaining competitive competency, to this playtester, was like ‘going on offense’. ‘I’m getting out ahead of what other players want to do, since I’m trying to see what they might do in the future when taking my turn,’ they said.
What if competitive competency is taking too long to get?
Some questions worth asking:
- How many things are there to consider? Do they all have to be public-facing / known information?
- How does studying my opponent help me as a player? Can I accurately predict their intent?
- Is studying my opponents causing me to calculate / recalculate things?
- Is it worth shortening the strategic horizon (how far players can see ahead in the game)?
Putting it all together
Each of these levels of competency takes time to get, and it requires you to take in larger and larger amounts of information.
In most of my games, I want players feeling like they have mechanical competency after one or two turns (three at most). This lets them get to the fun part of the game — making interesting, strategic, thematic decisions.
What about strategic competency? Ideally, the earlier the better – that leaves more time to give that strategy a try, or perhaps even change strategies as they play. At the end of the game, in the best-case scenario, players feel like they can look back on their strategy, maybe consider some moves they didn’t make, and look forward to the next game to try a different strategy.
Competitive competency? Definitely by the end of the game, and perhaps a turn or two after gaining strategic competency.
Part of our jobs as a game designer is that of a engineer — creating a specific experience while acknowledging any limitations, whether real or artificial. There’s a lot to it, but understanding how players reach these three milestones during play helps to define that experience.
Over to you
Comments are open.