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Published on June 26, 2018. Last Updated on May 8, 2023.

If you’ve spent any time around entrepreneurs, you’ve probably heard the acronym MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This is a stage of development at which early adopters see the product or service, then offer their feedback for the final version of the product or service.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years learning the best way to explain my games during playtesting. I’ve also had to give that some thought as I’ve been recording videos to explain them.

Introducing MAINS.

MAINS stands for Minimum Amount of Information Needed to Start — in other words, go from opening the box to begin playing as quickly as possible, without leaving out super-important details.

The goal with MAINS is not to teach the entire game in a few minutes, just enough to get started with play. Along the way, once they’re picking things up, you can share more details as you go.

Don’t forget the essentials!

I’m a big fan of the general-to-specific method:

  • Who are you in the game?
  • Where and when are you?
  • What’s the story / situation?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • How will you achieve this goal?

What does that look like for most games?

  • A couple of terms to describe the game — worker-placement, card drafting, co-op, 4X, and so on. This lets people know up front what sort of game they’re about to play.
  • A brief mention of the player count, playing time, and age — this isn’t always necessary, but it’s quick and easy to include.
  • The win condition — no matter how boring, mundane, or obvious this might be, state it clearly and upfront.
  • A bit of the story — but not the whole back story — and who you are in the game. I really love how Wil Wheaton did this during the openings of Tabletop for so many episodes, so if you need some help picturing this, just watch any of those episodes on Youtube.
  • Which characters or components you control, and what you do with them on your turn.

Specific example time!

DSC 6943

See what questions you’d have about my game Cryptomillionaire after hearing this at the table:

This is a lightweight strategic card game for 2-6 teens and up, and takes about 20-30 minutes to play. You are cryptocurrency investors, all looking to make tons of money in this new-fangled gold rush. You win by scoring the most points, which you’ll collect by selling coins from your portfolio. On your turn, you’ll play a card from your hand. Each card has an action to resolve, then you’ll ‘move the market’ (in other words, increase or decrease the value of specific coins). You then turn the card 90 degrees and add the coin on the card to your portfolio in front of you. If you want to sell any coins and score points, you may sell as many coins as the card says. When you sell, you score the current value of the coin multiplied by how many of that coin everyone owns. As more people collect more coins, they all become more valuable. You’ll end your turn by drawing back up to 4 hand cards.

You’ll start the game with one gold ‘anytime’ card like this (hold up gold card) in your hand. These are overpowered actions you can do during the game, and they’re awesome. Each one still in your hand unused scores you 10 bonus points at the end of the game, so you’ll have to choose when’s the right time to use it. Some of the normal cards will let you draw gold cards, so keep your eyes out for them.

At this point I’ll ask if there are any questions (there’s usually one or two), and I’ll add a bit about the crash cards (which causes everyone to lose coins from their portfolio and resets the value of that coin). I’ll also mention that the game ends when the fourth and final crash card is drawn from the deck, and that these cards are randomly shuffled into the deck.

Another real-world example

Squirrels vs. Grandpa

In Squirrels vs. Grandpa, one player is the Grandpa and everyone else is a Squirrel. The squirrels were just minding their own business collecting and burying acorns for the winter when Grandpa started chasing them away! They retreated just long enough to form a powerful squirrel army. Together, the squirrels will try to collect their buried acorns before the winter arrives. You win by collecting 5 acorn tiles and returning them to your safe space (the trees, if you’re a squirrel, or the house if you’re grandpa). Each turn, you’ll play a card from your hand. When a Squirrel plays a card, all other Squirrels then get to take that action.

Isn’t this a bit scripted? Shouldn’t your presentation be a bit more organic?

I’d argue that the best explanation is a bit of both. If it sounds like you’re just reciting something from a script, your players will pick up on that. No explanation is ever perfect, and has to take into account the players themselves. Are they familiar with this type of game? Do you know that, or are you assuming that? If your game has any mechanics, components, or features that aren’t common in other games, take special care to explain those.

This can sound similar to pitching, and to some extent it is – you’re trying to do a lot of world-building in a short period of time.

Over to you

If you’re a designer, how do you explain your games? If you’re a gamer, how do you prefer games to be explained to you?

Want some practice?

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