By Jeffrey D. Allers
When you enter a foreign culture for the first time, it is inevitable that you will find yourself inadvertently breaking the rules, no matter how much you may have prepared beforehand. Even simple, everyday tasks need to be relearned in their new context, and if you are not adventurous and patient enough, the frustration can become full-blown culture shock.
Fortunately, I have never felt that way since moving to Berlin, although I have been frustrated from time to time. After all, the locals here are usually never shy about pointing it out whenever I “get it wrong.” I am thankful for the correction, as it is usually well-meaning, and it has helped me adapt more quickly, but there is only so much of it I can take in a day, and frustration—or despair—can begin to set in once I’ve reached that threshold.
Now that I’ve been here so long, however, I often find myself more comfortable with the local culture and its rules than many of my new neighbors who come from German cities in the west. I give them advice on things to do in Berlin, places to go and cultural rules to follow. The most correction I receive these days has to do with the language, something I’m still working at improving.
Just last week, however, I was shocked to learn of a rule I had been missing for years. As we boarded a city bus with my parents, who were visiting from the U.S., the driver informed me that our tickets, which are good for all public transportation in the city for 2 hours, could not be used for a return trip to the location where we started. As a gamer, I would call that rule “fiddly.” Worse, I could not believe that I had been unaware of it for so long, and I thought of all the visitors to Berlin to whom I had given wrong advice. Not only did I get it wrong, but, thanks to me, they got it wrong too. Hopefully, no one was caught and forced to pay the hefty fine for breaking the Berlin public transportation rules.
With so many new boardgames cycling through our gaming groups these days, it seems that it is easier than ever to “get it wrong” with their rules. Learning a new board game—like moving overseas—is to enter a new culture, a self-contained world that invites exploration, but also has its own rules and limits. Although the rules are all written down (or, at least, they should be), rules can still be missed when experiencing the game world for the first time. Our eyes are big as we stare at all the new scenery, wandering around slowly as we get our bearings. Only when we are lost, do we stop in the middle of the street and pull out our maps…or rule books. Confidence in the gamespace comes after repeated plays, and so does our knowledge of the rules…
…unless we don’t know that we got them wrong.
It seems to me that, from what I’ve observed on internet forums, getting the rules wrong to a game is a fairly common occurrence. Weekend gaming events and conventions, in particular, seem to be the most vulnerable, as players try to squeeze in as many new games as possible in a short, sleep-deprived, time span. Reports from these events of the new games played—especially if they were a bad experience—often begin with, “I think we might have gotten a rule wrong…” In a flooded marketplace, playing a game wrong can give a game bad internet “buzz,” and ultimately, be detrimental to its success.
That’s why rules writing has never been more important for a game’s sales. Poorly written or ambiguous rules may have been excusable in the past, but gamers have much less patience these days, and they have plenty of alternatives whose rules are clear and concise. The best ones, in fact, seem to recognize that gamers are trying to learn more new games—and remember the games’ rules—than ever before, as they include margin notes that highlight the important points.
Still, even with a good set of rules, mistakes can happen. And just like the incident on the Berlin bus, I was embarrassed to find out recently that I had been teaching a game with the wrong rules. The players I taught had, in turn, been teaching the game incorrectly until finally, an imbalance was discovered and someone checked the rule book.
Thankfully, there is no risk of a hefty fine for me—or any of the others I “misled.” For someone so immersed in the culture of boardgames for so long, however, it can still be frustrating when I “get it wrong.”