How to Play vs. How to Win

Another game we received for Christmas this year is Quadropolis. Quadropolis is a city-building game. Players score points for the best placement of their buildings. The rules are simples. The strategy is deep, but not complicated. That combination made it a great game to teach my middle daughter. She loved the art and thought it was a game she might like. She actually came to me wanting to play.

I read the rules and decided that it also falls in the middle of the “How to play vs. How to win” continuum. This continuum exists in all games. Some games have a low entry point for rules, but the strategy is too deep for a new player. Others have complicated rules but have mechanics that keep every player in the game. Quadropolis fell in a happy place that made it easy for her to learn, and easy for her to score well after a few plays.

The continuum I mentioned – How to Play vs How to win – exists for every game. Part of teaching a game, as well as learning, is deciding which is more important.

When “How to Play” is Important

The more complicated the rules are for a game, the more I tend to lean this way. A great example of this is Seasons. Seasons has an easy mechanic and rules set, but the strategic component of the game is deep. Devote the first several plays to learning the system and understanding card interactions. After a while and after you’ve learned several of the card types, you can play a better game. A better example for families is Stone Age.  It features a simple ruleset set, but a good player will always beat bad ones. Learning the game takes several sessions to learn the rules and tactics.

When “How to Win” is Important

After you’ve mastered the rules, this comes into play. Several games allow you to do this, maybe even into the first game. We usually refer to these games as “gateway” games because they are new-player friendly.  Gateway games have mechanics that keep all players around the same point value. The best example here is Settlers of Catan. It is a popular game and it is finding its way into more and more households. The point spread is always close and the social aspects of the game allow most players to be in the hunt for victory.

When teaching a game, it’s important to consider this continuum. Some may see this as a false dichotomy, and perhaps it is. Yet, I always explain to players at the beginning that learning the rules well leads to better play. Sometimes, it may take a while to learn the rules. As the teacher, don’t be afraid to coach the players at your table – especially your family. This is part of the joy of gaming with them. Coaching, by definition, exhibits the transition of learning to play vs. learning to win.

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