Campfire Burning has returned with something on his mind. I think you’re going to agree with what he’s got to say.
I am not a clever man, but I like to think – on the occasions I can think at all – that I am, at least, unlikely to be outwitted by a board game.
Board games are cardboard and plastic and pieces and lumps. They’re inert; they don’t feel pain. I can threaten Magic: The Gathering cards with water, flames and scissors and they’ll never try to remove themselves out of harm’s way.
So why is it that so many of them make so many of us feel utterly, ridiculously stupid?
I’m not talking about playing games here. We all know what it’s like to be beaten so soundly – even at a game we’re pretty good at – it’s as if our opponent’s an advanced extra-terrestrial who’s only come to Earth to teach us how to put together an amazing combo in Dominion. The cards keep on coming. There are buys and plays and plays and buys, and somehow while the rest of the group have hands full of Curses this one visiting ultra-being has scored eight provinces all in a single turn. You feel small. You want to cry. You certainly don’t want to play Dominion again.
“Don’t be a sore loser,” says Zarthrax of Epsilon Sigma Gamma Nine. “Come on, let’s play again. This game is fun!”
Oh, we all know exactly what that’s like, because once in every blue moon we get to be Zarthrax; we get to be condescending and spank our friends at board games like so many naughty vicars in a brothel. We understand both the despair of losing and the thrill of winning – and how wonderful it feels to lose elegantly, when you’ve been so perfectly outmanoeuvred all you can do is put down your pieces, set down your cards and give the winner a well-earned round of applause.
No, I’m not talking about that: I’m talking about rules.
Those inert cards and boards need two further ingredients to be brought to life: players and rules. The players move everything about. They unpack the board and set it up, punch the tokens, shuffle the decks and play the game . . . but they can’t play the game until they’ve read the rules, and it’s here things can get a bit hazy.
And by hazy, I mean the bloody red haze of indignant fury.
There are an awful lot of people who don’t care about rules. They’re not board gamers, of course – they’re not us – but there are lots of people who think of themselves as superior to us rule-abiding idiots. You’ve probably run into a few yourself. Your best mate’s husband comes over and spends the whole game yawning, not caring to understand why he can’t place his pieces wherever he chooses and putting the meeples into sexually compromising positions. He’s the guy who can’t scramble eggs without burning them, who can’t assemble a cabinet without it collapsing whenever the door’s closed. He doesn’t follow rules. He thinks that makes him cool.
You and I know the rules are where the fun is. No matter how nice the game’s components are, it’s the rules you’re paying for. Back before the game was even in prototype the designer played a primitive version of it using pepper pots and Lego men. The rules are the game. You need to understand them in order to play it.
So why – OH GOD WHY – are some rulebooks so difficult to understand?
I have a couple games I haven’t played because every time I try to learn them my brain does a runner. They’ve become so fearsome they’re practically dark fantasy overlords squatting on my game shelves. Every time I approach them I bring with me an army of dwarfs, and together we cower beneath its malignant gaze. I take the box down, open it up and half my warriors – along with half my wits – go AWOL. I’ve gotten as far as setting the game up and taking two tentative turns, but it’s too painful trying to master the number of ways each card can be played, and I look away, casting them back into the box and shutting it tight. It makes a sucking vacuum sound as it closes. I fear it’s devouring my sanity.
Reading poorly written instructions is a horrible experience. In fact you don’t read them: you re-read them, over and over. It’s like when you repeat a word too many times and it starts to sound wrong – not like a word at all but an animalistic noise – only these horrible instructions are nonsensical from the off. The rules talk about three different kinds of points without noting they all have different meanings. Step-by-step walk-throughs skip important phases. More often than not you resort to online guides to try and decipher rules that aren’t clear, whereupon you find forums of players squabbling over what the rule’s supposed to mean – and discover that the rules you thought you understood you misinterpreted as well.
You’d think this would only apply to sprawling monstrosities with a squillion stats to keep track of but no: even simple games miss important rules. Take Ascension: Chronicle of the God-Slayer. It’s a fantastic game. The rulebook is chummy, colourful – and at no point does it explicitly mention that the Cultist card remains in play even after it’s killed. Every other monster in the game can be defeated and placed into the Void but the Cultist stays to one side and is always available. A card so unique should have a section of the rulebook devoted to it so people playing don’t end up on Board Game Geek saying “The Cultist: What’s the deal with that?”
Instead, the only references to it in the instructions are cryptic and throwaway.
It’s a shame, because I otherwise like the Ascension rules. There are lots of pictures – and pictures help. Every rule book should have pictures and session reports illustrating how the game should be played.
Some people claim Monopoly is an easy game: It isn’t, but they’ve grown up playing it and have some idea how it works. They don’t think it’s a difficult game because they already know how to play it and – as with all those wonderful, intimidating games that are so much better than Monopoly – they don’t have to learn it from scratch. Chances are they aren’t playing Monopoly by the original rules, but by house variants passed from generation to generation. If any modern game hopes to compete with that kind of ingrained knowledge, it needs to do it with clear, concise rules that make the game a doddle to play.
The last thing any game needs is for the players to spend half their time flicking through rules saying “Er, I think you do this next.” So let’s put our collective foot down. Let the Campaign for Rules that Actuate Play start here, because if game publishers are content to feed us crap, let us fling our C.R.A.P. back at them.
The campaign starts here. Show your support – email Campfire Burning at firstname.lastname@example.org