How a player’s skill level and experience impacts board game complexity and weight – Ask The Bellhop

Roger is going through something we all experience when new to the board game hobby and that is how our comfort level with both learning and playing new games changes over time. As we play more games and learn new mechanics, games we once found hard and complex seem easy and games we never thought we could understand become more approachable.

In this article, I’m going to look deeper into this phenomenon as well as tie it in with determining which games to play. Thus helping with picking which new game to introduce to a player based on their skill level and experience.

A question on power creep from one of our Patreon patrons

This topic of shifting board game complexity comes from Roger Meloche, a long time Patreon patron.

Roger learning to play Zenteko

Roger wrote to ask,

“Hey Moe and Sean,

I’ve enjoyed every one of your podcasts and look forward to a new one each week. I have a question regarding Power Creep. Not the kind you find in games, but the power creep experienced by the players.

I always played cards and used to enjoy Risk, many moons ago, but I just recently have started to play “Real” board games. The first modern board game I tried was Jaipur, then later at CG Realm, I was introduced to Carcassonne which really opened my eyes to this new hobby. Somebody then suggested a game called “Great Western Trail”. I had never experienced anything like this, It was all completely new to me. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement, I managed to muddle my way through the game, but I could smell a few brain cells, still smouldering when we were done. I remember somebody saying the game was easy, before we played it and I am sure they really thought it was, but I wouldn’t call it a gateway game. Of course, now that I’ve played many different games, I would take a game like Great Western Trail in stride and really enjoy it.

This brings me to my first question; How do you determine if a given player’s skill and experience is a good match for a new game they are about to play, given that a player’s skill level is very subjective at best?

As far as power creep goes; As my skill increases and I look for greater and greater challenges, am I going to lose interest in most of the current games in my collection as I pursue this hobby? Is this a common occurrence?”

The main thing I want to focus on here is the lead up to Roger’s questions and that first question. The entire concept that Roger calls Power Creep. Personally, I don’t like that term because it makes me think of games like Magic the Gathering where, as more expansions are added to the game, new cards end up being just a bit more powerful than the last set to entice people to buy more cards. That’s not what we are discussing here. 

I want to talk about the fact that the more games you play, and the more game mechanics you become experienced with, the easier to learn and the more approachable all games become.  

At the end of the article, I will also spend a bit on Roger’s second question about games becoming obsolete. 

How game complexity scales time and with experience

When someone first gets into tabletop gaming pretty much everything is new. Maybe they have played some trivia games like Trivial Pursuit, or they are used to mechanics like roll and move from classic games such as Sorry or Snakes & Ladders. There’s a chance they have played family games like Monopoly and are familiar with trading between players or they play card games so they know terms like Trick Taking. Even the simplest hobby board games add something to these basic mechanics, something that will be unfamiliar to a new player and being faced with something unfamiliar can be intimidating.

Blowing some non-gamers minds at ComicConAs an example of this, at the Windsor ComicCon my friend Jeff and I were showing off copies of the Funko Pop! Funkoverse Harry Potter board game. Being an experienced gamer who has played a huge number of games, despite the fact I had never seen the game before, I was able to quickly go through the rules and teach myself how to play before the event started. It seemed pretty simple to me. A basic skirmish wargame with a cute theme. 

Then the first group of players sat down to play and were very much overwhelmed by what I considered a simple game. These two gamers had never played anything like this game. In every game that they had played before this one, each turn started with either drawing a card or rolling the dice to see where you could move. So every round on their turn the players would reach for the dice, and I would have to correct them. In this game the dice don’t determine what you can and cannot do, instead, you get a number of actions each round and get to pick which ones you want. You can move, you can attack, you can cast a spell, you can help an ally etc. 

This freedom to choose blew these new players’ minds. They had never encountered a game like this, where they could have so many options. Even the fact that they could move where they wanted on the board instead of having to follow a set path was new to them. While these players did end up having fun and enjoying the game, they noted that it was hard to learn the game and really complicated.

Later in the day at the same event another couple came over and asked to learn the game. This couple had more experience with modern board games and we were able to teach them to play in minutes. When we described how you move, they noted how it was similar to Legend of Drizzt, a Dungeons & Dragons board game. They immediately recognized that the dice would be used when making attacks, and had no problem grasping the concept of having a number of action points. This pair also really enjoyed the game but walked away noting that while it was surprisingly good for a licenced game it was a bit too light for their tastes. 

Both of these groups of players were big fans of the licence the game was based on, and we’re both inclined to like the game before they started playing it. Both groups also enjoyed the game but one group thought the game was heavy and complex while the other thought it was too easy for them. The significant difference between these two groups was their experience level with the concepts used in this game.

Warhammer Underworlds Shadespire being played. Every hobby gamer is going to experience what Roger is talking about in his question at some point. They are going to be able to relate to these two different groups playing Funkoverse Harry Potter. When you are new to the hobby you are just like that first pair of players. Everything is new and interesting and can be complicated and overwhelming but over time as you play more games and experience and learn new mechanics the games you once found complicated start to become less so, potentially becoming easier and easier to understand and play.

Maybe over time those players we taught Funkoverse Harry Potter to at the ComicCon pick up the game and stick with it, they continue to play it and get used to those mechanics and find they really like skirmish wargames. So they head to the FLGS and ask around and end up picking up Warhammer Underworlds. While also a miniature wargame, it’s a significant step heavier than the Funkoverse games. There are more characters to keep track of, there’s a deck-building element, hand management becomes very important, the game is about area control and not just beating up the other team, etc. 

Again these players are probably going to be intimidated at first. The game will seem very complex when compared to Harry Potter, but the more they play and the more mechanics they experience the easier it will become. After playing Shadespire maybe they find they really like the card-based mechanics and start to check out deck building games. Due to having experienced some of the mechanics already, a game like Clank! may be pretty easy for them to pick up now. Though Clank! may have been far too much to handle had they tried to play that before sitting down to a game of Harry Potter at ComicCon. 

This is the same experience people go through when learning anything new. If you think about how we teach kids math, we start off teaching them to count and then move on to addition and subtraction. Once kids have mastered those skills we move on to multiplication and division. When you ask a kid who’s learned how to multiply how hard counting is they are going to laugh and tell you that’s easy. But then ask that same kid about calculus and they are going to have a blank look on their face. As time goes on that same kid, by the time they finish High School, is going to know what calculus is and they may even be really good at it. Both with math and board games, and any other skill, the more you learn, the more experience you have, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes.

As a side note, I’ve mentioned a number of game mechanics in this article already and if any of those are unfamiliar to you, please feel free to check out  The Giant List of Tabletop Game Mechanics where I explain these terms and more.

Matching which game to play with player skill and experience

Jumping back to Roger’s question mentioned at the top of the article, the first thing Roger asks is how we can determine if a player’s skill and experience level is a good match for a new game. This can be especially difficult based on what we just discussed. A player’s perception of the difficulty and complexity of a game is very much based on their own personal experience.

Vinhos is one of the best heavy games I've played. Added to this, tabletop games come in varying weights. The weight of a game is determined by a number of factors including the rules, the game length, the amount of randomness, the cognitive load, the size of the decision tree, required skills, number of mechanics and more. As an example of this, a game like Vinhos Deluxe is a rather heavy game whereas King of the Dice is a very light game on the weight scale. 

For a detailed discussion on game weight, take some time to read through my Weighing in on Game Complexity article.  What’s important to note here is that some games are inherently heavier and thus harder to learn than others. 

When trying to decide if a game is a good fit for a player both of these factors need to be taken into account. To start, you need to find out what the player’s experience level is and the best way to do this is to simply ask what kinds of games they like to play. Once they have given you a short list of games you are going to look at the weight of those games. Now, this could mean looking up the weight rating on Board Game Geek, but usually, it’s just something I do in my head. I have a general idea of how heavy I consider most if not all of the games I’ve played.

I have found that the easiest way to think about the weight of a game is in comparison to a benchmark.  For me, for a number of years, I have used Race for the Galaxy as the benchmark for the perfect medium weight game. This is a game that I wouldn’t toss at a new player but one that shouldn’t completely overwhelm an experienced gamer.  Whenever I consider the weight of any other game I think, “Is this lighter or heavier than Race for the Galaxy?” Now, this benchmark game will probably be different from person to person, find a game that works best for you.

The goal here is to find a common ground. Find a game that the player likes, then ask the player if they want to play something that’s more or less complex than that. Ask how comfortable they are with learning new mechanics. You can even dig a bit deeper and ask what they like about the games that they like and use that for suggesting a new game.  Once you have a game to start from and know if they are willing to go up or down on the complexity scale you can start suggesting games. 

Now sometimes this goes the other way around. You have a game you want to play and you bring it to the table and someone asks if they can play and if you think they will enjoy it. Here you just work backwards. Think of games with a similar weight to the game you are about to play and ask them if they have played any of them and what their opinions are. If that doesn’t lead anywhere then you can drop down to asking about the games they do like. Leading questions like “What’s the heaviest game you enjoy?” can be useful here. 

Three player Lords of Waterdeep.Let’s look at an example. I’m running a game night and there’s a new player there looking to try a new game. They aren’t sure what they want to play and don’t recognize any of the games that are available to play that night. I start chatting with them and find out that their favourite game by far is Lords of Waterdeep. Great, now I have found some common ground. I’m a fan of Lords of Waterdeep, it’s a medium-light game to me, a great example of the worker placement mechanic that makes a great gateway game to that particular mechanic. Immediately I start thinking of other worker placement games. Viticulture, Yedo and Raiders of the North Sea come to mind. I also keep Tyrants of the Underdark in my back pocket, as it’s another Dungeons & Dragons themed Game. 

Before suggesting any of those I ask a few more questions, looking to find out what this person likes the most about Lords of Waterdeep and how complex they think the game is. If they consider Lords of Waterdeep to be a heavy brain-burning game I’m going to stay away from Viticulture and Yedo as I think both of those games are significantly heavier than Lords of Waterdeep. 

If the main thing the player likes about Lords of Waterdeep is the theme, then I’m definitely going to start considering Tyrants of the Underdark. However, I wouldn’t actually suggest that unless they have some experience with Deck-Building since Tyrants combines Deck Building with Folk on a Map. It’s much easier to learn the game if players are already familiar with the main concepts of deck building. Now if this player is a big Dominion fan already, then Tyrants is probably the way to go. 

If it’s the mechanics of Lords of Waterdeep that they love, then Raiders of the North Sea may be my final choice since it takes the basics of worker placement and does one new thing with it (you get an action both when you place a worker and when you remove a worker).  What I would probably do in this particular situation is present all of the above games and explain why I think the player may or may not like each one and then let them make the final decision.

When introducing a new game to a player you can greatly increase the chance that they will enjoy the game by making sure the game fits in with their experience and comfort level. The more games and game mechanics the player has been exposed to the more open they are going to be to heavier, more complex, games.

Will you lose interest in lighter board games as you play more games?

As you play more games and become more experienced with the mechanics and methods of play behind games, all games become easier to grasp and understand. Games that you once considered heavy and complex you will start to consider lighter and more simple. This is a normal evolution. As your skill increases what you find challenging changes. 

Catan is the most well known gateway hobby board game. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the games you now find easier to play are also now less fun. Good hobby board games are designed for replayability and unless a game is designed to be completed or somehow solved, or is broken in some way, there’s really no reason for you to stop enjoying any game in your collection.

Some of the first games that first introduced me to the world of hobby board gaming are ones that I still enjoy playing and still hit the table. I don’t think I will ever get tired of playing Carcasonne and while I don’t play it often I still enjoy a good old game of Catan every now and then. 

Along with this, a game doesn’t have to be complex to be fun. Despite the fact that over time I have found that I enjoy discovering games that challenge me, and the games that challenge me have become heavier and heavier as my overall gaming experience increases, I still enjoy a number of lighter games. One of the best games I discovered in 2019 was Go Cuckoo from HABA, a game designed for kids that I’ve had a ton of fun playing with players of all experience levels.

Another thing that happens with most players is that they find they have a weight limit. At first, your board game journey may be all about experiencing new things and that thrill of learning a new mechanic, but, for many people, that stops being fun eventually. The more complicated a game is the more work it is to learn and play and sometimes that work isn’t worth what you get out of it.

The board game Terra Mystica being played.It’s not like there’s a typical board game journey that starts with Clue, moves on to Carcassonne, then on to Terra Mystica and eventually gets to 18xx games. Every gamer is going to follow their own path and eventually find a weight of game they are most comfortable playing, where they have the most fun. 

With all of that said, there is a good chance there will be some games that you once found enjoyable that just don’t do it for you anymore. Most of us hobby gamers don’t have any interest in returning to mass-market favourites like Risk and Monopoly. Similarly, there may be some hobby games you once found enjoyable that you don’t anymore. More common, I’ve found, is that you will find that some newer games replace older games in your collection. This usually happens when a new game does something similar to an old game but in a better way.  This is also a normal thing that happens to many gamers. 

Once you do get to that point be sure to check out our How to Make the Most out of Your Unwanted Tabletop Games article to find out where to sell your old favourites and get the most you can for them.

So, my board game journey basically started with family games like The Game of Life. Then I discovered Games Workshop and Talisman. From there I got into miniature wargames like Warhammer 40,000. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Catan and other Eurogames. After Catan, I explored the width and breadth of the hobby finding that my preferred game weight topped out at games like Food Chain Magnate and Arkwright
What has your board game complexity journey looked like? Let us know in the comments!
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