One of many things I’ve learned about grammar and editing is that there aren’t as many hard-and-fast rules as your high school English teacher might lead you to believe. But while many things are permissible, that is not a license to abandon all rules. The key is consistency. If Webster has “mind-set” and you want to spell it “mindset,” most people won’t question you—so long as you are consistent.
This example may seem silly, but the same principle, I’ve found, applies when teaching board games and especially while writing rules for a game. Consistency is key, and there are few things more infuriating when you’re trying to learn a game than inconsistency.
Case in point: I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I got my start in gaming with CCGs. One of the early ones I played was Redemption. I also mentioned that this Christian CCG caused more fights among my friends than any other game we played because the rules were so poorly written. One of the hang-ups was the use of “ignore” and “repel.” Some cards said “So-and-so repels the blue brigade,” others “So-and-so ignores the red brigade.” We assumedthese meant different things (as, indeed, they should). But depending on who benefited from which interpretation, we disagreed on what the terms meant. When we mailed the game’s publisher for a ruling, they said that the terms meant the same thing, leading to our next question: then why not use the same term in all instances?
On the other end of the spectrum, a great example of a game with impeccable consistency is Dominion. No matter which set you’re playing, you know that “+X cards” means draw that many cards; “gain” means add a card to your discard pile; “trash” means remove from your deck. This consistency not only makes the game feel sleek and streamlined, it also aids in teaching. In the worst of circumstances, a small crib sheet can help players know exactly what the cards do, but even this has been unnecessary each time I’ve taught the game.
Consistency is important in rulebooks—each term should be used in the same way throughout, and designers should, in the parlance of Strunk & White, “omit needless words.” How is this principle applied to teaching board games?
When teaching board games, it is crucial to maintain the same terms as you teach. It is, admittedly, more important in some games and in some aspects than in others. You could get away with interchanging “lumber,” “wood,” and “logs” in Settlers of Catan. But in other games, subtle distinctions can be substantial. There is a huge difference between “trash” and “discard,” “coin” and “gold,” or “+1 coin” and “gain a copper” in Dominion. There is quite a difference between “court” and “provinces” in El Grande and “ore” and “stone” in 7 Wonders. When teaching, even though it seems hard-nosed, I try not only to use the terms consistently, but also to (gently) correct new players if they mix terms up on their turns. Is this annoying? Probably. Is it effective? In my experience, yes. Habits, whether good or bad, are formed through repetition. And while it may be easier to let a new player say the wrong things even if they do the right things, this will cause more problems in the long run. It’s easier to correct before bad habits are formed.
Consistency also applies to rules, and to the little rules as much as the big ones. It’s easy for new players in Dominion to question the importance of not reshuffling until they need to draw cards and have no cards to draw, or to play action cards in front of them rather than directly to their discard piles, or to not place revealed cards in their discard piles until they find the card they are searching for. These things make a difference, but they may not seem to if you’re playing the sample “first game” set. While it’s certainly easier to say, “Sure; shuffle whenever you want,” there are cards where the timing of the shuffling matters, and it’s best to learn the right way from the beginning to make future games easier.
Or in Carcassonne, placing a follower on a tile happens before scoring. Most of the time (if a player has followers in his pool) this won’t matter, particularly if you’re not playing with the bully or the builder. But if a player has no followers to play, he cannot play a follower he gets back from a completed feature. This is an important distinction to retain.
These distinctions may seem nitpicky to new players (and to old ones), but I find that it’s easier to retain hard-and-fast rules early on than to allow laxity in teaching. It may be harder to explain subtle nuances (when in doubt, fall back on, “The rulebook says to do it this way; just do it”), but I ultimately think that practicing consistency will aid the teacher and the player alike. When a new situation is encountered—one where that subtle difference comes into play—a new player is better equipped to understand the full ramifications of his play if he has been taught using the strict discipline of consistency. Ultimately, teaching with consistency empowers players to make better informed decisions, which is part of the goal of teaching in the first place.
***I should note that while I advocate rigid consistency, this does not mean I advocate meanness. It’s possible to be gently consistent, and it’s possible to be rigid without making new players hate you or never want to play again. Striking a balance is difficult but is necessary in teaching. I should also mention that as consistent as I try to be, I am human, and other players are human as well. This is where the first post in the series, on the virtue of patience, and especially the final point there—giving and receiving grace—are particularly useful.