There is always a bit of a learning curve on the better tabletop game designs out there. But if you try to play things on instinct, you will invariably miss the sort of rules were engineered specifically to address issues that emerged from the early drafts of the game. How many times I’ve played a game and then complained about it only to have someone point out to me a rule I’d misread without realizing it!
It’s aggravating and maybe even unavoidable to some extent. But that doesn’t stop game makers from trying to address the problem. There’s been an decades spanning debate on whether game rule books should be in a reference format or else organized in the same sequence as the typical gameplay. A lot of games will do both because the game play sequence style is easier when you’re first learning and the reference style is better once you’re already up to speed. What I find is that, in general, neither approach is much like the sort of approach I take when I explain a game in person. Both of them have their own associated types of friction that fall cross the line into the sort of thing that Steve Krug talks about in “Don’t Make Me Think”. (h/t to Lew Pulsipher for bringing this up.)
The thing is, as Ron Edwards notes in Circle of Hands, gamers generally want to know everything at once. I know I’m that way. Coming back to Domains at War after a brief hiatus, I was struck by how much effort it took to get the game back into rotation. The rules are carefully constructed to address all kinds of long-standing problems with miniatures battles, but getting a game together without missing a couple is harder than I’d like.
Now I don’t mind referencing stuff in play, especially the morale and shock modifiers. If entire units are liable to break, it’s worth pausing a little to make sure that everything is played out to the letter. What bugs me is not being able to grasp the cadence of the sequence of play without rereading everything start to finish. New players generally just want to know how to move and shoot. But they need to be alerted to some of the more disastrous things that can happen to them, especially with regards to the victory conditions.
This is subtle, but the closest thing to an actual fault I can find with the Domains at War rule book is that it starts out with descriptions of the differences between formed, loose, and irregular units without any reference to the details of the rules. Then when the sequence of play are covered in depth, the particulars of these units are then spread into several sections. And s lot of the flavor and innovation of the ruleset is bound up in how these units differ from each other. Missing this stuff is going to undercut the sort of thing that makes the game worth getting out in the first place!
So here is how my notes are set up to address all of this. You can fake the bulk of the gameplay just with these notes if you’re familiar with the game. You only need to go over a handful of these sections when you’re teaching somebody. And you can go back and gin up a spiel about the finer points when things come in play that merit them.
One caveat here is that these simplifications are not the actual rules. Those use a type of lawyer or engineer’s talk to convey precisely what is meant and no more or less. My notes don’t capture every last bit of this detail. But people need to have a kind of high level framework in their heads before they can efficiently dig that sort of thing out of a game manual. If you don’t give the players that, you are in “Don’t Make Me Think” territory. And in this case, “thinking” means you’re requiring them to synthesize something you could have given them upfront. They can get by without it, but they’ll have to read and reread the rules start to finish more times that they’d have to otherwise.
Command and Control is Nuanced (page 15)
How does the Command Phase Work? (page 28)
How does Movement Work? (page 18-19)
How do Enemy Units Restrict Movement? (page 19-20)
How do Melee Attacks Work? (pages 20-21)
How do Missile Attacks Work? (pages 21-22)
Shock is a big deal! (page 23)
Loose units are Fluid
Formed Foot is Awesome
Irregular Units Stink
Check Mate (page 26-27)