Despite that tangent, I want to talk about more than just Catan, though my case study on the subject will be surrounding Catan. The issue of that case study is unique rules for the first time playing a game. Now, on the surface, the idea of different rules when teaching a game can seem quite odd; it's like teaching someone how to play tennis without a net or racket (this might be a legit teaching method, but it's the best example I could come up with off the top of my head). I've seen this in a few games; Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion is probably the best example of how to do it perfectly and seamlessly, like a video game almost. Another example is Marvel Villainous, where you play without event cards in your first couple of games. There are loads of examples of rule changes out there, and they all change the first game for the player in different ways. However, with Catan, the differing rules are entirely in the setup, so I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of this idea in-depth to see what we can discover.
With Catan, as stated, it has a unique setup for your first game. In a regular game, the setup works by randomly placing terrain tiles (resources), followed by randomly and alphabetically placing numbered tokens on the terrain tiles (this rule choice is entirely down to the player). On top of that, then the players take turns in an ABBA system to place down their starting settlements (how you gain resources). Juxtaposed to this random allocation, at the back of the rulebook, it lays out exactly how the terrain and numbered tokens should be placed and exactly where the player's settlements should be for their first game. Now let's talk about all the benefits of this system.
Here are the direct pros of these measures of balancing:
However, this begs the question, is a random setup a better experience? And with this provocative question, I wanted to open the floor up to the idea that many rulesets for a player's first game could be the best way to play the game. Furthermore, I wanted to add to the notion that maybe ignoring the first time rules might be a better experience in general. All these ideas I think are worth discussing, and none of them reflects, in plain black and white, my views on the subject matter, but let's see where it goes.
Should you just skip the first time ruleset?
This question, to be honest, was the catalyst for this blog post. I saw a post on one of the board game Facebook groups a few weeks ago, mentioning that they always ignore rules that tell you to strip the game back for your first game. They say that they want to experience everything the game has to offer from the first playthrough. Honestly, if you have a good enough understanding of the mechanics, either through thoroughly reading the rulebook or watching a how-to-play video, then I can see the value in this idea. It would be odd in many other circumstances to take a "lesser" product when consuming it for the first time, so why should it be the same with board games? To answer that question straight away, these mechanics stripped away are often regarded as more complex or troublesome concerning a more casual audience, which the designers would have discovered during playtesting. As I mentioned at the start of the post, this practice is often used to protect players, shield them from being overwhelmed, and having a terrible experience. The first time experience with a lot of board games is everything, especially with a group that only meets up once a week or so, so I completely understand the idea of taking a few things out and promising them in the future once the player understands the game more than just throwing everything at the wall straight away and hoping people don't get overwhelmed. However, I will reiterate that it ultimately makes sense to ignore these instructions if you feel like you understand the game well enough because what's the point in removing parts of the game if all it will do is enhance the experience for you?
Overall, I think it's down to looking at games on a game-by-game basis. Going back to Marvel Villainous, I was not too fond of the fact that the rulebook told me to not include events straight away for a couple of reasons. One, it is the main differentiator between its counterpart, Disney Villainous. Two, the game is so easy to understand. It has such little complexity in terms of communal mechanisms (the sophistication of the mechanisms and fun for me come in the deck and hand management unique to each deck). It felt odd to remove a mechanism that adds a bit of flavour to the communal game.
However, with Catan, I think the first time setup was a great way to add training wheels to the experience without taking too much away from the gameplay. The promise of randomized terrain and numbered tokens makes me want to come back for more, almost as much as Gloomhaven does when I just finish a scenario, and I can't wait to turn the page.
Thank you for reading; I hope you enjoyed my little post about first-time rulesets. If you want to keep up-to-date with blog posts, I have a mailing list that sends out a blast every six weeks with all new blog posts listed on it. On top of that, it is all the primary way I announce new projects that I am working on regarding my publishing company, Crab Studios. You can sign up for it here or click on the mailing list page on the sidebar. Thanks again, and I'll see you in the next post.
Hello, my name is Niall Crabtree, and this is my comprehensive blog showcasing all of my game development endeavors and successes, as well as essays on game design.
Receive an email every two weeks with all the articles I produce so you never miss one!