Hobby boardgamers are geeks, and that means it’s important for them to try to get everyone around them interested in whatever they themselves are interested in. There are a special subset of games referred to as “gateway games” because of their alleged success in “converting” non-boardgamers into boardgamers. We’ve already discussed those games here.
Today I’d like to talk about the opposite of these games, games that are not at all friendly to “newbies.” After playing (probably more like “enduring”) one of these games, the target is not likely to say, “That was great! What else do you have like it?” but instead, “Dear God, you call that fun?”
Now, keep in mind that these are considered good games — great ones in many cases. They’re not bad games at all, they’re just not for someone just starting out. Nor are they “Boardgame 102″ to the gateway game’s “101.” These are, like, seminars for majors only. In that respect, if you’re just getting bitten by the boardgaming bug, these are some games you might want to aim towards eventually.
For some games, it’s pretty obvious that they are not to be approached lightly. If you’re holding a box the size and weight of a toddler, you can pretty much assume there’s going to be more here than “roll a die and draw a card.” War of the Ring, Twilight Imperium 3, and Starcraft: the Board Game are all hefty boys who warn you right off the bat of what you’re dealing with. Each one of these games is simulating events on an epic scale, and the accompanying rules, mechanics, and play lengths will all reflect this grand scope. For example, look at this image:
That is page one of a two-page basic rules summary for Twilight Imperium 3.
A puzzle box is a term (that I just now coined) to describe a game in which there are several things going on at once, all of which interact in some way, so that it’s difficult to both teach and grasp. Each individual portion of a puzzle box may not be particularly difficult, but they’re connected in a subtle and non-obvious way which can baffle even seasoned players. Examples of puzzle box games are Reef Encounter, Caylus, and Le Havre.
In Caylus, for example, you place your workers on locations which will let you get cubes, perform actions, get money, or do other things. Cubes are what you need to perform actions, and money’s what you need to place workers. In addition, you need victory points to win, which are gained through building the castle, which you also need cubes for. However, you also have to pay attention to where the Provost marker is, as that controls which buildings will get “activated.” Confused? Possibly. There’s a lot there to think about, and you neglect any aspect of it at your own peril.
These are games that are not overly hard to learn the rules to, but the first time you play, you are probably going to get pummeled. Possibly by the other players, but more likely by the game itself. These are brutal, unforgiving games in which one tiny misstep can snowball into a full-blown disaster. For gamers used to this sort of thing, such a loss is fine; now they know more about how things work and can try to do better next time. For non-gamers there probably won’t be a next time, as most don’t find it fun to get kicked in the area by a boardgame. Examples of this type of game would be Antiquity (a game about establishing cities that simulates famine to such an extent that many players build cities just to house corpses in), In the Year of the Dragon (sure, you know exactly what crises are coming up to prepare for — and that knowledge is only of slight help) and Age of Steam, a railroad game in which not having a single dollar in cash at a crucial moment can send you into a financial death spiral. These games are great — the tension is quite palpable — but they don’t go easy on new players.
This is a sort of catch-all term. What these games have in common is that something about them seems to be actively standing in the way of comprehending the game. For people who have a bit of a working knowledge with hobby games, this can often be worked around, but for a non-gamer, it can be paralyzing. There are a number of ways this can manifest.
In Tigris and Euphrates, don’t bother picking a color; nobody is a color. Instead you are a symbol. And each symbol has each of the four colors in it. Similarly, in Imperial, you’re presented with a map of Europe, but don’t bother choosing a country. Even if you start with control of a country, it’s not “yours” and can easily go to someone else during the game. You can even have control of no countries (and still do quite well). For people used to having a “guy” on the board, or at least something that represents “them,” these games frustrate those expectations.
Elements intended to improve the function of the game often work against it. Race for the Galaxy is a card game in which the cards are slathered in — for many people — indecipherable symbols that, instead of making it clear what the card does, transform new players into grad students working on translating Linear B.
I have right here a figure of Jango Fett from a Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Lego set. Quick, without looking at Google, tell me how much it’s worth! You probably have no idea. In games that rely on auctions — and there are many of them — new players often have no idea how to intelligently bid on items they can’t possibly know the values of. Even a veteran player like myself can get caught at this: in a recent game I was playing for the first time I bid twenty game dollars on something that no one else went above six on. Turns out I WAY overbid, and it really cost me later on. On the flip side, one can bid three bucks on something, unaware that people who have played before won’t go any lower than fifteen. If you don’t have some experience, you’re just making random guesses.
And finally, some games are hampered by off-putting or oddball themes. The mechanics may be fairly straightforward but the theme — what the game is about — might prevent new players from gaining an interest in what’s going on. In the above Tigris and Euphrates, the players are supposedly managing vast empires in Babylonia, but for many folks the game is dry as a bone, and unless you are transfixed by the gameplay, you’re just going through the motions. Sometimes the theme is troublesome to players, such as Chaos in the Old World, which is about “chaos gods” spreading corruption over a map made to look like flayed human flesh. The church group may not be the place for this one. And sometimes the theme is — to American players — just peculiar. The game Die Macher, which is considered one of the most intense games ever, is a three hour boardgame that simulates a German parliamentary election.
Let me reiterate that all of these games are considered good games. They’re well worth playing — but not necessarily by folks who are new to boardgames. Get a couple of other games under your belt and you’ll have a better chance at understanding concepts and mechanics behind games in general that will help mitigate some of the stumbling blocks.
Of course, not everyone’s experience is the same. There are folks who were introduced to hobby games through one of the above, and eagerly came back for more. Some folks have found a way to teach these games to new players and hook them from the start. And there’s always someone out there who has gone all his life wanting to take part in a five-hour simulation of a German parliamentary election and had no idea the opportunity was out there. But for most new gamers, be advised: this won’t be easy.