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What makes a good first play?

A Good First Play - Scythe

The first time we play a game is the most important. After a good first play, a game might be fast tracked to becoming a long-term favourite. A bad first play, however, could be enough to consign that game to the back of the shelf.

The first play of a game is important both for people playing one of their first ever board games and for people who have played hundreds. For the first group, a good first experience could be the difference between trying more games or never touching a board game again. For the second group, only a great first experience would be enough to keep them interested in that title.

So, what can board games designers and publishers do to make sure that the people playing their games have a good first experience? That's the question that I'm going to look at in this article, which is the second article in a mini-series of four looking at what makes us buy, play and enjoy board games. The rule book, player aids, mechanics and components all combine to make or break that crucial first play

First Play - Learning the Rules

One way or another, you have to learn the rules when you play a game for the first time. The best rules experiences often come when you have someone else to teach you. When I play new games at my local board game cafe, I will always try to get one of the staff to teach it if they're free. Of course, a bad teacher can single-handedly ruin the experience!

If you're in the position that I'm normally in, where it's on you to teach the game, it's crucial that the rule book is good. Game publishers have a great opportunity to improve player's first experiences by working hard on the rule book and I know that many do a good job. The rules should be easy to read, they should guide players through setting up, turns and game flow, should make victory conditions clear and should make it as easy as possible to find answers to trickier questions.

Publishers can also hire content producers like Watch It Played and Gaming Rules to do rules videos for them. Watching a good rules video is my preferred way of learning a game; it's almost like having someone else in the room teach it to you. These videos take you through the rules systematically, using visual aids showing the actual components. I would recommend giving them a watch if they're available for the next game you need to learn.

Components and Game Production

The look and feel of a game always make a difference to my first play. If I like how it looks on the table and enjoy using the pieces, I'll be much more inclined to give the game another go than I would be otherwise.

Components serve a practical purpose, making the game easier or harder to play. Cards are an easy example. If the text and iconography are clear and easy to interpret, that first experience will be much better than if it takes two minutes every time you look at a card to work out what it does. The clarity of the board and the ease with which you can work out what different components do also makes a difference.

There is also a completely non-functional aspect to game pieces that can contribute positively or negatively to that first play. There are some games that have intrigued me from the first set-up. In actual fact, I put Catan into this bracket. Although it's nothing special in comparison to other games I now own, when I saw it for the first time (it was one of the first designer games I ever played) I was fascinated by the modular board and the fact that it looked so different from anything I've played before.

A more recent example is Wildlands, a game that has only just come out and won a place in my heart. The game really pops off the table with bold, bright colours and absolutely stunning miniatures. Every component in the game has been made to an exceptional standard, which I've already seen have a positive impact on myself and those that I've played with so far.

Player Aids

Player aids combine some of the points that I've already discussed in the previous sections. Somewhere between a rule book and a component, they remind players of key mechanics and guide them through turns. For the first play of a game, a good player aid is essential. I've seen several examples of good player aids in my recent acquisitions that I want to highlight:

  • Scythe has some of the best player aids I've seen. A well-presented player board makes it completely clear what players can do on their turns. This is accompanied by simple rules cards that explain the game's core mechanics in brief.
  • Yamatai is not the most complicated game in the world, but its five-step turns have the potential to cause confusion. Thankfully, clear player boards make it obvious what you need to do and in the order in which you should carry out your actions.
  • Wildlands gets another mention because of the player aid that comes with each faction. This double-sided card breaks combat down clearly, showing which defences match up to which attacks. A grid on the other side of the card offers tactical information, showing you exactly what your faction can do.

Writing again as someone who, more often than not, is the teacher of a new game, I find player aids invaluable for any game that strays into medium-weight complexity or has some fiddly rules. Lighter games with simple one or two-step turns don't need a player aid, but anything that has complexity in the way the rules work or in the number of things you have to pay attention to in your turn benefit from them. I'm glad that publishers seem to be using them more and more; they always improve early experiences.

Good First Play - Yamatai Board Game (Credit: Days of Wonder)

The Mechanics of the Game

In my previous post, I talked about how the basic mechanics of a game can make a good or bad first impression. They are even more important in the first play. Clean, intuitive mechanics lend themselves to good experiences, whereas more difficult, less logical mechanics can be stumbling blocks for first-time players.

As much as I love Root now, my first experience of it wasn't great. This was partly due to a lot of mechanics being hard to grasp intuitively. We didn't realise that you only scored points for removing tokens in battle, rather than for warriors as well. The rules for attacking a space occupied only by tokens weren't obvious either, and one player struggled with how certain cards interacted with turn order. All of this meant that we, as a group, had an underwhelming and slightly frustrating experience, even though we now really enjoy the game.

Of course, certain players will prefer certain types of mechanics. If you love worker placement and you play a worker placement game, the chances are good that you'll enjoy your first play. Publishers and designers can give their games even more of a boost by finding ways to innovate on or improve established mechanics. The risk, of course, is that the improvements will fall flat. But doing a good job gives their games a much better chance of success.

I've tried to cover the main points in this article, but I'll definitely have missed a few! What gives you a good first play of a game? Or what do you really dislike games doing the first time you play them?