13 Ways Board Game Designers Can Make Games Easier to Learn and to Teach

In this article, I will be discussing a number of ways that board game designers can make their games easier to learn and teach. I feature a number of board game design tips all aimed at making boardgames more approachable.

Even the heaviest board game can be made easier to learn through good game design, including everything from the rules and graphic design to the actual mechanics.

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A follow up to our 15 not as complicated as you would expect board game article 

Great games that are not nearly as heavy or complex as they seem. This topic is a direct follow up to last week’s, where I showcased 15 surprisingly easy board games, heavy games that are easier to learn than expected

When initially working on that article and podcast topic I strongly considered including this topic, talking about what designers have done to make their games easier to learn and teach. It was my wife, Deanna, who pointed out that there’s probably enough to talk about there that it would make for a good topic all on its own.

So here we are.

While I did talk last week a bit about what made each of the fifteen games highlighted easier than expected, today, I’m going to go into even further detail and there will be a number of tips here that weren’t mentioned last week. 

Things designers can do to make their games easier to teach, learn and play:

The Rulebook for Russian RailroadsProvide A Good Rulebook – One of the best things any game designer or publisher can do to make their games easier to learn is to provide a good rulebook. A good rulebook should not only be great at explaining how to play the game but also be a good piece of reference material. There should be lots of images showing actual gameplay and game components and a ton of examples. There should be an index and some form of a summary including the round structure, turn structure and highlighting any subsystems. These include things like a turn flowchart or a list of combat steps that must be taken to resolve combat. 

If you ever find yourself struggling with a game with a bad rulebook, we do have some suggestions for that in our Bad Rulebook? No problem. article. Life would be so much better though if every game just came with a great rulebook, then we wouldn’t have to look anywhere else for help.

Include Reference Material – This includes, but is not limited to, quick start guides, set up instructions on a separate sheet or card, player turn summaries, icon guides, rules overviews, tech trees, end game scoring reminders, and lists of upgrade costs or resource conversion rates.  Reference material includes any cards, sheets, or summaries included with the game for reference while playing that help save players from having to look things up in the rulebook.

Good reference material not only stops players from having to look up rules but also acts as a reminder for things that are easily forgotten and highlights things that players should be taking into account during play.

The 6 zones of play by Scott Rogers.Have Clarity of Design – On the graphic design side of things, a lot can be done to make games easier to play. Ian O’Toole is the master of this. When doing the graphic design of a game he will take into consideration things like who needs to see what, what goes in a player’s area vs. on the board, what information should be on the board to act as reminders and more. For example, if all players need to know how many resources every other player has, that should be a track on the board everyone can easily see vs. having a pile of tokens in front of each player.

The design of a game should take into account the 6 zones of play as proposed by professor Scott Rogers. These zones are:

  1. The player’s dominant hand,
  2. The player’s non-dominant hand
  3. The tableau
  4. The board/shared playing space
  5. The sideboard
  6. The rules (including online rules support like FAQs and Errata) 

The topic of zones of play is a big one and something that is better suited to its own article. If you want to dive into it further I suggest checking out Scott’s original article on the six zones of play. In general, it is all about where to present information for it to be as useful as possible to the players at the table. For example, the most important things to a player on a given turn, if private or secret, should be in their dominant hand, or, if public, should be in their tableau. Whereas items that only come into play once a round or less should be on the sideboard, the area beside the main board. The more important or frequent the information is the lower the zone it should be in. 

Another aspect of graphic design that is very important is typefaces. Details like serif or sans, kerning and sizing can greatly affect the ability of players to be able to read game elements. Clarity should also take into account the expected distance to the player. Something in your hand can be smaller or fancier than something over on the board which might be arms-length or further. Jumping back to the zones of play, the higher the zone number the larger your font will need to be for everyone to read it. 

Iconography is equally, if not even more, important than other graphical design elements. Icons should be easy to differentiate from each other and should actually relate to the actions or resources they are tied too. Race for the Galaxy is a game that does this wrong, whereas, as I mention in my review, Bastille from Queen Games does an amazing job with its iconography. Icon size should also be considered just as I just mentioned with font size.

Raiders of the North Sea from Renegade Games being played. Consider the Components – Along with the graphical design of the game, a lot can be done to the components to make a game easier to learn and play. The biggest thing here is theming the elements so that different components used for different parts of the game are physically different in some way. This is something that older games weren’t good at, everything was a cube or a meeple.

For a good modern example look at Raiders of the North Sea. The resources you collect for raiding are all wood. The money is metal coins. The plunder you need to go raiding is cardboard. The items you trade resources in for end game scoring are cardboard tiles. By differentiating each of these things physically you subtly indicate to the players that each is used for a different thing in the game. 

Provide Online Support – Once a game is published and out in the wild sometimes you find out about problems that you didn’t’ expect such as mistakes in the rulebook, missed rules, things that were ambiguous, or perhaps even balance issues or other errata. All of this should be fixed. There should be a living PDF version of the game’s rulebook, there should be a place to find an FAQ on the company’s website and also on Board Game Geek.

I would go so far as to suggest that publishers have a QR code in their rulebooks leading to somewhere that updated rule information will be. Even if there is no information when the game first launches have a page that says “Wow somehow we got it right, nothing to see here.” and when, inevitably, rule questions come up, you fill that space with an FAQ. Even better add a webform there for fans to be able to submit rule problems. 

Also in regards to online support, in today’s day and age, every game should have a video tutorial. This goes back to a previous topic of teaching games and how people learn. Many people will learn better by watching and/or listening over reading and nowadays I expect to have the option of reading the rulebook or of watching/listening to a video both available. Thankfully more and more publishers are jumping on board with this and are having how to play videos produced. When companies haven’t done this, thankfully, there are plenty of people out there making how to play videos on their own.

The one problem with fan-created videos is the quality, these can vary greatly by the content creator. 

Playing Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle with my daughter. Limiting Initial Player Options – To me, limiting a player’s choices, especially at the start of a game, is the biggest thing that a designer can do to make their heavy game much more approachable. This is what came up again and again when talking about games that are easier to approach than they seem. To bring up an old proverb, this is a “how do you eat an elephant” situation. By tackling it one bite at a time. By presenting players with only a limited number of options at the start of the game, and slowly adding new ones as the game continues, you can make even the most complex game start off simple and build at a rate most players will be comfortable with.

There are a number of ways designers can restrict player choices using a variety of different mechanics.  You see this the most often in worker placement or action selection games. In these games, it is easy to make it so that not all of the possible actions are available at the start of the game. I’ve seen this done by only having a set number of options present from the beginning as well as by adding a cost to actions that players can’t afford at the beginning of the game. 

Similarly, this restriction can be created by limiting necessary resources. If players can only afford to buy a limited number of things this is the same as having a limited number of actions. The situation is just created in a different way. Limiting resources can also make the gathering of more resources the only early game option. You see this in a lot of engine building games.

Similar to limiting the options at the start of the game, many games instead add more content as you play. Unlocking new content is a great way to slowly build on the weight and complexity of a game. This is very common in campaign-based games where when you finish one scenario you start the next with something new added. Great examples of this are the Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle deck-building game and the newly released Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion.

Include a Tutorial – I love it when a heavy game includes some form of a tutorial that slowly introduces new players to the game. Jaws of the Lion, which I just mentioned, does this through five starter scenarios as well as by simplifying the player cards and monster abilities in the earliest scenarios. Another example is Mage Knight the board game which features a rather long and extensive tutorial, which I think is almost required to learn how to play the full game.

Sometimes tutorials are called out and explicit, like in the games I’ve mentioned here, and sometimes they are done more subtly, like in games such as Star Wars Imperial Assault or Cthulhu Death May Die, where the early scenarios are just easier than later ones. Players may not even realize they are being slowly indoctrinated into the game rules. This is also the method most video games use to onboard their players and it works just as well on the tabletop. 

Pulsar 2849 being played at Origins Game Fair.

Provide a Simpler Mode of Play – For non-campaign based games, designers can include simpler modes of play. These include things like a family mode, a suggested starting set up, recommended characters, a simpler map to play on, etc. How this is done varies greatly game by game.

This method of onboarding new players has been around since Settlers of Catan which has a recommended board layout and starting positions for all of the players so that players new to the game aren’t faced with the decision of where to place their first settlement without ever having played the game before or getting how the game works. Agricola has it’s family mode where you don’t use the cards, or Pulsar 2849 has a mode where you don’t use the individual player boards.

Having a simple version of play is a great way to teach the core concepts of a game and make sure the players have those down before adding in the full experience. As an added bonus, most of these intro setups play much quicker than the full game and can often be fit into a single game night with the intro being played then immediately followed by the full version while the rules are still fresh in everyone’s mind. 

Produce a Lighter Version of the Game – Taking the beginner or family mode to the next level, some publishers actually produce simpler versions of their games that are stand-alone games.  Sometimes these are made so that the game is more suited to playing with kids and families and other times it’s done to produce a quicker, simpler version of a heavier game to make it more accessible to more game groups. In both cases, these easier games can be great stepping stones to the full game experience. 

As I talked about in my review of Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion, it is a fantastic gateway to the full Gloomhaven experience.  The Ticket to Ride city series of New York and London are more great examples. Some publishers have also released kids versions of their games like My First Carcassonne or Catan Junior, though these are usually so far removed from their core games that they may not actually have any rules that would carry over to the full version. 

Include a Cooperative Mode – Making a game cooperative lets players share the cognitive load between them. With a cooperative game mode, players work together to learn the rules, taking advantage of the entire group’s various skill levels and expertise. 

A great recent example of this is Vital Lacerta’s CO2. This is a really meaty euro that was originally competitive until they released a new version which swapped the game to primarily cooperative with a competitive variant. Another advantage of a cooperative game mode comes up when you have players of different experience levels. Here, the experienced players can help the less experienced players without affecting who’s going to win the game.  Player experience is no longer an advantage to that player but rather an advantage to the whole group. 

Allow for Solo Play – Besides the fact that single-player game playing is becoming more and more popular, there is another advantage to adding solo play to a board game. By having a solo mode players can sit down on their own and learn the game at their own pace on their own time. Many players who find themselves as game teachers will appreciate the ability to sit down and play through the phases and mechanics of a game before presenting it to a group of new players. 

Solo modes also allow players to try out different strategies, play around with the rules and discover how things happen.

The App for Star Wars Imperial Assault. Use an App to Help or Manage the Game – In the last few years, we have seen a number of competitive, one vs. many board games converted to fully cooperative games through the use of a support app. The two examples that I think of right away are Mansions of Madness and Star Wars Imperial Assult.  As well as the advantages listed above for cooperative or solo play, these apps also provide the advantage of handling some of the mechanics behind the scenes as well as adding thematic immersion effects. 

In addition to adding new gameplay modes, there are also a number of apps out there, for a wide variety of games, that are designed to make the experience more enjoyable and in some cases improve the flow of gameplay. You can find score trackers, timers, random event generators, etc. Some of these are produced by the publishers while others are created by third parties. For an excellent example of a helper app that can greatly reduce the complexity of a game check out the Gloomhaven Helper app which has recently been updated to also work with Jaws of the Lion. 

Vinhos Deluxe is much easier to learn and play than you might expect.Tie the Mechanics to the Theme as Closely as Possible – To me this is the most interesting way to make your games easier for players to grasp. Over many years of playing games with a wide variety of people, I have found that when the mechanics of the game are well tied to the theme of the game players will remember those mechanics better. It’s easier for a player to remember how to do something in a game when it makes sense thematically.

A great example of this is in Vinhos Deluxe Edition. There are a number of mechanics in this game that just make sense when you think about making and selling wine. Every game round the wine you have ages, if you let it age too long it will spoil. If you cellar your wine it will get better with age and can be stored longer. Wine experts help you score better during wine tasting festivals. Improving a vineyard improves the reputation of that wine region. These are all things that make sense in the wine world and that are all represented mechanically in the game.

Above I have listed a number of different things that designers, developers and publishers can do to make their games more approachable. These are the tips and tricks I’ve noticed for how games can be made to feel easy to learn and play despite potentially being heavy complex games. While I tried to be as inclusive as possible, I’m sure there are suggestions I missed and if you can think of any I would love to hear about them in the comments below.

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