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  • Essays
  • Player Aids - Making Board Games Easier to Learn, Teach, Play and Enjoy

Player Aids - Making Board Games Easier to Learn, Teach, Play and Enjoy

O Updated
(Photo by Lidia Estaban on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

Teaching a game isn't easy and the same is true for learning. The teacher will do their best to explain everything and get everything right, but the first play of a game should always be chalked down to experience. Players should do what they can to help and expect mistakes to creep in. However, there are also things the game itself can do to make learning a new game easier, some of which will also help with playing the game again later.

The title of my article gives a clue as to what I'm talking about. When a game goes above a certain level of rules complexity, player aids will be a huge plus. It's not necessarily the number of rules that make a game complex, but it could be a multi-step phase of a game or even the number of phases each round. A player aid is great for listing the different phases in a game, the order in which they have to be done and maybe a brief summary of what happens in each phase.

It will still be important for the teacher to explain the phases and the order in which they happen, so everyone fully understands what happens and is aware of potential nuances or edge cases. After that initial explanation, players can then refer to their player aid as a reminder of what happens when. In fact, pointing players at the player aid before starting that part of the rules teach allows everyone to follow along as the teacher explains everything in detail and allows players to better remember it all.

The player boards in Root by Cole Wehrle from Leder Games have a dual role as player aids. Every faction has an outline of the different phases of a turn and then describes the different actions and often the order in which these actions have to be taken within each phase. On your turn, you basically just read your player board from top to bottom and you can be certain you've done everything correctly. Sure, you might still miss certain things, but it's actually all there in front of you. In fact, the player boards in Root are so good, that the teacher almost doesn't need to explain the factions. All they need to focus on are those things that are the same for all factions in the game.

Player aids can also be useful for things such as conversion tables. Sometimes these are printed on the game board, but having a small player aid in front of you allows everyone easy access to the information they need without having to lean over the table to be able to read what's on the other end of the board. So if you want to know how much it costs to build a building or how much grain you need to convert into bread, then you can quickly look at your player aid. That also means you can check the information when it's not your turn, which can help speed up a game.

Player aids aren't always necessary though. In games that have some sort of card mechanism, it is possible to have all the information written on the card itself. I know, that means the game won't be language independent. Replacing text with symbology is often preferred, especially when it's not on cards but on a player or game board. However, I do like it when cards in a game have a paragraph of text or so that explains how the card works.

Fluxx by Andrew and Kristin Looney from Looney Labs is a prime example. You don't really need to explain much when you teach people how to play the game. Just explain the basics and then tell everyone to read the cards in their hand and the card they draw. It's all there in front of you. If you draw a creeper, it tells you that you have to put it in front of you and draw a new card in its place. It also says that you can't win the game while it's in front of you - except if a goal says otherwise.

The special action cards in The Fox in the Forest Duet by Foxtrot Games from Renegade Game Studios are another example. You just need to read them and you know what they do. However, the game also has player aids that describe all of the action cards, which makes sense, because you do want to know what cards your partner might have to help you win the game.

Of course, a lot of games don't even need player aids, because all of the important information is printed on the game board itself. However, that information acts very much like a player aid would, except that it's not always easy to see it properly if the game board is quite big and you sit on the other end of it, as I mentioned above. So I tend to prefer if the information is on your personal player board or if a game comes with player aids for every player.

Other games use the back of the rulebook for a quick reference. That's really useful and probably the better solution if there is a lot to explain or if the quick reference contains some more detailed explanation. Yet, even then I'd rather have an A4 sheet for every player, so everyone can read the quick reference in their own time, without having to ask for the rulebook to be passed around or having to wait for another player to finish finding the information they need, before you can check what you want to know.

At the end of the day though, a quick reference on the back cover of a rulebook is much preferred than a long glossary of terminology that you have to flick through or information that's buried somewhere in the middle of the rulebook, because it's put alongside the section in the rules that it refers to. In the latter case, you want it in both places: at the back of the rulebook as well as a boxout or similar at the location where the relevant rules are explained.

So now I'm wondering what you think a game should do to make it easier to learn and play. Have you come across a game that's really good at it? Are there really useful player aids that are just invaluable and that make the game so much more fun to play? I'd love to hear what games are really good at this sort of thing. Please share your examples in the comments below.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #333843 22 Jun 2022 08:01
Recently, when learning to play Pax Transhumanity (and teach it), I created an outline of important concepts in order to organize the rulebook better. In doing so I was able to process and internalize the rules much more, and felt very confident teaching it. I'm considering doing this for other games that seem tough to get a grip on. It's not meant to be a player aid per se, just an aid in learning.

I have also made for-real player aids for games and almost always find them helpful for others.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #333844 22 Jun 2022 08:12
I make player-aid writeups for almost every game I play, particularly skirmish minis games. It's the same principle as when we were in school and assigned to read a chapter in a book: I can read something & understand it well enough, but if I read something and take my own notes (or in the case of games, construct some sort of rules restatement or player aid) then it cements the ideas in my brain better than just scanning text. I probably haven't had to use half of the player-aids I've written, but just the act of writing them helps me retain the knowledge better.

And in the case of games you come back to after a span of time away, a nice player-aid is invaluable to getting up and running again.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #333846 22 Jun 2022 08:47
Knowing if a game has a UniversalHead/Esoteric Order of Gamers player aid is a legitimate selling point for me. They should print if he has made one on the box; it's much more valuable to know that than if it won the Spiel De Jahres or has the Dice Tower Seal of Approval.

A good player aid concisely distills the rules but a great player aid incorporates the iconography and fits the visual design of the rest of the game making it even easier to use. UniversalHead's experience as a Graphic Designer shows here; when I see some of his player aids I'm often confident enough to skip the rulebook entirely!
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #333847 22 Jun 2022 09:46

sornars wrote: Knowing if a game has a UniversalHead/Esoteric Order of Gamers player aid is a legitimate selling point for me. They should print if he has made one on the box; it's much more valuable to know that than if it won the Spiel De Jahres or has the Dice Tower Seal of Approval.

A good player aid concisely distills the rules but a great player aid incorporates the iconography and fits the visual design of the rest of the game making it even easier to use. UniversalHead's experience as a Graphic Designer shows here; when I see some of his player aids I'm often confident enough to skip the rulebook entirely!


One reason I kickstarted Masters of the Night was that they hired Universal Head to do the graphic design for the game. It's a very well-designed and enjoyable game, and one of the easiest medium-weights in my collection to teach to new players.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #333848 22 Jun 2022 11:09

sornars wrote: Knowing if a game has a UniversalHead/Esoteric Order of Gamers player aid is a legitimate selling point for me. They should print if he has made one on the box; it's much more valuable to know that than if it won the Spiel De Jahres or has the Dice Tower Seal of Approval.

A good player aid concisely distills the rules but a great player aid incorporates the iconography and fits the visual design of the rest of the game making it even easier to use. UniversalHead's experience as a Graphic Designer shows here; when I see some of his player aids I'm often confident enough to skip the rulebook entirely!


For me a label on the box with Spiel De Jahres or DT is a warning to put it back on the shelf - the former because SDJ awards are given to bland flavorless games and the latter is basically a paid advertisement.
stormseeker75's Avatar
stormseeker75 replied the topic: #333851 22 Jun 2022 11:41
I have a serious loathing of the Dick Tower based on a real-life interaction with Tom Vasel. Fuck those guys.

Conversely, if it wins an SdJ then I know I'm in good shape because I love me some dry, flavorless Euros!
ratpfink's Avatar
ratpfink replied the topic: #333854 22 Jun 2022 13:40
Hey now, the Dice Tower seal of approval has the high bar of someone played the game once and rated it a 7.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #333855 22 Jun 2022 15:50
Isn't getting a 7 BGG rating the same as getting a 400 on the SAT - the latter is your lowest score for just putting your name on the rest and not answering a single question ?
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #333856 22 Jun 2022 15:51

stormseeker75 wrote: I have a serious loathing of the Dick Tower based on a real-life interaction with Tom Vasel. Fuck those guys.


Come on, don't be a tease. Do tell !

Isn't this when Barnes usually shows up and starts talking about pay to play review practices ?
Virabhadra's Avatar
Virabhadra replied the topic: #333858 22 Jun 2022 18:33
Rules summaries, reference cards, organized player boards... I'm a fan of anything makes a game more approachable and easier to parse.



UniversalHead's references are the gold standard, although some of them run long enough to stretch the definition of a "summary." I'll almost always read over a UH summary if I'm playing something I haven't dusted off in a while.
Greg Aleknevicus's Avatar
Greg Aleknevicus replied the topic: #333860 22 Jun 2022 21:35
Can anyone point me to some examples of Universal Head's player aids? Thanks!
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #333861 22 Jun 2022 22:15
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #333895 25 Jun 2022 06:11
Virtually every game I get I will print out a separate rulebook (for mates to continually finger during the game) plus the best player aids I can find (Universal Head's will always get printed, I now patreon him because I have so many) that are then laminated, the more complicated/detailed games will get multiple aids printed out. And every now and then I will make an additional aid - I made one for Nemesis that basically was a well formatted table with the first column being 'I Want to Do This ...' and listing tasks you may need to do in a game and other columns detailing where or how to do it (yes, I can pass it on to anyone interested ;)).