Learning from Board Games

By Jim Ross

Published: September 9, 2013

“Board games and applications use many of the same principles to quickly get new players and new users started.”

Growing up, I loved playing board games. Now that I have kids, I’ve been able to relive playing a lot of those great games with them. As the Dad, it’s my job to be the instruction reader and rule explainer to my kids. As a result, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how well, or how badly, games explain their rules to new players. Over time, I began to realize that board games and applications use many of the same principles to quickly get new players and new users started.

Both board games and applications have the challenge of getting new players and new users started quickly—before they get frustrated and give up. The best games and applications make it easy to learn the basics without reading lengthy instructions, and it’s easy to remember how to play the very best games—even when it’s been a long time since you last played or used them.

In this column, I’ll describe some of the principles that board games use to help new players learn how to play. Most of you reading this will already be familiar with how these same principles help people to learn user interfaces, but it’s interesting to look at how a different design domain applies these principles. Perhaps this will give us some insights into how to make software and Web applications easier to learn.

Just Get People Started

“The overarching guideline for both board games and applications is to get people started quickly.”

The overarching guideline for both board games and applications is to get people started quickly. People don’t want to learn how to play a game. They just want to play. Reading instructions—like those shown in Figure 1—and learning how to play are necessary evils, but you should make it easy to get started as quickly as possible. The longer players take to learn, the more likely they will lose interest and give up. That’s not to say that a game can’t be complex, but the challenge should come from the gameplay itself, not from learning how to play the game.

Figure 1—Learning how to play is the least fun part of playing a game

Learning how to play is the least fun part of playing a game

The same applies to applications. People don’t want to take time learning how to use an application. In fact, their goal isn’t even to use an application. Their goal is to get something done, and the application is just a tool to accomplish their goal. The sooner people can get started using an application and focusing on their task instead of the user interface, the better. Unlike Web sites, most applications do require some learning, but people have only so much patience before they’ll give up or develop their own inefficient workarounds.

Make It Easy to Set Up

“Starting with the most commonly used settings, saving users’ preferences, and learning from and adapting to users’ actions are some ways that applications can minimize the need for setup.”

Board games require setup each time you play. Most of the setup is simple, but some things always require referring to the rule book. For example:

  • How many $500 bills does each player get in Monopoly?
  • How many cards does each player start out with in Uno?
  • How many armies does each player get if you have three players in Risk?

The best games have an easily findable “Setup” section at the front of the rulebook. Monopoly City takes the usual listing of the number of bills each player gets at the start of the game a step further, showing images of the bills with the numbers of bills each player gets, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Monopoly City visually indicates the numbers of bills each player gets

Monopoly City visually indicates the numbers of bills each player gets

Applications have the advantage of requiring only one initial setup, then can open to their last state on each subsequent use. Starting with the most commonly used settings, saving users’ preferences, and learning from and adapting to users’ actions are some ways that applications can minimize the need for setup.

Keep It Simple

“People can learn the more complex functions over time, as they become more motivated to learn advanced features.”

To get players started quickly, board games should’t be any more complicated than necessary. Since one player usually gets nominated to read the rule book, the basic rules need to be both easily understandable and easily explainable to the other players. A lot of games these days have reminder cards, like that shown in Figure 3, which players can use to know what to do on each turn. These can be handy, but if players must continually rely on these cards to know how to play, it’s a sign that the game is too complex.

Figure 3—Reminder cards offer a quick summary of the rules for more complex games

Reminder cards offer a quick summary of the rules for more complex games

Software is usually more complex than board games, but the basic rules should be as simple as possible, so users can easily get started—ideally, without reading anything. People can learn the more complex functions over time, as they become more motivated to learn advanced features.

Don’t Make Me Read

“It should be possible to get started with the most common, simple tasks without reading anything.”

No one wants to read instructions, but it’s often necessary when starting to play a new board game. The best rule books list the game objective and basics up front, providing enough information to start playing without having to read the entire rule book. Then, as specific situations come up, players can refer back to the rule book. For example, in Monopoly it’s not necessary to read about or memorize the rules for getting out of jail. When you go to jail, you can easily find out that information, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4—There’s no need to read the rules for getting out of jail until you’re in jail

There’s no need to read the rules for getting out of jail until you’re in jail

No one wants to read how to use an application either. Ideally, it should be possible to get started with the most common, simple tasks without reading anything. Providing brief introductions, onscreen breakthroughs, and tutorials can help ease users into more complex functionality without their having to read instructions.

Show Me How to Play

“It’s much easier to learn and retain information by seeing and doing than just reading.”

Once you’ve read the instructions, it’s difficult to explain the rules of a game to others. How many times have you heard someone say, “Let’s just get started, and I’ll show you how to play?” It’s much easier to learn by seeing and doing than by reading.

The same is true in learning how to use an application. Most people just want to get started and figure things out on their own. So it needs to be easy for people to figure out how to get started with the most basic, common tasks. They can learn more through introductory demonstrations, videos, and tutorials. It’s much easier to learn and retain information by seeing and doing than just reading.

Follow Conventions

“Conventions allow users to focus on their tasks rather than be distracted by trying to figure out a user interface.”

Games that follow common board-game conventions are easier to learn and easier to remember how to play. Board-game conventions include using dice or spinners to dictate moves, using game pieces, moving clockwise in spaces around a board; cards, money, and players taking turns clockwise. Conventions allow players to apply their knowledge of other games to learning a new game. For example, you were’t born knowing how to play Monopoly, but it’s pretty easy to learn if you have experience playing other games.

Of course, following user-interface conventions has the same benefits in making applications easier to learn and more memorable. Conventions allow users to focus on their tasks rather than be distracted by trying to figure out a user interface. Some people mistakenly think that following conventions limits creativity. In reality, conventions allow you to be creative and innovative where it makes sense, while not confusing people unnecessarily. 

Be Consistent

“A consistent application is understandable and predictable, which makes it easier to learn to use.”

In addition to following conventions, the best games are consistent—both within the game and across similar games. When the same rules apply in various situations, games are easier to learn, and players feel confident that they understand the rules and know how to play. Inconsistency raises doubts and leads to confusion. For example, Monopoly comes in many different versions, each with slight variations, but they all follow the same premise and basic rules. This makes it easy to learn a new version because players have to focus only on learning the elements that vary from the traditional game, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5—Mega Monopoly is mostly consistent with the standard version, so players just need to learn the variations

Mega Monopoly is mostly consistent with the standard version, so players just need to learn the variations

Of course, consistency is also extremely important in user-interface design. A consistent application is understandable and predictable, which makes it easier to learn to use. Consistency with similar applications allows users to apply their prior knowledge to the application they’re currently using. For example, although they are very different applications, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel share a standard design and many consistent functions, allowing a user of one of these applications to easily get started with the basics of the other.

Provide Contextual Help

“Contextual Help is also the best way to provide help in an application.”

In addition to providing a rule book, games provide contextual help for specific situations. It’s much easier for players if you present them with this information only when they need it. Contextual Help for board games appears in several different forms:

  • spaces on the board, as shown in Figure 6
  • cards that tell players what to do, as shown in Figures 7 and 8
  • information that is printed on the game board, as shown in Figure 9

Figure 6—Spaces on game boards provide instructions, a form of contextual Help

Spaces on game boards provide instructions, a form of contextual Help

Figure 7—Cards provide instructions about actions to take, another form of contextual Help

Cards provide instructions about actions to take, another form of contextual Help

Figure 8—Property cards provide help about rent rates, the cost of houses, and mortgage values

Property cards provide help about rent rates, the cost of houses, and mortgage values

Figure 9—The game board can also provide contextual Help, as in the game Life

The game board can also provide contextual Help, as in the game Life

Contextual Help is also the best way to provide help in an application. It provides users with the information they need, about the things they are currently trying to do, at the time when they need it. It’s an easy, quick way for users to get that information without having to go to Help.

Make It Easy to Get Help

“Application users turn to Help only as a last resort, when they can’t figure something out on their own.”

Despite their having a summary of the rules and contextual Help, players occasionally come across a situation in which they need to refer back to the rule book. For example:

  • If you pay $50 to get out of jail in Monopoly, can you roll and take your turn right away, or do you have to wait until your next turn?
  • What do you do when you get married in the game Life?
  • What’s the next piece I’m supposed to build in Mousetrap?

A well-organized and clearly labeled rule book with a table of contents or index, such as the one shown in Figure 10, makes it easy for players to find the information they need. The instructions must be clearly written and understandable. Most board games do this very well.

Figure 10—A table of contents and clearly labeled sections make it easy to find specific information

A table of contents and clearly labeled sections make it easy to find specific information

Similarly, application users turn to Help only as a last resort, when they can’t figure something out on their own. Unfortunately, Help for applications is usually much more extensive, and Help isn’t always as concise and well written as board-game instructions. However, applications Help has the advantage of being interactive and researchable.

Make It Easy to Remember

“Applications also have to be memorable, so people can remember how to use them after a period of non-use.”

Once you’ve learned how to play a game, you may not play it again for months. When you try to play it again, hopefully it’s memorable enough that you won’t have to read the entire rule book over again. At the most, you may have to refresh your memory on a few of the rules. Games remain memorable by keeping their basic rules simple, by following conventions, and by being consistent.

Applications also have to be memorable, so people can remember how to use them after a period of non-use. The less frequently people use an application, the more important its memorability becomes. Like games, applications remain memorable by keeping their most common functions simple, by following user-interface conventions, and through consistency.

Provide Beginner and Advanced Versions

“Applications can use the same strategy, providing easy access to the most common functions for beginning users, while also providing advanced functionality to experienced users.”

For more complex games, there are sometimes multiple versions—a beginner’s version to help new players get started and a more advanced version for experienced players. For example, Risk is a complex and intimidating game for some people to learn. Parker Brothers added an introductory version of the game, shown in Figure 11. By simplifying the rules, they helped players to get started more quickly, learn the basic strategies of the game, and get hooked on the strategy and excitement of the gameplay. Players can then graduate to playing the classic version of the game for more experienced players.

Figure 11—Risk offers an introductory version to ease new players into a complex game

Risk offers an introductory version to ease new players into a complex game

Applications can use the same strategy, providing easy access to the most common functions for beginning users, while also providing advanced functionality to experienced users. New users can easily use the most common features, then discover the advanced features as they gain more experience.

Provide the Ability to Customize

“Modify an application to better fit the way a person wants to use it.”

Traditionally, board games did’t provide any official customization, but players came up with modifications of their own. Many Monopoly players don’t realize that, in the official rules, you don’t get any money for landing on Free Parking. Getting $500 from landing on Free Parking was a modification that players created over the years to add more excitement to the game. More recently, the Lego board games actively encourage players to customize by suggesting a few alternative ways to play the game and encouraging players to come up with their own changes, as shown in Figure 12. Adding variety like this can make a familiar game more fun.

Figure 12—Lego board games encourage players to come up with creative customizations

Lego board games encourage players to come up with creative customizations

Customization in software isn’t usually to increase fun or add variety, but instead to modify an application to better fit the way a person wants to use it. Since many people never get around to customizing, provide the most common settings by default and offer customization as an advanced option.

Test with Users

“To really know how easy or difficult a board game or application is to learn, you have to test it with players or users.”

Following these guidelines isn’t enough. To really know how easy or difficult a board game or application is to learn, you have to test it with players or users. The major board game companies do a lot of play testing of new board games to determine how well the games work, how easy they are to learn, and how fun they are to play. From that testing, they learn not only about the game they’re testing, but information about what would work in future games. Of course, the same benefits come from usability testing applications.

How to Win

If you know much about user experience, the principles I’ve listed in this column are nothing new, but I hope you’ve found it interesting to take a fresh look at these principles from another perspective. Examining how another domain applies familiar principles lets us step back and perhaps see something new in them. Hopefully, this column has given you some new insights on how better to apply these principles in making software easier to learn.

1 Comment

Great article and very detailed. Thanks! Take a look at this board game that one of our learners created. It dramatically reduced the resources that complemented the session and has had great feedback as a fun and different way to learn.

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