The following happens to myself and people I know constantly: I have a game I want to play with people, that I think they’d enjoy, but they’ve never played it before. They need to learn how the game is played, from scratch. This is not easy to do.
Recently, I had a friend try to teach me a game he loves. It’s not a simple game by any stretch of the imagination, with relatively complex mechanics and even more complex strategy. It seems like an interesting game, but after 30 minutes of explanation, I couldn’t tell you how it’s played. Rather than criticizing, however, I want to try to lay out a basic plan for teaching games.
I’m going to use Infinity as my example. Here’s how to play Infinity, and what I’m doing with each step. You should be able to follow along with the images and the bolded sentences to get a picture of how to play Infinity.
STEP 1: THE PREMISE
We’ll start with the absolute basics. Infinity is a minis game about futuristic black ops, with agents and counter-agents trying to achieve objectives and shooting each other. Full stop. One sentence. Before I go any further, I want to communicate a really high-level picture of the game that’s concise and complete. Note that I didn’t stop at “futuristic minis game”, because that isn’t evocative. There are a lot of minis games, and they’re all different. Infinity isn’t a massed wargame, it’s got very small model counts and is extremely tactical– but I don’t need to say any of that explicitly right away.
It’s played on a dense table where you’re moving around and through a lot of scenery, hiding and taking cover. The tagline a lot of people use is “it’s always your turn”. Two more sentences, both communicate the REST of what I need to evoke– the kind of play you can expect. This is all of the big-picture stuff I need to say, but it should be enough to suggest to people whether it’s the kind of game they might like or not. A lot of people, particularly experienced ones, go into really detailed high-level strategy to talk about why the game is interesting. I think this is a mistake– it’s where you lose people, or get them thinking it’s “too complicated”. You want imaginations running wild, not an analysis of specific interactions. As an example of Doing It Wrong: “In Infinity, you can have your guy with smoke bombs make a screen so that your other guy who can see through the smoke can shoot at people who can’t– it’s brutal and awesome!” I’ve heard this sentence used to describe the game and I’ve watched as the listener starts tuning out. You should never talk about high-level strategy when teaching a game for the first time, particularly not when you’ve yet to set up a board and actually play.
STEP 2: FOUNDATIONS
At this point, you can go into the rules, in the simplest possible way. There is a concept in game design referred to as the “core gameplay loop”, which is the very basic way in which you interact with the game. It’s the actions you take in order to resolve uncertainty– where “uncertainty” is anything you do that isn’t guaranteed. If you say “I shoot this guy” and then roll some dice, that’s the core gameplay loop. It’s closely tied in with another concept called “resolution”– which is the actual set of dice you roll/cards you play/buttons you push and how they work. To go back to Infinity:
Infinity uses d20s, and a “blackjack” style of rolling, where you want to roll as high as you can without going over a target number. Higher numbers cancel lower numbers. It also uses “orders”, which are like action points, that you can spend to make models do things.
Super simple, super straightforward. I still haven’t needed to show off any game pieces yet, and you should be able to imagine both how the game feels conceptually as well as a vague sense of how it resolves mechanically. Next, we want to talk about how turns work.
Whenever it’s your turn, you get a number of orders equal to the number of models you have on the table that are still alive and functioning. You can spend orders as you like, on any model you have on the table. There is no limit to the number of orders that can be spent on a single model.
When you spend an order, you get two actions, like a turn in D&D. You get, essentially, a simple skill and a complex skill. Moving, looking around, climbing, those are all simple skills. Shooting, dodging, taking an objective, those are complex skills. You can downgrade a complex skill to a simple skill if you want to, say, move twice in one order, but you can’t go the other way and shoot twice in one order.
If it’s not your turn, your models don’t just stand there and get shot. Whenever your opponent spends an order on a model, and that model winds up in the line of sight of one of your models, you can react. This is called an ARO, or “automatic reactive order”. They’re free, and you can take one complex action in response. If your opponent shoots you, you can shoot back! AROs are declared after the first part of the active player’s order, before the second part is declared. There are downsides, but we’ll get to them later.
We’re drilling down slowly into details. We’ve covered a high level explanation, the core combat loop, and how turns and actions work.
The next step here, the next block in the foundation, is to provide context:
This is a unit. It’s got a bunch of stats and it’s got some equipment and weapons. I’ll go through it in order:
- MOV is short for “movement”: It’s how far the model can move, in inches, when it spends an Order. There are two numbers there, one for each “part” of an order, but I’ll get to that later. The specifics here aren’t relevant right now, and I want to stay focused on providing context to the stats. It’s tempting to completely cover every detail as it comes up, but you lose focus when you do.
- CC is short for “close combat”. It’s your base target number for hitting someone in melee.
- BS is short for “ballistic skill”. It’s your base target number for hitting someone with a ranged weapon.
- PH is short for “physical”. It’s used for dodging, how hard you hit in melee, and most things relating to your body.
- WIP is short for “willpower”. It’s used for taking objectives, hacking, being courageous, and most things relating to your mind.
- ARM is short for “armor”. It’s your level of protection against being shot or stabbed.
- BTS is short for “biotechnological shield”. It’s a complex name that really just means your level of protection against special attacks. I’m simplifying a nonintuitive game term here for ease of understanding.
- W is short for “wounds”. It’s how many hit points you have before you go unconscious. If you take a wound while unconscious, you’re dead. A little extra detail here, but an important one.
- S is short for “silhouette”. It’s a way of telling how big a unit is without relying on just the mini.
- AVA is short for “availability”. It’s how many you can take in your list, and “total” means there’s no limit.
Below the stats, you can see a line showing the name of the unit, what weapons it has, and an “SWC” and “C”– these are costs used for building a list.
On the left, near the unit icon, you can see a little green arrow. Most troops have that arrow, and it just means they’re “Regular”. It’s not important now, just remember that not every troop is Regular.
That is the simplest rundown of everything in a unit stat block. There’s one other bit of context:
You’ve seen a unit statline, here’s a weapon statline:
This is a combi rifle, what that Fusilier up there has.
- The colored bar is in increments of 8 or 16 inches, and shows the bonuses or penalties you get to your BS when shooting at those ranges.
- Damage is the base damage of the weapon, it is reduced by the ARM of whatever it hits, and is the one weird roll in Infinity. When you get hit, you have to make an ARM roll. Reduce the damage of the weapon by your ARM, and then you have to roll ABOVE the resulting number. This is a little piece of resolution that we skipped before, but is complete now that we have all of the context. It’s also a weird roll in the game, and worth calling out specifically.
- B stands for “burst”, and it’s how many shots you take each time you shoot if it’s your turn. In ARO, your B drops to 1. The active player tends to have an advantage, here. A little bit of commentary here, just enough to paint a more complete picture of things.
- Ammunition has a variety of types, N stands for “normal”. If people ask, I’ll talk about the other types here, but otherwise I’ll keep going.
- Traits are special things about the weapon, we’re not going to worry about them for now. Keep it simple, because of what’s coming next.
STEP 3: AN EXAMPLE
We’ve covered some basics as well as providing context. We can now talk about an example.
My Fusilier is behind this building and wants to shoot yours. It’s my turn, I spend an order and use my first action to step around the corner, where we can see each other. You decide to ARO, and declare that you’re going shoot me. I wanted to shoot you anyway, so I declare that for the second part of my order I’m going to shoot you as well. Now we roll off.
We measure the distance between us, let’s say it’s 12 inches. That’s in the +3 range of our combi rifles, so we both add +3 to our BS when shooting. I’m the active player, so I use my full Burst (which is 3), and you have Burst 1. I’ll roll 3d20, looking for 15 or less, against your 1d20, also looking for 15 or less. This is called a face-to-face roll.
I roll a 17, a 12, and a 3. You roll a 10, which is a hit. My 17 misses, and my 12 and 3 hit. However, your 10 is higher than my 3, so it cancels the 3. My 12 cancels your 10. The net result is that I hit you once. Now you make an ARM roll. The combi rifle is Damage 13, and you have ARM 1, so you roll again, trying to get better than (13-1) 12. You rolled a 14, so you’re safe.
You might have survived being shot at, but anyone will flinch at a bullet pinging off of their armor, so you have to make what’s called a Guts check. You roll your WIP to see if you can stand your ground. Your WIP is 12, and you rolled a 16, so you have to duck into cover.
Now the order is done, and we’re onto the next order on my turn. I’ve covered a basic, straightforward example here, and now I’m going to slowly layer complexity onto that example.
I’m not happy with that outcome, so I’ll spend an order and declare that I’m shooting you again. You declare the same, feeling good about being in cover. I realize that you’re in cover and I’m not, so I’ll use the second part of my order to move back into cover myself. Everything in an order resolves at the same time, so when you shoot me, you’ll be shooting me while I’m out of cover. At the end of this order, I’ll be in cover, though, just like you. Layered complexity, and now we see how it affects things.
Once again, I have Burst 3 to your Burst 1. Like before, you’re shooting me and looking for a 15 or less– 12 BS plus 3 for range. However, now you’re in cover, which gives me a -3 penalty to shoot at you, and gives you +3 ARM. I get plus 3 for range but minus 3 for cover, so I’m just at my base 12 BS.
I roll a 13, an 10, and a 9. You roll a 5. My 13 misses, and your 5 is lower than both my 10 and 9. You get hit twice, and have to make two ARM rolls. However, you’re in cover, so you get a +3 bonus to your ARM. Now, instead of rolling higher than 12, you only need to be higher than 9. You rolled a 10 and a 14, so once again, you’re fine.
Because you successfully made an ARM save, you need to make another Guts roll. If you want, you can choose to automatically fail it instead of rolling, to get totally behind cover where I can’t shoot at you, but you’re feeling lucky, having survived three hits. You roll an 8 and stay in place.
It’s still my turn, and I have one more order. Now it’s personal. I spend my last order on my Fusilier, now in cover, and shoot you once more. You declare Shoot as your ARO as well, and now I can pick my second action. I don’t want to move and forfeit cover, so I’m just going to stay where I am. Now, you’re at a 12 to hit along with me, since we’re both in cover. Third example, reinforcing the basic loop and layering one additional bit of complexity.
I roll an 11, a 10, and a 3. Three hits! You roll a 12. Not only is your 12 better than my three shots, it’s also right on your target number. If you roll the exact number you need, that’s a critical hit. A crit cancels any non-crit rolls, even if they’re higher. It also means I take a wound automatically, without getting to make an ARM save. Fusiliers only have one Wound, so down he goes.
My Fusilier falls down, unconscious, and yours holds position.
An extended example in text, but this takes about two minutes to describe in person. When teaching the game, I often just lay out the dice in the numbers that illustrate my point the best, rather than rolling them. Actual randomness is likely to distract from what I’m trying to communicate.
Now, we’re onto the last step.
STEP 4: STOP. PLAY.
Here’s a quick game. You and I each have three Fusiliers, and there’s a computer in the middle of the board that we need to activate. Remember, it’s a WIP roll to activate it, at which point it’s under your control. Whoever controls it at the end of the fourth turn wins.
We have, at this point, covered enough of the rules of the game in order to play it. It will be a very simple game, with the most basic of rules, but the point here is that we’re giving the foundation time to set. Adding complexity here is a MISTAKE, and will only confuse people.
Yes, you’re going to be playing an extremely simple version of the game, but that’s why you’re teaching. There’s enough in just what I described to make the game playable, and it’ll be short and reasonably interesting. Experienced players will be able to pick up on more complexity more quickly, and you can ramp them up with the rest of the rules once you’ve got the foundation set, but until then you’re trying to get the core gameplay loop and basic resolution down.
You’ve also, at this point, invested about five minutes of exposition. Hands-on examples are really, really important at this point, or nothing will stick. Different games will require that you use different simplifications– make sure you boil things down to the core gameplay loop and establish a simple, understandable win condition.
It’s not important that the game be played perfectly accurately when you’re teaching it, those are rough edges that you can smooth out later. The important part is that the game is understood, at which point you can then build on the foundation you’ve created.
Very wordy post today, but I hope it was interesting and helpful. Did I do a good job teaching Infinity? Let me know!
Source: Digital Initiative
Teaching Games: Step By Step (Or: How To Play Infinity In 1500 words)