Geekway to the West 2017 – A Post-Mortem

Where else can you manage to play 30 games in a four day span, primarily things you’ve never heard of or played before, but at the annual Geekway to the West convention in St. Louis, MO.

This year the convention moved from the Westport Plaza, where it had overgrown the venue (twice!), to the St. Charles Convention Center. The new venue was amazing. Everyone was in, primarily, one large area. Finding games and places to play them was trivial. There was plenty of room between tables and never once did I have an issue with feeling claustrophobic like at previous years.

Play to Win, the star of the convention, also saw huge improvements over previous years. In the past by Friday night the Play to Win tables were empty. You’d be hard pressed to find a game to play, let alone have a chance at one of the must-plays of the convention. This year every time I went into the Play to Win room to checkout a new game, it was easy to find something that I wanted to play. The games to attendance ratio was drastically improved over last year, and so was the selection. There were lots of games for all group sizes, though it would have been nice to see a few more games for larger groups on the list.

As for the games? I found a ton to add to my want lists, and several to my must have list.

The star of the convention this year was Gloomhaven, which unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to play, and didn’t go out of my way to try to get it to the table since I backed the second print Kickstarter. Personally, my number one game was easily Scythe, which I got to play using the big side of the board for the first time this weekend. If you don’t count games I’ve played previously, then Potion Explosion becomes my top tier.

Potion Explostion is a charming game that plays similarly to Candy Crush, Bejeweled, and other color matching cell phone games. The game comes with an awesome cardboard marble machine that randomizes what ingredients are available to use for brewing potions. When you take one marble out, marbles collide together causing explosions letting you take more marbles, that if you’re lucky cause more explosions letting you take even more marbles. Aside from the color-matching marble machine mechanic, the game is essentially a set collection game. Each potion you complete gets you points. Complete 5 different potions or three potions of the same kind and get bonus points.

In a more party-game flavor, New York Slice quickly became my second favorite game of the convention, and not just because I won every time I played it. This is a game where you take a pizza made of 11 slices (who in their right mind cuts a pizza into 11 slices?) and divide it into a number of sections equal to the number of players. The trick is that you get the last pick of the sections, meaning you need to make them all equally valuable, while still finding a way to give yourself an edge.

On the heavier side, Terraforming Mars was a surprisingly good game. I know it’s been hyped everywhere, but every time I looked at it previously it just looked uninspired. The art is bland and unoriginal, the font use is atrocious, and the game itself just looks at first glance to be rather dry. As it turns out, once you get through the god awful rule book, there’s a really fun an engaging game beneath the surface. The game isn’t particularly hard to learn if you’re fortunate enough to have someone who knows how to play teach it to you, but learning blind from the rules is a nightmare. Even just getting through setup was confusing. This will definitely be a game I want to pick the rules a part for if I get my hands on a copy.  Play-wise, it’s resource management and engine building at it’s core. Players collect resources, use those resources to further your own personal goals, and semi-cooperatively bring Mars’ environment up to a habitable level.

The hidden surprise of the convention was easily Starfall, another set collection game but this time with a press your luck mechanic. Players take turns either making a tile with stars, nebulas, comets, planets, moons, and black holes cheaper, adding another to the game board, or buying one off the game board for the limited number of stardust you’re allotted at the beginning of the game. The trick is that you never get more stardust so you have to be careful how you spend what you have and make sure it lasts until the end of the game.

Other honorable mentions are Plague, Inc. which plays identically to the mobile game of the same name, The Great Dinosaur Rush, a game about building dinosaurs out of bones, and Karuba, the game that if I told you Haba made it would blow your mind because it’s far heavier than any Haba game I’ve played before, and that somehow makes it even more awesome than it already is.

The lame duck of the convention goes to Pocket Dungeon Quest, a game that not only has an atrocious and completely unhelpful excuse of a rule book, but has very little game and no interesting decisions while playing it. Close second is Virulence, which I heard another convention participant explain as Sushi Go but with a blind auction to decide who gets cards. The comparison fails, because while Sushi Go is actually fun, Virulence is a long slog of misery.

Besides those mentioned already, Covert gets a special mention, because there’s definitely a fun game there, but with two players alone it was overly long and uninteresting. Another play or two needs to be made before I can properly go into my thoughts on it. Cultists of Cthulhu gets a special mention as well, primarily because while learning the game as two players is practically impossible, there appears to be a good game in there somewhere.

In the end, the long 4 days ended with the drawing of Play to Wins, which somehow my wife and I ended up walking away with four games! Not only did we get our absolute favorite, Potion Explosion, but also New York Slice as an added bonus. In addition, we got Virulence and Covert. That isn’t even including the free games given at registration, which included two copies of both Backyard Builders Treehouse and Fish Frenzy, Praetor, and Island Fortress.

Last but not least, Jamey Stegmaier gets a special mention for being an awesome guy and signing my wife and my copy of Scythe and Invaders from Afar, allowing us to fangirl him for a few minutes early on Sunday.

Carolina Game Tables – Amazing quality for a fraction of the price

Like most board gamers whom have spent any amount of time online I’ve drooled over the gorgeous tables made by Geek Chic featured on TableTop.  Obviously Geek Chic is the cream of the crop of game tables, but there are several other companies that offer comparable products. The biggest issue I’ve always had with these tables is that they were board game tables first and foremost, and usable furniture second. Most of them require extra costs to include panels to cover the play area, and those that do tend to leave a gap that spills could theoretically drip into. Often those same tables required suction cups just to get the lids off.

I played on tables made by at Geekway to the West 2015, and was impressed with the quality for the price.  I even kept their business card handy just in case my fiance and I decided to pull the trigger later on. Unfortunately I wasn’t completely sold on their offerings. The edge of the table felt too thin. It was wide enough to lean on, but I found myself wanting to lean over it more than lean on it. Even worse was that it wasn’t wide enough to be usable for anything but an arm rest. The intent being you should spend extra to get addons for cup holders and drawers and all sorts of accessories to make it more gamer friendly. It also didn’t feel like a piece of furniture. I would never want to spend that kind of money on something that was “just an accessory” to our gaming habits.

Then a Kickstarter launched in August 2015 by a new company, Carolina Game Tables. The campaign seemed almost too good to be true. A table built out of high quality mahogany wood, designed to be a usable table first and foremost, and a gaming table second. Buying such an expensive piece of furniture on Kickstarter seemed risky, but by the end of the campaign my fiance and I were convinced. We ordered the dining room table (4 ft x 6 ft table) with a cherry finish and dark blue felt.

The part that really stood out to me was the wider edge around the playing area. Perfect for leaning on, wide enough to hold player sheets and boards, and wide enough to put a can of soda or a beer on without being terrified of it falling off (on a well made coaster, of course!)

8 months later, the table has finally arrived! The white glove delivery offered by Carolina Game Tables unloaded the table, put it all together, and left without a trace.

Simon and River watching the delivery people do their magic. Curiosity, for once, did not kill the cats.
Simon and River watching the delivery people do their magic. Curiosity, for once, did not kill the cats.

The table far exceeds our expectations. It’s gorgeous, with a shiny finish. It’s so heavy that I can barely lift a corner by myself, which, to be fair, isn’t saying much as I’m a skinny nerd, but the point remains. It’s extremely sturdy, and could easily withstand all the leaning and stress a high action board game could bring on it. The lid covers the entire table, and looks amazing in our kitchen. Almost too amazing. A table this nice deserves far better decor.

You wouldn't know it's a game table by looking at it.
You wouldn’t know it’s a game table by looking at it.

My biggest complaint so far is how heavy the lid is. I can lift the lid enough to slide it around by myself, but actually lifting it enough to take it off the table without dragging it on the edge is a chore. It’s definitely a two person job to set the table up for a game session.

The lid being slid off the table. Metroid's helping!
The lid being slid off the table. Metroid’s helping!

The bottom of the lid is nicely padded, and covered in felt that matches the playing surface. I wish there was a bit more padding, because we’ve already managed to ding the table’s edge once by hastily dragging it off. Whoops!

The bottom of the lid and the playing area fully revealed.
The bottom of the lid and the playing area fully revealed.

The playing surface itself is very similar to that of a pool table. It’s a nice thick felt and I love the dark blue fabric. My first thought that the playing surface could have been a bit thicker, with a neoprene mouse pad like padding, but after playing our first game my fears were alleviated. It was no trouble picking up cards, and the thick felt was plenty padding. Now I think that anything more would have made the surface too soft for a board. If you really like the extra padding, I have a feeling you already have a separate playing surface for Friday Night Magic or your LCG sessions.

The play surface itself is the perfect size for a typical board game. Pandemic: Legacy’s board fits perfectly width wise giving us plenty of extra room for bits, instructions, sticker sheets, and all the extra goodies required. Bigger boards would fit no problem length wise.

The inaugural game of Pandemic: Legacy. Simon and River insist on playing too.
The inaugural game of Pandemic: Legacy. Simon and River insist on playing too.

The only downside to the felt is that it’s a cat hair magnet. Anyone who has cats knows how much they get hair literally everywhere, and this felt is no exception. River already managed to make herself comfortable in the corner of the table, and shed everywhere. She did look really cute doing it though. Just make sure you keep a hair roller handy.

River demands belly scritches!
River demands belly scritches!

For the most part I can’t think of a single board game that wouldn’t fit within the actual playing space. The one exception being the entirety of Arkham Horror and all of it’s expansions. The main Arkham board and one side board fits within the playing surface, but the two extra boards have to be put on the edge. That being said, the table has more than enough space to comfortably sit 6 with all of the expansions and cards out.

The ultimate test of a playing surface: Can it fit Arkham Horror?
The ultimate test of a playing surface: Can it fit Arkham Horror?

I highly recommend Carolina Game Tables as an alternative to the more expensive and well known brands. We don’t regret our backing the Kickstarter campaign one bit, and we now have a piece of furniture that’s going to last us a very long time.

Geekway to the West 2015 – Postmortem

Just got back from Geekway to the West 2015. It was my 3rd year and it was amazing. Far better than the previous year, and reminded me a lot of the year before that, which was my first board game convention.

The Play and Win collection was far better than last years, and I found so many new games that I just had to buy. I spent far more money than I should have. Between my girlfriend and I we got a huge stack of new games to play:

Not picture; St. Petersburg
Not pictured; St. Petersburg

The star of the convention was Mysterium. Dixit meets Clue, and fixes all of the issues I usually have with Dixit. It’s 100% cooperative, with one player acting as a spirit. The spirit is unable to talk, and must use morbid and creepy dixit-like cards to give “dreams” to the investigators in order to give them hints to solve a what/where/who Clue-like mystery. At the end, if all the players have completed their mystery, they have a shared dream in order to find the true murderer. It’s difficult but extremely fun.

Unfortunately no one in my game group won it, and it’s not out in the US yet. I’m very tempted to hunt for a polish imported copy, which is what we were using at the convention. The play and win contest had a total of 207 plays recorded, which is approximately 9315 minutes (155.5 hours, or 6.5 days) of play time.

My next favorite was probably Castles of Mad King Ludwig. If you’ve payed Suburbia, it’s essentially a streamlined and far more fun, interesting and unique version by the same designer. The turn-order mechanic is really interesting, as is the tile drafting. The first player gets to take the available tiles and pick which order they appear on the price track. Then, the second player gets first pick of the tiles. Any tiles purchased from the first player. The first player picks their tile last, and buys it from the bank. Whatever tiles aren’t purchased in a round get a “bribe” placed on them to entice future purchases, but after first player is passed, the new first player gets to choose the new order of the tiles. Tiles with lots of bribes on them might be constantly pushed to the most expensive position.

My first castle in Castles of Mad King Ludwig
My first castle in Castles of Mad King Ludwig

From a board game nerd perspective my girlfriend and I fell in love with Viticulture, and had to purchase it. Miniature Market even had Kickstarter editions of the expansion for sale, so I bought it too. We had it on the table and were playing a game, and talking about it and Euphoria and how much we enjoyed them, when the guy we were playing with told us that Jamey Stegmaier was literally sitting right behind us.

I briefly interrupted the game he was playing (which I felt awful about) and asked if he’d be willing to sign our copies of his games when his game was done. He agreed, and he ended up telling us a little about an expansion for Euphoria that is in the works (!!!!!!!!) and about the new game he’s designing (Scythe: Something about mechs and farming. It sounds pretty awesome, but we didn’t get to play test it).

I might have a slight nerd crush on Jamey Stegmaier
I might have a slight nerd crush on Jamey Stegmaier

At the end of the convention Play and Win drawings were done, and I ended up with a copy of the re-release of Saint Petersburg. I’ve never played the original, but had a great time. We played it once without the market expansion and once with the expansion. It was definitely better adding the market. I’m a bit disappointed in the art though. All the people have really creepy dead-eyed stares and it’s got a bit of an uncanny valley problem.

A friend from my local game group won a copy of Istanbul on the Play and Win, which was amazing because we only got to play it once and finished it right before Play and Win was closing. It was likely the last play of the entire convention for that game.

My total plays for the weekend are listed here:


Celebrate Classic Pulp Literature Without Repeating Its Mistakes

“Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.”

No, that isn’t a quote from a badly written fan fiction, it’s the words of one Robert E. Howard, most known for Conan the Barbarian. What is more surprising, is that it’s also the description used to justify including what basically amounts to a naked figurine in a board game currently topping half a million dollars on Kickstarter.

Also included in this particular game’s character descriptions is that of a two-weapon fighter described as “full-bosomed” that further discusses how she is “all woman”.

Finding descriptions like this is in a modern medium and meant to be taken seriously is disappointing at best, and disgusting, degrading, and misogynistic at worst.

I realize that the creators of this particular game are attempting to, and I quote, “stay as true to Robert E. Howard as possible” but it bothers me that this apparently can’t be done without realizing that some aspects of his works are problematic in the year 2015 when they might not have been during his time and should be given a more modern realization.

Though credit should be given to Howard as it appears that as he got older some of his more racist and sexist opinions began to dissipate. Wikipedia even states that Howard himself had feminist views, which would have been rare at his time, and that he included many strong female characters in his works. While that is certainly worthy of applause, the viewpoints that would constitute feminism have changed in the past 75 years. That isn’t even considering that he may have very well regretted the things he wrote in his younger years, as he became more socially aware. I will be the first to admit that some of my own views, writings, and creative works from 10 years ago are embarrassingly racist and sexist. I can only imagine how I would feel in another 65.

Why can we not celebrate the worlds that Robert E. Howard created, without resorting to the less savory aspects? My favorite pieces of H.P. Lovecraft inspired lore did just that. The Lovecraftian series of games by Fantasy Flight is a perfect example. This includes Arkham Horror, Mountains of Madness, Elder Sign, and Eldritch Horror, as well as the Call of Cthulhu card game which has a surprisingly diverse cast of characters, none of which are sexualized. Another prime example using the same Lovecraft-inspired theme is the video game Eternal Darkness for the Nintendo GameCube, staring a well written female lead.

H.P. Lovecraft’s writing is just as prone to racist, sexist, lurid, and exploitative stories as Robert H. Howard, if not more so. Lovecraft’s stories were printed in pulp magazines just like Robert H. Howard. In fact, Robert H. Howard took a lot of inspiration from Lovecraft as well as corresponded with him. However, you don’t see Fantasy Flight using the “N” word as flippantly as Lovecraft did, and we shouldn’t see games being published today that pride themselves in the descriptions Robert E. Howard used to describe Bêlit and Valeria.

It’s okay to love and celebrate the works of authors, despite their problematic points. It’s okay to read the original works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in their original language. It’s more than appropriate to enjoy Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer without editing out the parts that caused it to become one of the most famous banned books of all time. We can read those works, and learn from them. They give us a picture of the past and the world that came before us, unfiltered with all the ugliness attached. We can and should celebrate that, but quoting it and repeating it, and further aggrandizing it in modern works should be seen as inappropriate. We are better than that.

The 30 Second Pitch

The instruction booklet is important, but unfortunately even the best board game teacher and the best written instructions aren’t enough to bring a brand new board game to the table. Before you can even get to the rules of a game, you need to make sure your players are interested enough in the game to come to the table and sit through the instructions. This is especially true for games that have a large learning curve and a lot of front loaded explanations.

The first obstacle a board game meets is getting it into a new players’ hands. Whether this is at a Friendly Local Game Store, an online storefront, a Kickstarter project page, or a convention, the core problem is the same: you need to hook a new player as quickly as possible and entice them to sit through the learning curve.  This is where “The 30 Second Pitch” comes into play.

Ever wonder why Billy Mays was so successful and memorable? Ever wonder why those infomercials he yells through are full of ridiculous incompetence and overacting? Billy Mays is a professional pitch man, and his job is getting his viewers to buy a product in 30 seconds. He can get millions of people to spend $20 in only 30 seconds time, no questions asked. While his unique methods won’t necessarily work in the world of board games, there is still a lot you can learn from the idea of The 30 Second Pitch. If you can’t convince someone to try out your game in the first 30 seconds, you’ve already lost them.

The 30 Second Pitch needs to tell a brand new player everything they need to know about your game in the shortest amount of time possible while ignoring everything that isn’t completely necessary to understand unless they are actually playing. The pitch needs to be the first thing that a potential player hears, sees, or reads when learning about your game. It should be on the back of the box, in the product description on web stores, the beginning of the instruction booklet, and the first thing a potential backer sees on a Kickstarter project page. This pitch should include the goal, how that goal is accomplished, the mechanics involved, and what makes the game special and stand out from the crowd. Most importantly it should not include too much on the story and flavor of the game, no matter how cool, unique, and interesting that flavor is.

Let’s break down each aspect of The 30 Second Pitch and go into detail about why it is important and how to make the most of the few seconds it should cover.

1) What is the goal of the game?

First and foremost the players need to know the core object of the game. Try to keep this to one sentence, and only include the bare necessities of the game’s flavor in order to set the theme and mood. For example, the goal of Cosmic Encounter is to be the first player to create 5 colonies on opposing payers’ planets.

2) How that goal is accomplished?

Cover only the quickest and most straightforward method of winning the game. Only add the game’s flavor and theme if it is actually necessary to understand the “how”, and avoid mentioning actual mechanics. Using Cosmic Encounter again, the goal is accomplished by having encounters with other players.

3) What mechanics are involved?

Only cover the core mechanics of the game, not how those mechanics are used or how mechanics might interact with one another. In Cosmic Encounter, the mechanics are simply that players choose cards from their hand and play them face down, as well as negotiation and bluffing. Making and breaking alliances are also an important aspect to the game that should be covered.

4) What makes your game unique?

The last part needs to really sell your game. It’s the punch that turns an eyebrow raise into an open wallet and a fist full of cash. In Cosmic Encounter, the selling point is that every player gets one of dozens of unique races, each with a completely game changing ability that needs to be abused to it’s fullest in order to win the game.


Besides including the core concepts that will make a player want to sit down and learn a game, the 30 second pitch needs to avoid several pitfalls that can easily lose a players’ interest.

1) Be careful not to overload the player with flavor text, background story, and theme

No matter how important you might think the theme and story of your game is, that isn’t what ultimately makes a game worth playing. Far too often a Kickstarter project’s promotional video will spend the first 2-3 minutes of a 10 minute long pitch detailing in depth story and plot about a game before they even mention a single game play mechanic. The game itself should be what is front and center, while the flavor can fill in the gaps and be used to help explain why the mechanics of the game are designed the way they are. You do not want to alienate a new player that might dislike the theme, but would otherwise love the actual game play and mechanics.

2) Never assume that your players have played previous or similar games

If your game is a deck builder, do not start by saying it is like another possibly similar game. As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve soiled the players’ experience with possibly detrimental expectations. If they are familiar with the game you’ve mentioned, at worst they will wonder why they should bother with your game rather than just playing the other instead and at best you’ve forced them to compare your game with another instead of taking it on it’s own merits. If a player doesn’t like the game you tried to compare it with, you’ll lose them before they can even give your own game a fair chance.

3) Avoid “gamer vocabulary”

While many hardcore and dedicated board game fans will know immediately what you are referring to, newer players may feel alienated and immediately lose interest. Instead of saying your game is a “deck builder” explain that you start with a deck of basic cards, and take turns purchasing new cards to specialize your deck. Instead of saying your game is a worker placement, explain that players take turns taking actions, and that actions can only be used once by a single player per round.


Here’s what I would consider a good 30 second pitch, taken from the BoardGameGeek description of Terra Mystica:

In the land of Terra Mystica dwell 14 different peoples in seven landscapes, and each group is bound to its own home environment, so to develop and grow, they must terraform neighboring landscapes into their home environments in competition with the other groups.

Terra Mystica is a game with very little luck that rewards strategic planning. Each player governs one of the 14 groups. With subtlety and craft, the player must attempt to rule as great an area as possible and to develop that group’s skills. There are also four religious cults in which you can progress. To do all that, each group has special skills and abilities.

Taking turns, the players execute their actions on the resources they have at their disposal. Different buildings allow players to develop different resources. Dwellings allow for more workers. Trading houses allow players to make money. Strongholds unlock a group’s special ability, and temples allow you to develop religion and your terraforming and seafaring skills. Buildings can be upgraded: Dwellings can be developed into trading houses; trading houses can be developed into strongholds or temples; one temple can be upgraded to become a sanctuary. Each group must also develop its terraforming skill and its skill with boats to use the rivers. The groups in question, along with their home landscape, are:

Desert (Fakirs, Nomads)
Plains (Halflings, Cultists)
Swamp (Alchemists, Darklings)
Lake (Mermaids, Swarmlings)
Forest (Witches, Auren)
Mountain (Dwarves, Engineers)
Wasteland (Giants, Chaos Magicians)

Proximity to other groups is a double-edged sword in Terra Mystica. Being close to other groups gives you extra power, but it also means that expanding is more difficult…

You’ll notice that very little time is spent on theme and story. It explains that the goal of the game is to control the biggest area as well as progress in the four religions. The goal is accomplished by taking actions to terraform, build, and upgrade using resources they collect. Different buildings and upgrades provide different resources and benefits.

From this a prospective player knows all that they need to know about the basics of the game to help decide whether they should look more into the game. The core mechanics are resource management and area control. It’s heavy in strategy and low in luck. It has unique player abilities.

What makes a good rule book?

For most gamers, the rule book will be their first experience with a brand new board game. If they can’t make it through the rules, your board game is as good as having never been sold in the first place. It doesn’t matter how good the game might be, or how fun and unique the mechanics are.

It’s one thing to blind play test the rule book once it’s made, but that only helps after the rule book has been already been written. Just writing the rules down on a piece of paper isn’t good enough. Just telling the player what they do on their turn isn’t going to be good enough either. So what is it exactly that makes one rule book stand out above all the others? How do you know if your rule book is even ready to be tested?

Rule books have three primary jobs.  First and foremost a good rule book should be able to teach someone who knows nothing about the game in question to play the game as well as teach others to do the same. The second job is to act as a reference when questions inevitably come up during a play session. A good rule book needs to be able to do both jobs, and it needs to do both jobs well. Far too many games will do one or the other well, but few and far between can manage both. Lastly, a rule book should act as a player’s first introduction to the game. It should never be assumed that the player has any familiarity with the game, mechanics, or theme. The rule book should market the game to the player reading it just as much if not more than anything on the box.

That being said, here is a list of rules that every good rule book should follow:

1) Treat every player as if they are brand new to the world of board games

That isn’t to say that the rule book should be talking down to the player, but simply that the rule book should not assume that a player will be familiar with mechanics or themes within the game. If the game is a deck builder, never assume that the player is familiar with Dominion. It shouldn’t even be assumed that a player is familiar with what a “deck builder” is. Any term used in a rule book should be clearly defined in a way that a brand new player will understand.

2) Never make assumptions about who your target demographic might be

Just because a game was designed with a very specific type of person in mind does not mean that type of person is actually who will be playing the game. Obviously a game centered around the HP Lovecraft mythos will be attracting fans of HP Lovecraft, but assuming that every player will know about the mythos is the first mistake a rule book is likely to make. Once again it is important to remember that the rule book shouldn’t be talking down to players. The theme and flavor of the game can be introduced in a way that doesn’t alienate new players, while also keeping those familiar with the themes interested in what is being explained.

3) Use non-gender specific pronouns

This really should be included alongside, rule #2, but honestly it needs to be clarified on it’s own terms. It may be a surprise to some, but not all people who play board games are men! Whenever possible, rule books should use the singular they. A rule book that exclusively uses “he” to refer to its players is automatically ignoring at least half of a game’s potential players. It doesn’t matter if your game is the most brotastic brofest ever made. Use gender-less pronouns.

That being said, if the singular they is too formal sounding and the rule book in question is setting the mood for the players, there are plenty of alternatives to using “he” to refer to everyone. Rule books that choose to use in-character examples can easily alternate between using “he” and “she” to refer to different players at different times by using varying characters within the game. Saying “once the first player has taken his turn, pass the dice to the second player to start her turn” is perfectly acceptable. This method still has the downside in that it focuses on gender binaries, but it’s still better than using male pronouns for everything.

4) Include a clear list of contents

One of the best things about buying a brand new board game, is going through all the bits and pieces. Punching out cardboard tokens, sorting through decks of cards, and sorting out plastic figures will always be one of the first things that a player will do upon opening the box. Often this will even be done prior to turning the first page of the rule book. Every rule book should have a clear and concise list of included components. Ideally every component should be named and have a photo or illustration of what that component is for easy identification. A new player should be able to go through everything in the box and confirm that everything they need to play is present and accounted for. It’s also important to help the player understand what each piece is, so that when the rules refer to those pieces later on the player will already know what they are.

5) Create a consistent vocabulary

Every major aspect of your game should have a clearly defined word or words that can easily be referenced. Components should be clearly named, and when mentioned in later portions of the rule book those names should be consistently used. If a game has multiple decks then each deck should have a unique name. Avoid using colors for names as those players who are colorblind could have difficulty picking out the correct pieces. Every phase of the game should have unique names. Specific actions should be broken down into a concise set of named actions.  Whenever using a vocabulary term in the rule book it is useful to use bold fonts to further clarify that the term being used is important and repeated throughout the rule book.

6) Break down setup into specific steps

Far too few games will spend very little time on the process of setting a game up for the first time. It is easy for anyone familiar with a game to set it up, and for that reason designers and rule writers tend to underestimate the importance of setting a game up for the first time. Setting the game up should not require players to flip haphazardly through the rule book. If a game has specific things that need done only for the first time playing the game, a first time setup section should be included separate of the standard game setup. If setup changes depending on the number of players, include those changes in each setup step. Setting up a game should require no knowledge of how to play the game except for an understanding of components, which should have been clearly defined before reaching the setup portion of the rule book.

7) Clearly state the goal of the game

Without going into complicated details of the mechanics of the game, players should have a very clear idea of what the goal of the game. The easiest and most straightforward way of winning should be considered the goal of the game. In a game based on victory points, the goal of the game should not be stated as “get the most victory points” as victory points will mean nothing to a player that doesn’t understand how you get them within the confines of the game. For example, in Terra Mystica the goal of the game is to have the biggest connected city and the most devout followers. Only after the generic goal of the game is stated, should the specifics of how you complete that goal be described, or in Terra Mystica’s case: the player with the most victory points.

8) Break down everything players will do on their turn into specific steps

The most important thing that players need to know in order to successfully play a board game is what they can and can’t do on their turn. If turns are broken up into multiple phases, each phase should be specific and each step within that phase clearly defined. This needs to be the most easily understood section of the rules, and when testing the rule book the players’ actions during their turn should get the most attention.

9) Slowly add new concepts, always starting with the simplest rules before adding complications

It is best to think of a rule book as a series of transparency sheets layered on top one another. Start with a very simplistic understanding of the game as a whole. Each time you add a layer, it should enhance and clarify the layers below.  Using the player turn for an example, if a turn is broken into phases which each have their own actions that players can choose to take, the rule book should give an overview of the phases and what they entail on a basic level. Only after the phases are explained in basic terms should each phase be given finer detail. Adding another layer, if a phase has multiple actions a player can take, those actions should be listed in a concise fashion first, before going into specific details with the rules of each individual action.

10) Never repeat rules

The rule book should never talk down to players, and should instead assume that players have understood everything covered previously. If the rule book repeats itself, it creates confusion on the player by making it harder to find the specific rule for reference later in the game. It can also have the adverse side effect of insulting the player’s intelligence.

11) Include an index

Once players have learned to play the game, inevitably issues will come up that require referencing the rule book for clarification. Even the best rule books will require a quick look up every now and then. Once a vocabulary has been created for use throughout  the rule book, it should be simple to include an index on the last page to make it easier to find where those keywords are discussed in detail. For games with larger rule books, breaking the rule book into two parts, one for reference and one for core rules can be extremely useful. However, if this method is taken it needs to be done very carefully. The reference book should be the only book experienced players need to open. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find one specific rule between two different rule books.

12) If all else fails, include a FAQ and/or commonly missed rules section

During blind play test sessions it should become very obvious what rules and concepts are most often missed or questioned by players. In many cases it may not be possible to better clarify those issues by better organizing or wording the rule book.  An easy solution is to include a frequently asked questions section at the end of the rule book. Alternatively, having a commonly missed rules section can be incredibly useful. Both of these options are good ways to be sure that the most important and possibly confusing concepts are clearly covered, and possibly worded in a way that players will make sense of after having finished the rest of the rule book.

13) Never underestimate the power of quick reference sheets

The back of the rule book is a great place to put things that players will have to reference often. For example, including the phase order for a turn or the steps to complete an encounter can make the players’ life much easier in their first few games. If the game relies on a lot of iconography, having those in an easily accessible place that doesn’t require flipping through pages of the rule book is a requirement. Including several reference sheets so that players do not have to pass around a huge rule book constantly can be a huge benefit as well.

Dear Designers: Please have your rule books play tested

One thing I have noticed since I started playing board games, is that it becomes painfully obvious how few rule books are play tested. So many designers will show off their games at conventions on anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to try it out. They’ll go to their friendly local game store and introduce the regulars to their game, and show them how it works. Play testing is often done with close contact to the designer, as questions are clarified and the game is polished even while playing the game.

By the time the game is officially published and finally out, everyone involved in the play testing and design process has already played the game by being taught to play it by the designer, or at least by players who learned to play from the designer. When the final rule book is made, no one seems to bother actually learning the game from nothing but the rule book. This is a huge mistake that so many designers are making, because the huge majority of your audience isn’t going to have you around to help them once your game is published. You’re not going to be there when the first Kickstarter backers receive their brand new limited edition copies of the game.  Don’t let a player’s first experience with your game be soiled for no reason other than a poorly made and tested rule book.

I’m not even just talking about “learning” a game from the rule book, because equally important is using the rule book as a reference when a question comes up. Players need to both be able to learn the game from the rule book, as well as find answers to complicated questions that may come up during play, without having to spend too much time away from the game looking for those answers. When the designer is sitting next to a new play testing group, neither learning or reference is important, because within seconds the designer can make sure everything is running smoothly, and if a game breaking issue is found they can quickly correct the trouble.

One great example of what I’m referring to is a game I got from Miniature Market’s black Friday sale: Guilds of Cadwallon. As it turns out, Guilds was a Kickstarter game. Having not heard anything about it besides seeing it for cheap on Miniature Market’s website, I dug into the rule book. There are some rather egregious typos that make the “simple” process of counting components and setting up the game confusing. The numbers in the book don’t add up, and don’t match what your “District Deck” will actually have after setting up! Beyond obvious typos, there are rules that make no sense at all until you’ve finished reading the entire rule book, and even then there are ambiguities that I couldn’t make sense of. It tells you to optionally play action cards, but not how you get them. After a round and you finish finding out who won each district, the game doesn’t even tell you what you’re supposed to do from that point! It says determine who won the cards, and pass the first player token. It doesn’t say what you do with cards you won, if they go into a hand, face down, face up, who knows?

Of course, if you watch the 10 minute long “how to play” video on their Kickstarter page, you learn how to play really quickly. It’s a surprisingly easy game, but the rule book is utterly worthless. It’s obvious they’ve never sat someone down with their game, and played it purely by reading and learning from the rule book and no outside help.

All a designer has to do is take the “final draft” of the rule book, find a group of players who have never played before and know absolutely nothing about the game, and watch what happens. This is what I call the “Blind Play Test” and it is a type of play testing that needs to be done for every single game in addition to the play testing that designers are already doing.  The main rule in blind play testing is that the designer can’t talk or aid the players in any way. The second the designer interferes with the game being played, they’ve already ruined the experiment. Instead, the designer should take notes on everything the players find themselves confused about, and especially note everything that the players do “wrong” in the game.

After the game is over, the designer should sit down with those players, and find out what they thought was confusing, and what could have made the learning process better. Any time that the game was played wrong, the designer should also question why they played that way. It is important to note that the designer needs to carefully word this question so that it isn’t accusing the players of playing wrong, but more that the designer is trying to find out what made the players make that decision. Specifically, what about the rules made it seem like that was the correct way to play, because clearly the rules didn’t cover that case clearly enough.

Using what was learned in the “blind play test”, the rule book should be revised and this process needs to be repeated until a play group (or several play groups!) makes it through a game with no major issues.

Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Guilds of Cadwallon specifically because this is a huge problem for a huge majority of board games. Guilds just happened to be the game I most recently ran into this problem with. The game itself seems to be quite good and I look forward to playing it for the first time. The fact of the matter is that tons of games have rule book issues, and all of them could have been solved by play testing the rule book itself.

So, as someone who learns games almost entirely from reading the rule book and rarely gets a chance to be taught a game directly from the designers, please have your rule books play tested. Resist the urge to teach new players, and help them in their first games.

Teaching someone new to play a board game is an art form

Teaching a game is an art form, and every game needs a different teaching method. Dominion, for example, is relatively straight forward and each player is doing their own thing allowing you to teach a bit more while playing. This makes teaching it slightly easier than a game such as Terra Mystica, which requires you to cover a ton of iconography and front loaded mechanics before you can even begin. No one method is going to work for both games, and anyone who tells you there’s one way to teach a board game is wrong. That being said, teaching a board game should follow a few basic steps regardless of the game.

If you’re going to teach a game, you should outline the teaching method for yourself before actually teaching it. That’s the first step. Each game has specific parts that need outlined, but they all fit into specific categories.

The biggest tip I can give is that you shouldn’t don’t bother talking about the “story” and the mythology of the game. You’ll make the game more confusing for people who just want to play and don’t care about the flavor. You can mix flavor in throughout the explanation of the game, but don’t front load it. Often times, putting too much flavor in your explanation will just make the new player more confused about the actual mechanics of the game. It’s better to make sure they understand the rules first and foremost, only adding flavor to help set the mood.

I will make a basic outline for a few games with varying difficulties. This is by no means a full teaching tutorial for any of the games, but it will give you a good idea of where to start. I will likely be adding more detailed teaching tutorials for each of these games in later posts.

1) What is the goal of the game? Give the players the most straight forward way to win.

Dominion: You’re a land baron and you want to buy provinces

Resistance: Win missions for your team, either as a resistance trying to hurt the government, or a spy trying to foil their plans. The first team to win 3 missions wins the game.

Settlers: Build 10 points worth of settlements

Terra Mystica: Have the largest town and the most devout priests. (Yes, the actual goal of TM is victory points, but the easiest most straight forward way to WIN is to have the largest town and be at the top of every religion track.)

It’s okay for #1 to be overly vague, as long as it does a good idea of telling your players WHAT they should be doing. Do not talk about HOW you meet the goal of the game, just WHAT the goal is. The goal should be easy and clearly defined. Ideally, giving this instruction should make at least one player ask “how do I do that?”

2) How do you meet the goal of the game? Once again we are looking for the most straight forward way to meet the goal of the game.

Dominion: On your turn you will have a hand of cards. You can use your hand of cards to buy provinces, duchys, and estates. You can also use your cards to buy these other cards, which will make it easier to buy provinces, duchys, and estates later in the game. (point to the cards, but don’t explain them yet. Just acknowledge their presence)

Resistance: If you are a resistance member, you want to pass a mission. Pass 3 missions and the resistance wins. If you are a spy, you want to fail a mission. A failed mission counts as a win for the spies. Fail 3 missions and the spies win.

Settlers: Show them the “cost” card, and explain buying settlements and cities with resources. Explain that settlements are worth 1 point, cities are worth 2. Explain that roads have to be built between settlements. Explain that development cards do cool shit and are also sometimes worth a point. Lastly, explain largest army and longest road.

Terra Mystica: Explain the costs on the player board. Explain the upgrade path. Explain various ways of getting “victory points” and that the winner is the actual person with the most victory points, so not to ignore them until the end.

Once again, this will lead to hopefully another few questions which is still helping keep players interested and involved in the explanation. The most important part of this step is to give the new players a clear path to victory without hiding it behind possibly scary mechanics. You want to get through both step 1 and 2 relatively quickly.

3) Explain what you do on an actual turn.

Dominion: Draw cards. Spend points. Do what cards say. Make a fake hand using a mix of cards that will be in the game, and go through the motions.

Resistance: Jump straight to what a team does. Show picking pass/fail cards and putting them in the center. Do this a few times showing each possible result. They will inevitably ask about how teams get decided. This lets you talk about naming a team, followed by voting on the team. Go through each bit of steps, but AVOID discussing strategy. Just do the bare minimum to explain the mechanics of the game and make a turn work.

Settlers: Roll the dice. Take resources. Explain trading. Buy something. Make a fake hand of enough resources to be able to do stuff. Ideally, make 2 face up hands one for the player, and one for someone to trade with. Explain in more detail about the rules about building settlements (2 spaces between, roads connecting them, how to block a player from building, etc)

Terra Mystica: Explain how to gain resources. Explain what each resource is and how you get it. Explain each of the 8 actions, but do it in the most simple way possible. You can go through details of each action as people do them in the game, all they need to know right now is what the actions are, and the idea behind what they do. Explain passing, and picking a new scroll for your next turn.

The most important part of this step is to explain the mechanics of what a player will be doing on their turn. Don’t worry so much about the details of those mechanics, just explain the actions a player will take. Once again, you don’t want to muddy the instructions with specific mechanics, but ideally you will be providing things for players to ask you.

4) Fill in the missing parts and answer questions.

Domion: Clarify what each card does that’s available to purchase. Encourage players to pick them up, read them, etc.

Resistance: Explain some basic strategy. With 5 players, naming a 3 person team without you on it means there is a spy on it (even if you’re a spy!). Explain that spies generally want to act like resistance. Explain why a spy wouldn’t ALWAYS fail. Explain that voting no unless you’re on it can sometimes be a good strategy.

Settlers: Talk about the desert, rolling 7s, how knights work, show some example dev cards.

Terra Mystica: Talk about individual player powers. Explain founding towns. Explain more of the iconography. Explain the random “this round” bonus tiles. Explain in greater detail the idea of terraforming. Also talk about the advantages and disadvantages of building next to other players.

Don’t worry about weird things that might come up unless they will ALWAYS come up. Deal with the weirdness as it comes up or right before it will come up throughout the game.

5) Start playing the game!

Allow players some flexibility to undo actions during their first game. If something weird is about to happen, interrupt the game and explain the nuances of what is going on and why.


The most important part of teaching a game, is to make players WANT to ask you questions. Each step of the instruction should lead you to the answer to the next thing they’re likely to ask. If answers have a quick response, give it immediately. If the answer requires further explanation about mechanics and weirdness, tell them you will revisit that question during step 4.

You do need to think about players who learn by doing, as well as who learn by instruction, or who don’t like learning at all, but by breaking it into these steps it should cover everyone well enough. The learn by doing will be happy with actually dealing out hand and doing example turns in step 3 and it won’t take them long to get to that if you do steps 1 and 2 properly. During step 2 and step 4, the self-taught quick learner will be reading iconography and card text, and flipping through the deck while listening. The player who isn’t good at learning and just wants to play will get quick summaries early on.

Giving players decks to shuffle and things to do is probably a bad idea, because it takes their attention away from the explanation. Ideally you should be able to do all of those things while explaining each piece.

Unless you know all of your players have played a game, don’t use it as an example. Unless you know all of your players know of a game mechanic, don’t name it. Telling players that “Dominion is a deckbuilder” doesn’t help them if they don’t know what a deckbuilder is. Don’t even mention “building your deck” until step 4 where you talk about specifics of the game and some quick strategy. If all of your players have played Dominion, and you’re teaching them to play Thunderstone: by all means during step 1 say Thunderstone is just like dominion, but that you get victory points by killing monsters in the dungeon instead of buying provinces.

One last benefit to not saying “it’s a deck builder” or going into specific mechanics too quickly, is that players who are more experienced will have lightbulb moments where they “get it” and even inexperienced players will help drive the instruction because hopefully by giving the right openings for questions will help them “get it” themselves. An experienced player will quickly figure out Dominion is a deckbuilder in step 2 of your instructions as soon as you explain buying cards lets you do more later. They’ll exclaim “Oh! So then it’s a deckbuilder like Thunderstone?” in their smuggest voice, to which you can say EXACTLY! The new players won’t be alienated for not knowing, because you didn’t treat them like they should, but the experienced player quickly uses that extra knoweldge they lightbulbed into in order to teach themselves the concepts of the game and allowing them to study the specific nuances.

The most important aspect, is to keep the players you’re teaching invested in the rules. If they’re asking you questions, you’re probably doing a good job of that. Just be certain that you aren’t too dismissive if they ask something you’re not ready to explain yet. If it’s a fairly simple answer, it doesn’t hurt to skip ahead to answer it, but try to keep the questions from snowballing away from a concise and easy to understand explanation of the game.