Years and years ago, I was talking with a fellow - we'll call him Henry - who had seen a film that Mary and I had directed and was, shall we say, underwhelmed. Which was fine, as far as that goes; not every film is for everybody, and that goes double for the weird sorts of comedies we were making. But Henry and I had a rather cordial and pleasant conversation about the film and some of the choices Mary and I had made with it, which he found too subtle for his tastes. I said something to the effect that a lot of the things that might be overlooked in a first viewing he might pick up on and enjoy on a second, and that we had made the film to hold up to and deepen with repeat viewings in that fashion.
"Yeah," he said, "but what about the first time? If I don't get it the first time, I'm not going to watch it a second."
"Don't play it again, Sam. I didn't like it the first time."
I was reminded of this conversation with Henry when someone in a forum thread pointed me to this blogpost by Ignacy Trzewiczek about one of the factions in the game Neuroshima Hex! It's well worth reading in full, but the short version is that the publisher and the playtesters felt that the faction was overpowered and impossible to beat, and the designer, Michal Oracz, rather stubbornly insisted that it was perfectly balanced, and the players were doing it wrong. Many games later, they learned how to defeat the faction, and Mr. Trzewiczek concluded that it was balanced after all.
In the same forum thread, the fellow also linked to another blogpost, this one by a John Brieger. The relevant bit was about how the perception of balance was more important than its actual presence. If the perception exists, the players will keep playing. If the game's balanced but the players can't see it, they'll just conclude that it's broken and they'll shelve it. Mr. Brieger references the Neuroshima Hex! story in his own post, concluding that "you have a problem if it requires weeks of playing constantly for players to achieve the level of knowledge to make the game balanced. In my view this represents a flawed design."
Or, as my old friend Henry might put it, no one's going to play it a second time if they sour on it the first time around. And this is true, to a degree. If you'll forgive a digression, there's a story that might be illustrative here, and it concerns another of our friends - let's call him David.
David was a player in my long-running, oddly economics-focused "D&D, but the Old West" 4E campaign. We had an unusually committed group of players - almost everyone who was there in the first session was there in the last, and had been there all along. David was unusual in that he played the same character for all forty-two sessions. The other PCs had either been killed off or had opted for a new character half-way through. When we got to that last session, we wrapped up any number of storylines, and gave David's character - the one constant over two years of gaming - a dramatic send-off (by that time, his character had become a transgender demon sky pirate).
To bear witness to the festivities, one of our other friends - let's call her Alex - brought along her boyfriend, who we'll call Goofus. (They're not still dating.) I think Alex thought that Goofus and I would get along really well, because we were both hyper-verbal nerd-dudes who were board game designers. We however did not get along really well. I absolutely couldn't stand the guy. It was an immediate and visceral reaction that's unusual for me and that I couldn't really articulate. Thankfully, Goofus spent the evening confirming this bias.
When asked about his game designs, Goofus said something along the lines of, "Well, I've done eight major designs and several minor ones," and I'm still not quite sure what the heck that means. The only game design he felt comfortable talking about was a re-theme of Dominion, a game that will figure prominently in the story that follows.
When Mary told him about the publishers I was under contract with (I often get rather shy around new people, and become unable to talk about myself, despite the fact that, per Mary, it is apparently my favorite subject), Goofus was weirdly dismissive, as if whatever building he occupied only had room for one "real" game designer in it, and he was it.
When invited to join the game at the end, running one of the background NPCs, he tried to center the whole thing on his character, constantly interrupting the others.
So, yeah, we get to the end of the session and people are leaving and I'm really getting sick of the guy, to be honest. (And, somewhat apropos the subject of this article, maybe there are subtleties that improve on a second playthrough of the Goofus Experience, but man oh man, did I not like the first enough to try it.) Soon, all that's left is me, Mary, David, Alex, and Goofus, and Goofus suggests that we play Dominion (thankfully, not his retheme). At this time, Mary and I are knee-deep in Dominion, playing the thing practically every night, so sure, we'll play some Dominion with you.
"Great," says Goofus, "I'll get my set out of my trunk."
This would be David's first time playing the game, and in fact his first time playing a deck-builder, though he had substantial experience playing Magic: The Gathering at local tournaments. For the latter reason, Mary and I had often thought Dominion would be a good fit for David, and talked up the game quite a bit over several months. We just never had the chance to get it on the table with him, until now. Until Goofus.
Goofus returns with his custom-built Dominion box - of course he had a custom-built Dominion box that he carries around in the trunk of his car - and starts shuffling the little deck to randomly choose the cards we'll be playing with.
"Actually, Goofus," I said, "this is David's first time. Why don't we use one of the suggested set-ups?"
"Nah, he seems to be fairly intelligent," said Goofus - and yes, he actually said that while David was standing there, "he said he had experience with Magic, let's just do the random shuffle."
I tried to protest again, but Goofus talked over me. Now, I'll admit that back then, I used to talk over people a lot; Mary can tell you that that's still a problem that I'm working on. So Goofus and I were similar in that respect, but I'd say that the primary difference was that I talked over people unintentionally and somewhat innocently (if no less problematically), while in Goofus's case, it was weaponized, meant to end the discussion. He threw his Alpha Nerd weight around, and I immediately caved, stewing silently throughout the game.
I let him do his random set-up. It was, as if by some cruel magic, absolutely the worst possible mix of cards with which to learn the game, using a bunch of expansion cards. I don't remember the exact mix, but I remember all the card effects being rather esoteric, and that all the cards cost either two coins or six-plus, with absolutely nothing in the three, four, or five range. That turned the game into a long, long slog that was exacerbated by a nearly incoherent and very technicality-focused teach by this self-declared foremost authority on everything. Not how I would've taught the game. Not how I would've presented it to a first-time player, not by a longshot. Goofus creamed the lot of us, then asked if we wanted to play with the same set for the second game.
"Actually," said David, "I gotta get going. Thanks for the game." We never saw him again.
…I'm just kidding, we actually see him every few months or so when all of our busy schedules align. But he never played Dominion again, and made it clear that he didn't want to give it another try. This was a game that was more-or-less made for him, something that he could have very easily fallen passionately in love with, if only that first impression hadn't been so ghastly.
Post-script: Alex didn't date Goofus for long, and in his defense, he did get me a job where I got to look at bathtubs filled with faeces all day, which paid the bills before Hollandspiele became a full-time gig.
The point of the story, though, is that I definitely understand how vital a first play is in creating the urge to play the game a second time, especially in an exploding, crowded marketplace. If a game turns you off the first time, you're not likely to play it a second, right? You're not going to give a game a second look when you've got a whole stack of games that have yet to see the table, right? So it behooves a designer and a publisher to present the game in the best possible light the first time and every time, right?
Actually, no: I don't think that's right at all. I think that reasoning often results in boring and uninteresting games. And I'll tell you why I think that next week in part two.
See Part 2 of 2