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Gamers and Their High Horses: Beginners and Complexity (by Arvid)

Continuing our series of grumpy guest posts, today we welcome Arvid. He can also be found on his solo games reviews website: One Player Two Cats

This common scenario, here presented in a somewhat hyperbolized form for dramatic effect, bothers me every time I see it. The setting is usually the forums of a well-known table-top gaming site.

Somebody says that they're new to gaming. They've have had lots of fun playing games with their friends, and have now done some research towards buying their first more serious hobby game. They own a few games already. Splendor, Stone Age and Carcassonne. They want a deeper experience, though. Doing their research they've found BGG, browsed the top 100, read about games and watched a few videos. Now they write their first post in the forums, asking about some pros and cons, ins and outs, about a very intriguing game they've found: Mage Knight.

And then they get friendly advice from the board game sages.

Somebody says that "Mage Knight is a great game but it's very difficult to learn and play. You should probably look at something like Runebound."

As far as I'm concerned the board game sage might as well have said that "you lack the sophistication and intelligence to appreciate this game, whoever you are, so you should have a look at an ok game instead of the great one you're interested in."

In this way people are discouraged from getting to the good stuff right away. They are discouraged from enjoying what we, the people who discourage them, think of as the pinnacles of what modern tabletop gaming has to offer. This practice reeks of elitism and smugness.

We don't even know who's asking, usually, so why presume that their intelligence is below average or that ours is above theirs? They might have a degree in engineering. They might work in accounting. They might be artists. They might be parents. They might have gone through grade school with passing grades. They are very likely to have a job. They might have played Eve Online for years. All of these everyday things are way more challenging than learning how to play a board game. Also, since they are interested in slightly heavier games they probably want a challenge.

In my experience the main barrier to overcome for a new gamer, and for those of us who are trying to encourage others to partake in our wonderful hobby, is neither complexity nor weight. The reason that people don't enjoy a game is usually that they don't care. The game doesn't engage them. The theme might not interest them. The decisions might not interest them. This is why I'm skeptical about equating gateway games with lighter games.

When somebody has discovered a game and is curious about it, that curiosity can become a passion. Instead of explaining how complex the game in question is and telling people to look elsewhere – think about it!

Did you manage to learn the rules? Check!

Did you manage to play the game? Check!

Are you a strategical genius, a tactical prodigy and a marvel of textual interpretation and subtextual awareness? Are you, in fact, the Flannery Einstein McMozart-O'Conner of gaming? Probably not.

Is the person asking about Mage Knight a blockheaded nitwit? Probably not.

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So what was the challenge? What's hard about this game and how did you overcome it?

Perhaps the best answer would be something like "the rulebook is pretty dense and there are many symbols that have to be looked up when you play the game, but watch Ricky Royal's videos and print out this handy reference sheet. You're in for a tough challenge and lots of fun!"

My example is blown out of proportion to help me make a point. This deprecating tone, however, and the underlying notions of self-aggrandizing, is common in the online tabletop gaming community. The people giving this kind of advice are usually trying to be friendly and helpful. I've definitely been guilty of this behavior myself, from time to time. Yet it bothers me every single time I see it.

This text reflects my opinions on some prevailing attitudes in the tabletop gaming community but not my opinions about Mage Knight and Runebound.

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Aug 10, 2020

A nice thought-provoking read. Thanks for that. :) I am still in my first year of "passionate gamer" level, and I'm one of those people who love deep, heavy games (of course if the theme and artwork attract me). I'd be one of those people you discussed, who although a "beginner" compared to many of you, I WANT those games that I need to play over and over to learn. I enjoy learning something new about the rules or strategy by playing more, so complexity is not a deterrent for me. I like your points. :)


Jay Atkinson
Jay Atkinson
Sep 17, 2019

You make a very valid point about how our recommendations can come across condescending sometimes. I'm probably guilty as well without realizing. Thanks for the insight!

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