What Is Spread

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Board gaming is inherently a multiplayer hobby. Whereas video games can be enjoyed immensely for their solo gameplay, the same cannot be said of board games; in fact, most solo board games are not enjoyed by the small subset of the community aware of their existence. The hobby therefore requires at least one participant other than yourself and its physicality inserts geographic constraints on your opponents. If this is not a hobby that you can readily enjoy by yourself, one needs to create one’s own opponents, indoctrinating friends, family members, coworkers, strangers – anyone within your sphere of influence – to not only promote the hobby but merely participate in it.

How then do we convert new players to gamers? Here are six simple ways I’ve found to help the hobby SPREAD, rules to follow when selecting your gateway games.

Short – In my experience, many new players go into their first game night with a degree of skepticism and hesitation. It sounds like a fun thing to do, but even with the best gateway games the odds may not be great that the person will remain for a second game let alone, the rest of the night. One of the most important factors in the enjoyment of a game is its length, and a good gateway game keeps it short. Many new players feel that it takes a playthrough for them to understand the flow and strategy of the game, so why make them wait for an hour? By keeping the game short, it won’t be long before they can replay the same game with no explanation and a greater understanding of what strategies are necessary. This will undoubtedly lead to more enjoyment and, if it doesn’t work out, at least neither of you have invested much time.

Public - Hidden information can make for some great experiences and tension in gaming; its presence can also make for a terrible teaching experience. The tension of not knowing what trump card is player is holding dissipates when you have to explain to them what the card does. This can also create a competitive advantage against the player thereby reducing the winnability. In Catan, if a development card has to be explained in private, it generally informs experienced players which one it is. Instead, choose a game where the state of the game is known at all times, where everyone has equal access to the same information. It allows you to explain any rules or effects at any time and also reduces how much knowledge is needed before the game begins. I’ve played several games of the Resistance that either a) fail the setup phase or b) the spy doesn’t realize what they are supposed to do, which can make for a very embarrassing situation.

Reasonable – Part of the fun of board gaming is discovering the strategies necessary in order to win. Also, winning itself is quite fun. Therefore, it is essential that a gateway game provide a reasonable chance at victory for all players, regardless of experience level, and that the learning curve is sufficiently small in order for new players to be understand what they are doing. Games that have great depth and nuance to them without unnecessary complexity will offer a sense of challenge that is welcome rather than overbearing. It is very difficult to say to a new player, “Try this great game. You won’t understand what you are doing and you will lose decisively.” Instead, give them a reason to come back by increasing their satisfaction without outright throwing the game. Games in which you can handicap yourself are especially effective, if the game has variable powers or a clear first/last/middle player disadvantage.

Exciting – any good game must be enjoyable, but that may mean different things to different players. I enjoy a great deduction game where my brain burns at maximum capacity just as I enjoy betraying and backstabbing my closest friends. But these may not make for the best first impressions. Excitement, however, has that rare ability to draw you into a game and keep you engaged from turn to turn. Players are waiting anxiously for the right die roll or for someone to fail spectacularly. Push your luck games work greatly in this regard – players find themselves emotionally invested in the outcome and fret that they have gone too far. Excitement can even create satisfaction from failure, thereby reducing the dissatisfaction that comes from loss.

Accessible – Purchasing your own games is one of the surest signs that you are invested in the hobby. Therefore, it is only logical that they should actually be able to purchase them. Availability is one of the main barriers to spreading the hobby, as many of the best games are simply out of print. Cost is another primary factor – the hobby can be expensive (165 games in and I still want more) – and if your investment fails to catch on, you might be out a non-trivial amount of money. Therefore, accessibility is a factor of opportunity and cost; players are more likely to buy that which they can readily find and easily afford. There is more comfort in buying what you’ve played before, so be sure to teach games that meet these two crucial criteria.

Demoable (or demonstrable) – For the hobby to truly spread, those you teach must be able to pay it forward and teach others. Rulebooks are wonderful points of reference, but many players never read them. They rely on being taught by others and relay what they were taught. This goes beyond simplicity of rules; simplicity of setup is also key. Many times the setup of a game is never actually explained, so any game where the setup is crucial, configurable or subject to player counts may not be the best choice. If you choose a game with these considerations, be sure to indicate how to set up the game appropriately.

Follow these rules and you will help the hobby SPREAD. Gaming can be a difficult hobby to embrace; make it as easy for others as possible and never feel discouraged by those who seem disinterested. I have had great success using this model and hope that you will as well.