zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Second Chance at a First Impression

Earlier this week I briefly mentioned the fact that our gaming group didn’t play 7 Wonders because I was doing a poor job teaching it. I actually called off the game before getting through the explanation because I really didn’t know my stuff. We played a game we already knew and everyone had fun. I hate to think how dreadful the situation might have become if I had pressed on. I could have soured everyone on 7 Wonders. As it is, the game may still become a favorite because I stopped. It can be hard to admit, but the explanation of a game can make or break the whole experience, and possibly even permanently move a game to the back of the game closet.
Since this is so crucial, how does one go about teaching a game? Everyone develops their own method over time, but I do think there are three critical phases that are needed. Within each phase there are more variations, but I personally have three steps within each phase, leading me to the Three-On-Three Method.
The first phase is Study. Long before the game session is to begin, you, as the Game Explainer needs to:
  1. Become intimately familiar with the parts of game. This starts with unpacking. If the game is being unsealed, this is a great time to punch and bag any counters and cards. (I wrote about card storage a little while ago.) Use this time to take a look at all of the game components; this will make reading the rules clearer.
  2. Read the rules – several times. This may seem to be obvious and overkill, but many rules aren’t written as clearly as they should be. This is particularly true when the game was developed someplace else in the world; something literally may be lost in the translation. Take a second look at the game components as you read.
  3. Play the game solitaire. Look at the range for the number of players, and set up the game for somewhere in the middle of that range. Play several turns of each player, until the flow of the game is well understood. As an example, 7 Wonders is a game for 2-7 players, so I will set up for four players and play the game myself. (Hey, I said I didn’t know my stuff, didn’t I?)
After these steps, it is time to Setup. It’s Game Day, so:
  1. Before everyone comes to the table, set the game up for the correct number of players. This way everyone will be set up correctly, and all of the components will be out where they can be seen in reference to the game board and players.
  2. Teach the game in layers, becoming more detailed as you go. (Discourage questions until you are through.) Give the storyline for the game; often this can be read from the back of the box or beginning of the rules. Explain the overall objective and victory conditions. Then review the board and components and their role in the game. However, do not explain every detail; keep it to the general effect on the game. Then, discuss what a player will do on their turn. Provide a little more detail, but not every bit.
  3. Answer relatively simple questions. Often, they will be explained in the next phase. Stay on track and keep moving towards the next phase as quickly as possible.
Lastly, it’s time to play a Sample Game. Have everyone play a few turns, during which:
  1. Their options can be explored as a group. This lets everyone see how choosing an option plays out, and the short term impact of the choice. Long term impacts, if they are at all understood, can be discussed.
  2. Details of the components can be explained, including any symbols used. In particular, cards might be used in multiple ways, and each of these ways can be talked about.
  3. The game should slowly be turned over to players. This is when the last finicky details can be added. For example, if the conditions that end the game are different than the victory conditions, they can be explained here. In Ticket to Ride, the end of the game is triggered by any one player having only two of their 45 markers left. At that point, play goes one more time around the table. Explaining this a few turns into the game provides more context, and is better understood without impact to someone’s strategy.
At this point, you have taught the game. I will generally suggest to my group, particularly in a longer game, that we start over after a few more turns. Everyone should have the flow of the game down, and starting over can erase any really ugly strategic mistakes. If we will probably get multiple plays in that day, we tend to finish the sample game, ignoring the win and chalking it up to a “learning experience”. Then we get more serious.
If the Game Explainer is already a long-time veteran player of the game being introduced, the Study phase can clearly be dropped. The point is to know the subject. Time in class can be traded for experience! However, teaching a new game well will always take some extra effort.
Now it is time for me to follow my own advice. I need to grab 7 Wonders off the shelf and not only become more familiar with the components, but play a solo game too. Until next time…

It’s Your Move!

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I agree that how a game is taught to a new player has a huge impact on how much enjoyment a player gets out of his or her first experience with a game. I this is a great method to go about teaching game and I am a big fan of learning a game through a sample game.


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