Easy lo learn, difficult to have fun

There is a saying, related to game design, attributed to Nolan Bushnell (one of the founder of Atari), that describe how a “good” game should be:

“easy to learn, difficult to master” [or “E2L,D2M” or “Bushnell’s Law” or “Nolan’s Law“]

What that means is pretty easy to understand. A game should be easy to learn, but should require a lot of effort and time do master it. The subtext in this expression is a implicit definition of “fun“: fun is what I have after I learn a new game, while I’m testing strategies and learning all the possible combination of the game, and before becoming a pro player (thus having fun only when the opponent is  strong enough).

It is true, of course. Take checkers. Really easy to learn (all the rule may be explained within a couple of minutes, and have no exception, special application or something else). At the same time, the emerging complexity of the game (see here for more details) will make it difficult for a new player to properly master the game and became a good (or, case in point, competitive) players.

So, all good?
No, because exactly like many other things in life, you can’t apply a formula as surrogate of thinking . And I’m not talking about another issue (which is: “to understand that easy for someone may be difficult for someone else”). Not at all.

Because there is a more dangerous dragon lying in this conceptualized lair, awaiting for naive designers to eat them alive. Let’s try to highlight it with a question:

When do a game became fun?”

Because, I’ve seen a lot of game designers with the E2L,D2M approach that suffer from a misplaced assessment of players “fun”.

Take checkers. When checkers is fun? Probably, since the first game (or the first handful of them). At the same time, there is a long road to master it. But there are also games where fun comes from complexity, rather that easiness,

Now take chess. Chess could probably be considered “easy to learn”. I, for example, play chess. I played a lot (at least, more compared to other games). Yet, I couldn’t find them particularly funny. And please note that I am exactly in the middle ground after learning rules and before mastering the game.

Of course, probably chess isn’t my game. Yet, anyway… as long as I don’t master this game, I don’t find much fun in it. While I used to play with my friend, a tremendous player (at least compared to me), I know he was having fun while we’re playing, and it was quite easy to notice that most of its pleasure come from mastering the game. There is some fun (the one I value as most important) in knowing that you have the ability to influence the board, to do moves that are meaningful.

Another example with another game: Race for the Galaxy. It’s a spatial exploration games, where you can build your culture and your galactic empire by cards. Race for the Galaxy has easy rules, even if it’s a little confusing the first time (it’s language unrelated, so it uses a lot of symbols you need to be acquainted with). Rules are, on the other hand, easy and straightforward.
Nonetheless, during the first handful of games, you will find that it isn’t so much fun. More you play, more it becomes fun, because in fact game itself is extremely more entertaining when you master it (at least at some level).

The same happens with Seven Wonders, for instance, and a bunch of other games, particularly where you have to build a strategy from the beginning to the end.

What is reason?

Simple: sometimes people confuse “learning rules” with “learning how to play“. Thus are really different concept. “How to play” is an intermediate step between being a beginner and mastering a game.

In Race for the Galaxy, even when you know the rules, you still have to learn how many cards there is in the game, what combinations they have, what are common and what rare. And all of this skills, usually, are considered as port of “mastering the game”.

Some story for Seven Wonders. You can know easily the rules. Yet, during the first game, you simply cannot know what are the option in 2° and 3° Age of the game, and without any knowledge of the possible future strategies that you could implement, you can’t possibly have fun (it’s a strategy game, after all).

So, my advice today is the following:

it doesn’t matter if the “rules” of the game (or gamification activities) you’re developing are easy and straightforward, contained in a simple page or even less. You have to check about how people will have fun with your game; sometimes even simple games are really fun only when you master them, not simply when you have learnt them. To comprehend the rules may not be the same thing as learning to play.

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