I’ll start off this post by admitting that I’m comparably new to board games. Some people have grown up with board games since they were babies, learning games from their parents and friends. Sure, I played Monopoly (shudder) and Life as a kid, but it took me up until just recently – a year or so ago – to call myself an actual hobby gamer. If you’ve read my 1st post, you will know that through high school I had tried some games – Catan, Munchkin, Heroclix – which I enjoyed, buy never really got into (except for Heroclix. Good golly I spent a lot of money on those.)
I feel fortunate that I kept a pretty solid group of friends through those years. We all sort of transitioned through various hobbies together. We played Heroclix, we played Halo, we played Soul Caliber. And so, when we finally discovered Games Plus and started getting into DnD and Board gaming together… none of us really had a big background in board gaming. None of us knew which games to start with beyond a few basics (Carcassonne, Settlers) and our first few shots were just guesses. We picked up some games from other groups, but I lot of the games I own now I simply heard about and took a chance with a purchase.
And that brings me to the main subject of this post: learning how to play a board game.
Because of the previously described situation, we learned a lot of games in perhaps a unique way – from the instruction manual.
Okay, that’s probably not that unique. But I think a lot of people learn games by playing with another group that has experience with a game. It’s definitely a great way to learn – when you encounter those tricky situations where the rules seem unclear, experienced players can offer a quick and usually correct solution without wasting time paging through a booklet looking for that hidden piece of information.
But many of the games our group picks up, we learn from scratch. Android, Arkham Horror, Cosmic Encounter, Frag, even Dominion – our first few plays were enjoyable, but somewhat painstaking exercises in working through confusing rules and unexpected situations. Dominion was easy enough, but Frag seemed a little unbalanced, and some moments of Cosmic Encounter were a little bit rough as we worked through the terminology of the game. Android took hours to explain and longer to play, and Arkham Horror thrashed us through and through. (Actually, our group has not yet successfully won a game of Arkham without cheating, though it can be assured that this cheating was due to a lack of knowledge of some of the finer points of the rules).
Still, there’s something.. rewarding about piecing together the subtleties of any game, working out the rules, figuring out the strategies, all by yourself. And I’m sure it’s great exercise for the brain as well.
However I can certainly see the benefit of learning from an experienced player. Though I’m often assigned the duties of learning the rules of a new game, my Nemesis (the other Jon) is excellent at explaining rules of a game quickly and concisely. I feel like I understand a game better when he introduces it. He’s also very good at pointing out some of the basic or key strategies of a game, which is another benefit to learning from an experienced player. Sometimes games have very important strategies that aren’t always obvious from the get-go. Learning Cosmic Encounter took a number of playthroughs to start to understand the strategies of offering alliances, attempting negotiations, and preventing others from getting too far ahead. Carcassonne, which I learned from the Nemesis, made a lot of sense after 1 or 2 playthroughs – perhaps because it was a simpler game, but I think it had a lot to do with the Nemesis offering up some basic strategies. After all, what good is a nemesis-ery if you’re not somewhat evenly matched?
There can certainly be a downside to learning from an experienced player, though. Nemesis Jon has told stories of games he learned from friends or relatives during which he was totally creamed, because the experienced players used his inexperience to their advantage. Instead of helping a new player into the game, these players took advantage of him to feed their egos. Don’t be that guy.
Learning from scratch can be challenging but rewarding, and perhaps provide a unique insight to a game. On the other hand, it can cause some rough first experiences with a game until the rules are ironed out.
Learning from an experienced player or group can get you up and running faster, but with the wrong person or group a first-time with a new game can be very negative.
So how do you guys learn most of your games? Do you play with others familiar with the game, or do you like to page through the rulebooks yourselves? Do you feel that one way is better than the other? Any other thoughts about it?