A Discussion on Tabletop Game Player Aids – Ask The Bellhop

Let’s take a look at player-aids. Fan created game aids, and ones that are included with the games we play. Today I’m answering a series of questions about player aids.

Long time Tabletop Bellhop fan Ryan Peach asks:

What are your thoughts on fan-created game aids?
Are they table clutter, or do they actually help?
Are they better for new players or will veterans also benefit?
If you use them, in your experience, which aids or kinds of aids help the most and least?
Are there games that you wish had aids, but do not yet?
Are there games where you feel they aren’t needed?
Has a player aid like a rules summary ever replaced a games rulebook for you?

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The Short Answer
I am a huge fan and proponent of a wide variety of tabletop game player aids

The Esoteric Order of Gamers is a great place to find fan created player aidsRyan asks quite a few separate questions here but I think the main and most important one is “What are your thoughts on fan-created game aids?” and to that I answer, almost completely positive.

The only negatives I can really see is that not all player aids are created equal and that having too many can potentially be overwhelming. Other than that I personally think every game should include some basic game play aids. These should include, at a minimum, a turn summary and a score sheet if the game is complex enough to need one. Other player aids can also be very useful. For example, rule summaries, a setup sheet or card, icon references, etc.

What’s wonderful about living in the internet age, is that even when a game doesn’t come with such useful tools, there are often fans out there that have made their own. The Esoteric Order of Gamers is the gold standard for board game player aids. They make some of the most useful rules summaries and reference sheets out there.  In addition, you can find all manner of fan-created game enhancers on Board Game Geek. Just check out the file section for your favourite game.

The Long Answer
Player aids can save the day when planning an event with a lot of games and gamers

Ryan’s questions deal with something that is staring me in the face this week as I get ready for the Great Canadian Board Game Blitz this coming Saturday.

Race for the Galaxy is a game that badly needs a player aid.Saturday I’m hosting a five round, no elimination, board game tournament in support of our 2019 Extra Life efforts. I’m preparing for up to forty players, and I will be bringing fifty different great four-player games for people to play at this tournament.

One of the many things that I think is a feature of these events is that I don’t require people to know how to play the games they sign up to compete in. While a player who knows the game will have a pretty strong advantage, it’s not a requirement to participate. I do this to make the event open and inviting to the largest group of players possible.

The problem is that there is a chance that I get tables with four players where no one knows or no one is willing to teach any new players the game they are about to play. Theoretically, this could mean that I need to teach fifty games that day!

Now past experience running these tournaments has shown me that this shouldn’t be the case. Players will often even practice playing the games in the tournament leading up to the event. Also, because there are prizes on the line, players tend to only sign up for games they already know how to play. Despite this, I know that I will be teaching a lot of games that day. While I may know a thing or two about teaching board games, this is where teaching aids, play summaries, reference sheets, and fan created game aids can really save the day!

The cover of the how to teach Euphoria Guide.In some cases, the right player aid can actually eliminate the need for me to teach a game. If a game is simple enough, or the player aid is clear enough, then the group of players can actually just use that tool to teach themselves the game. This is a godsend to me, as all I need to do is check in with a group like this and make sure they understand things clear enough. That frees me up to focus on another game that is more difficult to learn.

While the Blitz is the event for which I’m most thankful for both publisher included and fan created player aids, I’m also a big fan of using them with all my games. Both for bringing them out to the public play events I host or co-host most weekends or even just for my home games. In general, I’m a huge fan of anything that helps reduce set up time, makes games easier to teach and learn, and/or helps organize information so that it’s easier to access while playing.

For the rest of this post I’m going to answer each of Ryan’s other questions one at a time. Ryan’s questions are specifically about fan created player aids. For the rest of this post I’m going to be talking about player aids in general. These include fan created ones as well as player aids included in the game by the publisher. In most cases if a publisher didn’t include a player aid, some fan out there somewhere has created one. In many cases where the publisher did include a player aid, fans have created their own better version. For all of my answers below, the actual source of the player aid doesn’t really matter.

Are Player Aids table clutter, or do they actually help?

Back in The Short Answer, I mentioned that one of the potential negatives of player aids is that it’s possible to have too many of them. This hasn’t happened to me often, but a couple of times I have sat down to a game and just been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff on the table. The number of cards, books and sheets I needed to reference in order to play that game. Similarly, some aids that are meant to help the players aren’t very well done and can actually be misleading.

The two sided player boards that come with the card game Race for the Galaxy.As an example look at the player boards that are included with Race for the Galaxy. There is far too much information provided on these two-sided sheets. In addition, not everything on them is well explained. The sheets are actually more of a teaching tool for someone who already knows the game to teach a new player, and to me, that’s a failure for this tool as a player aid. A good player aid should be able to be used without further explanation.

Thankfully, overall, these problems are an exception rather than the norm. In most cases, player aids do exactly that — they aid the players. As for clutter, one of the great things about most of these tools is that you can just put them away when you don’t need them. You have them out when you are teaching the game and maybe even for the first couple of plays but then they can easily be left in the box.

Are player aids better for new players or will veterans also benefit?

Player aids can be invaluable for a player learning a game for the first time. To me that’s their main purpose. To be able to better facilitate set up and gameplay and include an easy reference during play so that no one is flipping through a rulebook during the game.

I also think they can be just as useful for veterans. For me personally they are a great way for me to brush up on the rules for a game I haven’t played in some time and act as a reminder of things not to forget when teaching a game. I play a lot of games and being able to look over a rule summary instead of re-read an entire rulebook saves me a lot of time and effort when dusting off a game that’s been on the shelf for a bit.

Things like physical player aids are going to be useful no matter your gaming experience. Upgraded components, storage solutions, sorting tools, reference cards, etc. are going to be useful for every player and can be invaluable to some players. For players with accessibility issues things like upgraded components that swap out generic cubes for 3d sculpted resources can mean the difference between someone being able to play a game or not.

Ryan, who is visually impaired, has talked about his growing use of coin capsules to identify tokens and chits. Combined with the use of stickers and/or braille he’s able to play many games that would be unplayable without these kinds of player aids.

Which aids or kinds of aids help the most and least?

The most useful kids of player aids I’ve found include:

  • Set up instructions – Please give me a separate sheet or card that shows me how to set up the game, including anything that changes based on the player count. I hate going through the rulebook trying to figure out how much starting money everyone gets or trying to find that one rule where player three gets different starting resources from player two.
  • Turn/round sequence reference – Which should include all of the different player actions possible during each. I honestly think every single game ever published should include this in the box. It’s by far the most useful player aid you can have for a game.
  • Rules summaries – Summarise the core rules of the game in as short a space as possible. Once I’ve read the rulebook and played the game once this is all I should need to use going forward.
  • Icon reference – If the game uses any form of iconography please give me a card or sheet or have something on the board that shows me what those icons mean.
  • Accessibility tools – I touched on this in the last section. Things like different sized counters for money, resources that are physically differently shaped from each other, colour-blind friendly player colours, oversized pieces, etc. All of these things can be the difference between someone being able to play the game or not.

Some of the least useful player aides I’ve seen include:

  • Icon lists that don’t actually have all the icons – I’ve seen this far too often over the years. If you are going to list icons, make sure you list them all.
  • A round summary without a turn summary – If your game has four phases but phase three has eight steps, don’t just give me a summary card with the four phases. This isn’t common but I have seen it.
  • A summary card that’s just an index listing rulebook page references – While I do appreciate an index, your summary sheet/card should actually summarize more than where to find stuff in another book. Though please do include page numbers in case I do want to find more info.
  • Three seprate books I need to reference during play – I’m looking at you Fantasy Flight Games with your How to Play, Reference, and Rules books all included for one game.

Are there games that you wish had aids, but do not yet?

There are definitely games that are still coming out today that don’t include basic things like turn summaries. A very recent example is the deluxe Kickstarter edition of Endeavor Age of Sail. This is one of the most well-produced games I own. While it did include some awesome player aids, like upgraded components that make the game more accessible as well as better looking, it was missing one key thing I think should be in every game: a turn reference.

Part of the great Endeavor player aid from The Esoteric Order of GamersIn Endeavor each turn players are going to get to take one action, these actions are based on the buildings the player has in play as well as tokens they have collected. On the buildings and tokens these actions are just represented by symbols. There’s nothing anywhere, except the rulebook, that tells you that a Crate represents the Draw action and what the Draw action actually means.

While I was teaching the game I had two different players at two different times during the teach ask if the various actions were summarised somewhere and they aren’t. For everything else you get with this new edition of Endeavor they forgot a basic teaching and memory tool.

Sadly there are many others, but thankfully this is where the gaming community has stepped up. In regards to Endeavor specifically The Esoteric Order of Gamers has a great two-sided half sheet that has the round summary on one side and all of the actions on the other. As an added bonus it also lists the end game scoring, a nice touch.

Are there games where you feel player aids aren’t needed?

The rules for the board game Gobblet!I’m sure there are games out there that are simple enough that you don’t need some form of player aid. Games where the actual rules are just one page probably don’t need a rule summary for example.

In general though, most hobby board games aren’t that simple, and in most cases, I can’t see how some form of player aid wouldn’t help. More importantly I can’t see how including a player aid of some sort could hurt. To me it’s a matter of why not give the players as many tools as possible to make your game as easy to approach as you can?

Has a player aid like a rules summary ever replaced a games rulebook for you?

The board game Egizia with a great rules reference I found online. Yes, I have a few games for which I expect to never touch the rulebook again because I’ve found a rules summary or teaching aid that’s actually better at explaining the game than the main rulebook.

One example of this is a half page rule summary I found online many years ago for one of my favourite games: Egizia. This thing not only summarizes the rules but covers every aspect of the game from setup to final scoring and is written in a way that you can basically read it out loud to a group in order to teach the game. I have actually done this on multiple occasions. At this point, my Egizia rulebook is tucked away in the box under the box insert.

Player aids aren’t just for board games. RPGs can benefit as well

A Dungeons And Dragons Combat flowchartMost of the above is pretty board game focused, but player aids can be just as useful for roleplaying games. Custom character sheets have been a favourite since the dawn of the internet. Spell and ability cards are becoming more and more popular. Back when I first started playing 4th Edition D&D I used a free piece of software called the CCG maker to create power cards for all of my character abilities. Nowadays companies like Wizards of the Coast put out their own branded card sets for their games.

You can find all manner of RPG player aids out there. Rule summaries. List of available character actions. Inventory management tools. Die drop tables. Custom DM Screens. Basically, if you can think of it someone has probably already made it.

A final note on digital tools for tabletop gaming

A screenshot of the Gloomhaven Helper AppNot all player aids are physical. They aren’t all custom dice and components and rule summary sheets. Some player aids are digital, and many of them have been created by fans for their favourite games. The best example I can think of right now is the Gloomhaven Helper app from Spine that we now use for all of our Friday night Gloomhaven live streams. This fan-created app takes care of initiative, the monster action decks, the monster abilities, the monster combat deck, element infusion and tracking conditions. All you need to do is input your characters, their levels and the scenario you are doing and it does everything else.

The Gloomhaven Helper is just one example. There are a ton of digital score sheets, dice rollers, campaign trackers, and other great tools out there.

So as you can tell I’m a big fan of player aids in general. While there are a few out there that aren’t quite as good as I had hoped, overall I can’t see any reason not to be a big proponent of gaming aids. I love anything that helps me get a game to the table more often and player aids often help with setup, assist in teaching games, act as a reference so you don’t have to keep going back to the rulebook, can make games more accessible to a broader range of people and overall help improve everyone’s gameplay experience.

What about you? Are you a fan of player aids? What are some of your favourites? Have you ever made your own? Let us know in the comments!

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