Monday 8 October 2012

Playing games with people who don't play games

Darren Grey commented on my last post:
"None of my friends are gamers, so multiplayer really isn't viable. When I do try to get them to play a game of something I'm usually far to much better than them, which neither of us enjoy. On that note more co-op style stuff would be better for engaging my non-gamer friends."

Since this seems to be a common problem, maybe I can try to say something constructive towards it rather than just complain that nobody plays local multiplayer! Skip to the end for a helpful list.

I really don't like that word, "gamer". It's a word we use to exclude people, to disconnect our hobby from the bulk of humanity and from a universal tradition of play first formalised millennia ago but with prehuman roots evident in the playful rituals of animals. Everyone plays games; or at least have played games, would play games. Just maybe not "gamer" games - they play Snake or Angry Birds on their telephones, cards or (ugh) Monopoly with their families, sports on the weekend, drinking games and darts at the pub, Paintball or Laser Strike for a birthday party, Farmville when their employer thinks they're working, World of Warcraft. I have plenty of friends who wouldn't be identified as "gamers", who would say they don't really play games, but will thrash me at Mario Kart any time. And I know plenty of Serious people who scorn VIDEOGAMES, but are always up for a Serious game like Chess, Bridge, Go - games that they feel good about playing because they have a cultural heritage and are recognised as more than an idle pastime.

It's largely a matter of choosing the right game and the right context. Board games are generally a better choice than videogames; they're low-pressure because of being turn-based (but without the overdose of complexity that turn-based videogames tend to throw in), and they tend to be familiar to people who played them as children but recognise their potential to be more than just a pursuit for children. There's an initial barrier with board games of having to learn some rules before starting play, this is balanced by the transparency of the rules once they're known.

Darren mentions games not being enjoyable because of the gap in skill levels; some games hold up better than others under this. A high level of randomness (typically where cards or dice feature prominently) can give less-skilled players a chance of winning, making them feel more comfortable playing - even when the more experienced player still wins most of the time. Mario Kart explicitly assists whoever is in the rear by giving them better powerups, Funkenschlag/Power Grid shifts the turn order, giving trailing players first picks and cheaper prices. Zero-sum games are off-putting because one player's gains are their opponent's losses; games where all players have a sense of "building up" even when they're behind create a better feeling for beginners, and when there's a score you can get a sense that you're improving at the game by getting a better score even if you lose. Darren suggested cooperative games, and this is a good idea - but a lot of cooperative board games actually suffer when there's a wide skill disparity because one player can tell everyone what to do. Team games work well; two against two, one against many, cooperative with hidden traitors, etc. And a lot of games for more than two players have a kind of implicit teamwork; if one player is much more experienced everyone else can gang up on them, if one player is less experienced they might be left alone, so these can be kind of self-balancing - but the feeling of being picked on can be unpleasant, so some care is required.

Theme is important for people unfamiliar with games. A lot of people are put off games with pictures of spaceships on them by association with a TV show they didn't like. Most modern board games have inoffensive vaguely-medieval farming settings which seem to go down quite well (there's something to be said there about the eagerness of office-working city-dwellers to embrace fantasies of a simpler life). Also everyone loves Lord of the Rings since the movies made it accessible to non-bookers, and there are a few decent LOTR games out there - including a cooperative one, hey!

Make sure to be gentle when introducing games to new players, clearly explaining what's going on. Nothing puts people off a game like letting them continue playing under an obvious misconception to your advantage, failing to remind them of an important rule until it's too late and then not letting them take back their move, or racing through actions with the bewildering speed of experience.

Here are some games I find pretty good to play with people who don't usually play games. This list is limited by my experience, others can probably make better suggestions. This isn't a list of my favourite games, but ones I think work well for a general audience.

Carcassonne. A pleasant agrarian setting, an intuitive tile-laying mechanic, rules that can be explained within a minute, a good balance between accessibility and depth, a comforting level of randomness, and a nice cooperative feeling of "we're building a castle together" with more than two players.

Apples to Apples. A party game, more about trying to make people laugh than about winning. Knowing the other players well and understanding how they think is an advantage. Also, Dixit.

Toepen. Simple card game based on bluffing, always goes down well.

Mafia/Werewolf. Needs a large-ish group, and only really works if everyone pays attention, not great in a noisy environment.

Dominion. Low interaction, generally little chance of catching up once someone gets ahead, but a very fun base mechanic and beginners have a decent chance of winning without playing any complex strategy. My first experience of this was poor but only because we were playing a variant: make sure to use the right number of victory cards for the number of players and absolutely don't play with more than the recommended number of players.

Shadows Over Camelot. Cooperative, but with a traitor. It's quite fun to get into role-playing as knights, I sometimes play under a vow of silence. There are deep design flaws that become apparent if you try to play it as a serious competitive game, but don't worry about them and just have fun with it.

Niagara. Quite random, simple, very appealing visually with the shiny gems, the rushing river, and the chunky board.

Mario Kart. Seriously.

If you have an iPad: Centrifeud and Tritritriobelisk.

For videogames, if you happen to be near London, take your friends to a Wild Rumpus - they're fantastic, we brought someone along to the last one who hadn't played a game in years and he loved it, highly recommended. Or browse the list of Wild Rumpus games - JS Joust, Recurse, Hokra, B.U.T.T.O.N.…


  1. This post reads very strangely to me. If you're able to play games like Mafia, Dominion or Carcasonne with someone then they're really not the kind of people I mean when I talk about non-gamers. Likewise attending Wild Rumpus or Hide & Seek. People may well not self-identify as gamers, but if they're up for these sorts of things then you're most of the way there.

    Many people fall into an entirely different category where mere mention of the word "game" or anything that sounds like a game will result in a swift and very final negative response.

    As for Mario Kart, some gamers (me!) would rather play no game at all than suffer an experience like that!

    1. In my experience, very few people will reject an invitation to play a board game. My experience isn't universal.. but it might be worth a try, even if you think someone's really not likely to be interested?

    2. Agreed it's always worth asking. I've known plenty of people who aren't up for it, though.

      (I should probably mention that I'm not generally short of people to play boardgames with, so the fact that some people don't really isn't a problem.)

  2. Good suggestions, and I will try some of these with my girlfriend.

    A couple (e.g. apple to apple) fall into the same trap I've experienced with a couple otherwise-acceptable games in that they don't work well for groups with different mother-tongues, especially if none of these are English (people are a lot more likely to speak English at a high level as a 2nd language than any other language).

    Ticket to Ride has been on my queue to try out for a while now, any experience with that one?

    1. Yeah I hadn't thought about languages, that's a good point. Also spelling-based games (Scrabble, Boggle etc.) exclude people with dyslexia even if they're native speakers.

      Ticket to Ride is great, but I've only played it with regular board-game players so I can't recommend it from experience. Seems like it'd work well though!

  3. Thanks for your lengthy response! When I talk of my non-gamer friends I do mean people with whom I play Carcasonne or Mario Kart, but aren't interested in the sort of video games I enjoy. I even managed to get my girlfriend really into Carcasonne, and that's no mean feat... To your list I'd add Blokus and Ingenious as good board games to get people into.

    However computer games are another matter. There's a few reasons for it - one is getting everyone to pay attention to a small screen (as opposed to the wide space of Carcasonne). Apart from Kinect games there aren't many that take advantage of the social space. Another big thing for me is having friends that are as into games as I am, that would be interested in playing them more than once a month or so. There's a big problem of "owner-winner" with many games - I own it, I play it most (perhaps with different people each time), I win the most. It stops being fun for everyone. If it's too random then it's just not fun in the first place.

    But the real issue for me is in getting friends interested in playing games that are complex and involved - the sort of games I really enjoy. Casual stuff just doesn't engage me that well, and though my friends will happily play complex board games I don't think there are any similarly complex video games that they would enjoy. Where is the electronic equivalent to Carcasonne? Not these little 2 minute iPad games, or the party-based jump-around-the-room Kinect games - I want serious stuff that is approachable and thematically suitable for a non-geeky audience.

    Or maybe I just need more geeky friends ;)

    1. Yeah, I agree about videogames. This is a problem for us as videogame designers to solve - to make multiplayer games that can satisfy these conditions and appeal to a general audience, I can't think of many that do. Obviously this is something I'm trying to get towards myself with Glitch Tank / Kompendium / O, but I'm not there yet.

    2. This is a really interesting point. I really wish my wife would play video games with me, but it turns out she doesn't enjoy them. There's no point in pushing that any more.

      I think that the more 'serious' a game gets, the more the victor is determined by skill level and the more you need to go out of your way to find or teach people to be as into it as you are. I also think that depth and accessibility while not mutually exclusive make pretty good labels at opposite ends of an axis (drawn through a fairly highly dimensional phase space of games).

      The electronic equivalent of Carcasonne, Civ Rev? WoW? TF2? FIFA?