I finally played Puerto Rico, Andreas Seyfarth’s award-winning boardgame from 2002, over the weekend. I’ve had it sitting on my games shelf for well over a year, but for some reason I’d forgotten I’d never got around to giving it a try.
On Saturday evening I was forcibly reminded of that reason. It wasn’t the long and complex game set-up phase, but the rules or more precisely the rulebook. Puerto Rico has the worst-explained set of rules of any boardgame I’ve ever played.
For those who don’t know Puerto Rico, it is currently the top-ranked game at Boardgamegeek. To give you some idea of the competition, that’s on a list of 3804 names, and chess is #186. It’s a resource-management game of building a mercantile empire in the eponymous 16th-century city, and in terms of complexity it’s on a par with popular German boardgames like Settlers of Catan or Carcasonne.
We sat there reading the rules, four adults educated to degree level and beyond, two of us being people who design games for a living, and after half an hour none of us had even grasped the structure of the game and what you were trying to do in order to win, let alone the minutiae of each part of each turn. Every part of the rule book is bad: the structure, the language, the layout, the terminology, the component descriptions. I defy anyone to work ouit how to play the game from that set of rules as written. It can’t be done.
In despair I turned to the web. The Wikipedia entry gives a three-line summary of the game that summarises its object and structure, which was better than anything in the actual Puerto Rico rules. It also provided a link to a 150-page PowerPoint presentation that not only explained the rules in a clear and systematic way but also gave a thorough example of play that had some good jokes in it. We read through that, everything fell into place, and we played the game. And it totally rocks.
Had my broadband been down, that copy of Puerto Rico would have been on fire. Literally.
I know that it’s an old truism in the computer-game world that nobody reads the instructions. But my design background is tabletop RPGs where the rules are everything, or at least they were. First-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was 512 pages, of which 509 were nothing but rules and games stats. Those other three pages were an example of play, and I maintain that without it the majority of readers would never have understood how the game should be played. When I published Nobilis, the notoriously ‘difficult’ (read: non-combat oriented) RPG, it had a 20-page example of play that walked the reader through all the major features of the game’s rules and showed them how to structure a campaign as well. And I’m intensely proud of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (which I wrote) and De Profundis (which I published and wish I’d written), both of which are genre-bending RPGs in which the description of the rules is also the example of play.
Video games, of course, don’t have examples of play. They used to have attract modes, a pre-recorded snippet of play that gave prospective players a rough idea of what and what not to do, but these seem to be preserved for arcade games these days. Some games do have tutorial levels, and some of these are better than others. Halo‘s first level, which wasn’t just an introduction to the game but many peoples’ first use of the Xbox controller too, is still the best I’ve ever seen.
These days what games do have is downloadable demos. Whether it’s Xbox Live or Manifesto Games, or a cover-disc for the Luddites out there, those gaming Amish whose view of the world has not been allowed to progress beyond 2003, almost any game worth a damn will let you try it for size. And I have lost count of the number of games I’ve played for maybe two minutes, quit and deleted because I couldn’t work out what to do, or how to do what I wanted, or simply because the game didn’t play the way I expected it to. Foomph, gone, and with it any chance of selling me a copy.
What’s the most depressing sight in a video game demo? A diagram of the controller listing fifteen or twenty different functions that the player is supposed to remember. What’s worse than that? Only displaying the diagram for fifteen seconds. What’s worse still? No diagram at all… in which case either your game had better have the most intuitive controls in the world or a tutorial level, or you’re stuffed.
Understand this, demo-makers: my investment in your demo is nil. It has cost me nothing. I have no emotional capital riding on liking your game. I am waiting for you to impress me, or at least to not piss me off. If you can’t structure the first two minutes of your demo to give me a smooth and enjoyable introduction to your creation and how to play it, why should I assume that you can do better with the full retail product? And you will not get a second chance.
I admit I have been wrong before, and famously. Two notable card-games were launched at Gen Con 1993, Magic: the Gathering and Once Upon a Time, and once I grew tired of demoing the latter I went to see what the fuss about the former was. Joanne White (later editor of Scrye magazine) offered to show me how it worked. She cracked a new deck and we played a game in which, due to being dealt a truly sucky hand, I was unable to cast a single spell. I walked away thinking, “It’s a shame about Wizards of the Coast, they’ve done some nice stuff in the past but this Magic thing is going to kill them.” But that experience had everything to do with poor luck and nothing to do with the quality of the demonstrator.
Because, of course, the way that most gamers learn a new set of rules is not from reading the rulebook but from having the game explained by friends. If everyone had to learn to play Puerto Rico from its rulebook it wouldn’t be topping the charts on Boardgamesgeek right now. It was Jonny Nexus who observed that almost nobody plays Monopoly by the proper rules because almost nobody has ever bothered to read them: they just absorb themâ€”along with interesting variants, omissions, errors and house rulesâ€”from playing the game with other people.
It’s the same with video games. Anyone can use a demo to play, but to learn to play well you’ve got to watch other players, or at least ask their advice. In the days before Gamefaqs there were tips mags, and in the days before them we used to cluster round arcade machines to witness and take notes. Video games, of course, can’t be changed by house rules but the secrets to beating them are passed on the same way. I defy anyone to work out all the secrets, tricks, hidden areas and easter eggs in any game purely on their own.
Games are social. Not necessarily in their playâ€”though Puerto Rico is pretty dull soloâ€”but they encourage interaction, working with others to map the territory of gamespace and dig up its secrets. Which is why the stereotype of gamers being lonely or loners is such complete tripe. A good game is a treasure hunt, and a good treasure hunt is a party.
And that’s enough about games, treasure hunts and parties for the moment, before I shoot my fat mouth off.
Footnote: my brief moment as a conduit of game wisdom, or at least my best one, concerns Area 51, the 1995 Atari arcade light-gun shooter involving zombies and aliens. 1995 was about the time that John Woo’s movies were breaking big, with Chow Yun Fat’s two-fisted pistol stylings, and Jose Garcia of Daedalus Games showed me that it was possible to emulate this in Area 51, with one person playing both Player 1 and Player 2, a pistol in each hand. Later, in a London arcade, I worked through the game this way and turned away from the machine to findâ€”for the first time in my lifeâ€”a crowd of onlookers, who all now wanted to try the same thing.