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Most of the time when you sit down to play a game for the first time, a few things happen, more or less in a set order:

  • You read the rules (or have them taught to you in some way)
  • You set up the game, board, cards, dice, pieces, etc.
  • You learn the goal of the game, and the specific things you can (or can’t) do to achieve that goal
  • You learn the strategy of the game, and specific things you should (or shouldn’t) do to achieve that goal.

I’m going to make up some terms here, and if we’ve playtested together you might have heard me use them.

Mechanical competency

Mechanical competency is gaining the basic understanding of gameplay, or being able to take a turn without breaking the rules (accidentally or intentionally) and without help from other players or the rulebook. The training wheels are off, so to speak, and you’re able to play a correct move on your own. You’re not yet sure if it’s a good move, but it’s a legally allowed move, and that’s what matters. What matters here is that the training wheels can come off now. You might still need a reference card or an occasional look at the rulebook, but you’ve got this.

Mechanical competency is the absolutely essential building block here – without it, at best you’re playing at random or not investing enough attention in the game to care. Ideally, you want players to feel mechanically competent as quickly as possible. In party games, one round might be all you need. In gateway-level games, you might need a few turns. In medium-weight games, there’s often talk of playing a ‘learning game’, and that’s fine in those cases.

Strategic competency

Once you’ve gained mechanical competency, you can begin learning the strategy of the game, and the specific things you should (or shouldn’t) do to achieve that goal. That’s strategic competencyBeyond playing correctly, you are also thinking and playing strategically. There’s a reason or a purpose for what you’re doing on your turn, and though that strategy may change, it’s not being done randomly or just copying what another player is doing.

You recognize the many possible moves the game allows, along with the goal of the game. You have a strategy in mind, as best as you can figure one out, and it’s generally consistent from one minute to the next. You might be exploring different or multiple strategies, but you have a strategy both for this turn and future turns.

Mechanical competency always comes first, and you’ll get better at it over time. Strategic competency comes in layers, but the first level is where the game begins to ‘click’ for people. That’s the level I’m focusing on here. Games like Chess or Go have plenty of deeper strategic layers to the game, but those come with your 50th play, your 100th play, your 1,000th play, etc.

The complexity of the game roughly correlates to the amount of time to gain mechanical or strategic competency, but it’s not perfect. As you’re playtesting, this is one of those things you’ll want to notice and think about. How long should it take to feel like you’ve gotten the hang of what you do on a turn? Party games and games for kids should be pretty quick and intuitive, while people playing Twilight Imperium or another heavy/long game accept it may take some time to gain mechanical competency.

In most of my games, I want players feeling like they have mechanical competency after one or two turns (three at most). This lets them get to the fun part of the game — making interesting, strategic, thematic decisions.

What about strategic competency? Ideally, the earlier the better – that leaves more time to give that strategy a try, or perhaps even change strategies as they play. At the end of the game, in the best-case scenario, players feel like they can look back on their strategy, maybe consider some moves they didn’t make, and look forward to the next game to try a different strategy.

So what do you do if mechanical competency is taking too long?

From my experience, mechanical competency correlates with the complexity of the game, but there are a few things that can make a lightweight game unnecessarily complicated:

  • Unclear order of operations – do this at the start of your turn, then do that next, etc.
  • No reference card / information – make one up for playtesters to cover the basics
  • Exceptions to the rules – ideally it’s engineered out, but there may still be some
  • Lots of choices that need making – self-explanatory
  • Lots of things to look at to make one strategic decision – plot it out for yourself. How many things do you need to look at? This might be my hand cards, my player board, the common board, other player’s boards, the score tracker… it adds up quick.
  • Lots of things that need moving / manipulating – self-explanatory
  • Non-intuitive / counterintuitive elements or unconventional reasons for where things are played – self-explanatory

What if strategic competency is taking too long?

It’s worth asking what strategic competency looks like for your game, and what layers of strategy your game might have. One more term to throw out here (last one for this post, promise) is strategic horizonhow far ahead can you plan / think / strategize ahead? In games with perfect or near-perfect information (think chess or Go), this can be several turns or more).

Some questions worth asking:

  • How easy is it to identify, then follow, a strategy?
  • How many strategies make sense?
  • How easy is it to switch strategies? This might take turns, actions, or a mental shift to use what you currently use in a new way.
  • How can the main strategies be discovered more easily?
  • Are there ‘trap’ or ‘red herring’ strategies that lead people down a bad path? Can whatever is making them attractive be toned down or discouraged in some way? In some cases, does changing a rule remove that strategy?

Final thoughts

Part of our jobs as a game designer is that of a engineer — creating a specific experience while acknowledging any limitations, real or artificial. There’s a lot to it, but understanding how players reach these two milestones during play helps to define that experience.

Over to you

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