POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #52: Getting it Wrong

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.”

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About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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15 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #52: Getting it Wrong

  1. tonyboydell says:

    Ah, rules and rule clarity – the bit of the process that causes the most pain and worry. After all, why spend years smoothing, tweaking, innovating and refining only to have the public play a completely different product than the one you designed because the rules were ambiguous?

    Unfortunately, you can’t win most of the time – you get criticized for being to brief/unclear and, with the same rulebook (and the same breath), hammered for being too detailed, contradictory or confusing. My designer companion, Alan Paull, worked extremely hard on the (32 page, exampled) rulebook for his excellent CONFUCIUS to then receive extremes of praise and complaint at the same show (Essen Spiel)!

    ‘The rulebook is excellent, well laid-out and detailed’

    OR

    ‘The rulebook is dense…’ etc

    From my own perspective (as a player as well as a designer), I’m a big fan of the margin note approach as it supports those who have invested a little pre-game reading time and waded through the complete text – it’s these little memory joggers that make the difference in set-up, for example.

    Of course, a frequent quibble is that people miss tiny rules more than anything else – those ‘edge cases’; you allude to the issue by referring to the travel rule as ‘fiddly’ – in that case, does it not benefit everyone if the ‘fiddly’ rules are removed/absorbed elsewhere?

    Our approach, at humble Surprised Stare Games, is to treat the rules exactly the same way as the game mechanics AND the artwork – you must playtest all three aspects with equal importance! And there will be people in your gaming groups who are better at rules checking than everyone else.

    Nobody said it was easy…but why (indeed) does it have to be so hard?

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Yes, I know what you mean. I’ve heard similar comments on the rules for Alea Iacta Est.

    • Dale Yu says:

      Oh. I thought you had heard the comments of the flavor text on the back of the box

      D

      • jeffinberlin says:

        Hehe. I got a real kick out of that, especially the “little cubic luck-bringers,” or whatever it said. Not sure why I’m usually not consulted by German publishers on the English rules translations and flavor text for my games (Pegasus is the exception, and I corrected quite a bit of the rule book for Heartland. Example: the wooden cubes were translated originally as “dice.”)

  3. Wil W says:

    I always have to laugh when we find a rule we have been missing for 10+ plays. I remember first learning Ticket to Ride and not catching the rule that only one segment may be played per turn. (Try it sometime with being able to complete any number of segments in one turn, it is quite fun actually…)

    Most frustrating recently has been Black Friday. I even went so far as to rewrite the entire rule set (on BGG) in order to try to get the game right. That has not been as much fun, as the game is broken badly with any little thing out of place.

    I think bad rules or just getting a rule wrong are “more” ok when the game still plays reasonably well when you do get something wrong.

    • huzonfirst says:

      The provided rules for Black Friday are indeed a train wreck, Wil. Another problem with the game was the lack of player aids, in a game where there is a long list of things that need to be done throughout the game. Sadly, this has become more and more common behavior from publishers, who probably feel that some kind soul on the Geek will do the work for them. But why not create a GOOD player aid, instead of relying on amateurs? It’s particularly important for the early adapters, whose opinions can go a long way toward shaping the buzz for the game. I just think this is remarkably short sighted.

      • Wil Wade says:

        I agree on the players’ aids for Black Friday, although a lot could have been on the board at least in some sort of symbols. The lost sales especially for a game like this has to be high. Just better rules would have likely increased the BGG rating at least .5 and push it just past 7. A 7 on BGG has to sell better than a 6.

        • jeffinberlin says:

          For any game of moderate complexity, or multiple phases that need to be remembered, player aids are a must. We finally broke out Powergrid: First Sparks last night and could have used an overview card to remember the order of the phases. Instead Friedemann included a whole sheet to keep track of your victories (similar to an iOS game). We would have rather had the payer aids or a summary sheet.

  4. barbasol says:

    “Our approach, at humble Surprised Stare Games, is to treat the rules exactly the same way as the game mechanics AND the artwork – you must playtest all three aspects with equal importance!”

    Excellent! More game creators need to do this! There’s been several games recently where it’s obvious the rules weren’t “playtested” at all… and they really needed to be. Personally, I vastly prefer complete rules that may be on the dense side, to incomplete vague rules. The biggest holes I find in rules (and usually the biggest section of FAQs released later) is “card powers”. It seems card text is often overlooked or not given the same editing/foolproof-ing treatment as the rulebook.

    The biggest rule blunder for my group was when we pulled out Ra to play after many years. Refreshing ourselves on the end of age procedure, we discovered that Civilization tiles are also supposed to be discarded at the end of each Age. Oops! We played it for years just keeping them throughout the game, and though it worked fine, it was just such a shock to find that we had played it wrong for so long!!!

  5. Dale Yu says:

    Nice article. To digress a bit from the gaming aspect, I also had my own faux pas in Germany. I’m a fairly avid soccer (football) fan, and I often wear team shirts when I head over for Spiel each October. One of the shirts I brought last year was for Chivas from Mexico… their shirt sponsor is a bakery called Bimbo. (This same bakery is the sponsor for the Philadelphia team in MLS as well). Around here, it’s good for a few laughs because I’m walking around with a shirt that says “Bimbo” on it.

    Anyways, much to my chagrin, I found out that in Germany, the word “bimbo” is actually a very harsh racial slur! And here I am walking around with it emblazoned on my chest in 4 inch tall letters! Needless to say, I had to quickly go shopping to buy a new shirt to cover it up

    Thankfully, the folks that told me realized that I was a tourist, and gave me warning in a very non-judgemental way.

    Just one more example of how you can make mistakes even when you think you’re doing OK….

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Yikes! I did not know that. I know there have been times when my German friends said something in English that meant something different than they thought, so you are not alone.

  6. My goodness, didn’t we find that out in the rules to Rails of New England. Particularly because we had been over them so many times as the game evolved that we had redundancy on some things and no explanation for other things.

    Like Dale, we’ve bought a new shirt to cover it up – there’ll be a new set of rules shortly. It’s been an educational (and, dare I say, humbling) experience.

    • Dale Yu says:

      Walter – well we just got a copy of Rails of New England in our group — maybe I’ll wait for the new rules before diving it to play! Nothing ruins a first experience of a game more than bad rules…

  7. jeffinberlin says:

    It’s funny that it did not occur to me until now, but there is one classic game that I have yet to play with the correct rules–and I believe that most people have actually played Monopoly incorrectly.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      That’s a good point, Jeff. I know that I have certainly never played Monopoly with the correct rules. By the time I learned that there *were* correct rules, I had discovered a whole new world of other board games that I would rather play.

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