Friday, July 17, 2015

Learning from the Casual Gamer: What I Learned Reading Lauren Orsini's Review of Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers

I've been excited about the upcoming release of Hasbro's Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers board game since I first got news of it last year. The game has already received limited release through brick and mortar specialty stores and on, but has an official wide release date of August 1, 2015. I've got my game on pre-order with a smaller FLGS who isn't on Wizards of the Coast's list of premiere stores and I'm eager to play it. My eagerness is two fold. First, the game has received praise on Boardgame geek and Tom Vasel has given it a big thumbs up. Second, the game looks to be heavily influenced by one of my favorite introductory miniatures games Heroscape.

My eagerness to play the game has only increased after reading an interesting, and mildly irritating, review of Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers from Forbes, entitled "I played 'Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers' and All I Got Was Drunk."

The article was irritating because of its focus on drinking, used for humor I suppose, and the fact that it was a perfect demonstration of the ubiquity of tl;dr culture. If something is too long people will ignore it. It's one of those path dependent results of video games masking the the mechanics underlying game play. Video games implement the mechanics and players don't need to know how a game works in order to begin play and can learn how the mechanics work through play. There is still a learning curve, but it is an active learning curve.

I'm not entirely opposed to this, but it is a mentality that doesn't work too well with board games. You cannot play a board game without having some sense of the mechanics. This is one of the reasons that some games have "basic" and "advanced" rules that can be used. As I wrote, I'm not opposed to working toward making games more "open and play," but I am frustrated by how the transition to digital reading has lowered people's tolerance for long form journalism and games with rules longer than six pages.

The article is interesting because it demonstrates what an encounter with a "light" wargame is to a casual gamer. I have often wondered why Heroscape didn't do as well as I had hoped and Lauren Orsini filled in that gap for me nicely. To me, Heroscape and games like it, are popcorn and soda affairs that are quick to play and don't require a Master's Degree in Rules Acquisition like the classic Advanced Squad Leader does. Compared to the hundreds of pages of rules in ASL, a 20 page rulebook is nothing. But for someone used to pick up and play, or 4 page rulebooks, the story is quite different.

Image Source ICv2

For gamers like Lauren, Arena of the Planeswalkers 20 page rulebook is the referential counterpoint to those hundreds of pages of rule and being asked to flip through those pages to find a rule is similar to us searching for rule A25.45 which refers us to rule F.8, but is really referring to rule A25.53.

In Tom Vasel's reviews of the game, he talks about how quick the game plays and his group is playing it in less than half an hour. In Lauren's review, she describes how she and her group played for over three hours and still hadn't finished the game. She also expressed concern that her group might not have been playing the game correctly.

It would be easy enough to turn this discussion into a screed against Lauren and tl;dr gamers like her, but that's not what I want to do here. Yes, tl;dr culture irritates me. I don't like it when my students haven't read The Federalist Papers because they are difficult to understand and I don't like it when a gamer is intimidated by a "mere" 20 pages of rules.

 Having written that, 20 pages is actually quite a lot of rules. The basic rules of Chess, one of the greatest games ever made, can be written in two pages.

I think that as fans of games and gaming we need to take into account how intimidating a 20 page rulebook can be and not be surprised when someone is intimidated by it. Think about those game sessions when you wanted to play a new game, but hadn't read the rules yet, and read them aloud to the group before play. Remember how long that took? Remember how not fun that was? Playing a game with a longer rulebook requires home work to be done by at least one of the game group. Keep that in mind when designing games, but more importantly keep that in mind when playing with inexperienced gamers.

It is our job as game advocates and fans to familiarize ourselves with games so that we can teach them to others and make their experiences as much "open and play" as possible. I think that Lauren's article gives us some pretty good insight into how an inexperienced gamer approaches our hobby. She did her best to learn and play the game with her group and wrote a relatively positive review for someone as intimidated as she was.

Now...what Forbes was thinking when they assigned this article to her is another matter entirely.

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