Help me to help you – The need for player aids

The teach. The unwritten barrier to tabletop games. Every game could be available for all of time and we would still have this barrier between the hobby we love and the people who want to experience it. I’ve written about how I approach teaching games before. Now I want to turn my attention to a different aspect of how we learn games. More specifically about how we remember rules and what companies need to provide to help us do that. I am talking of the player aid.

I play a fair amount of games and teach games a lot. There are numerous philosophies on the best way to teach games. However you teach it is only as easy as the tools the game gives you. Graphic design can help. A clear rulebook is a godsend. However the player aid feels like an often overlooked tool in the publisher’s arsenal.

What do I want from a good player aid? An overview of a player’s turn and perhaps that of a round depending on the game’s structure. A player aid should also provide all the important iconography you need to process the actions you will take in the game. 

Why do we need this and do we need it for every game?

Let’s start at the end of that rhetorical question. We don’t need a player aid for every game. Games with a very simple set of rules that are quick to teach likely don’t need one. Azul would be a good example. Let’s take a look at Azul’s player board. 

Now you’ll notice it doesn’t include turn or round structures. It does include a reminder of the extra points you can score at the end of the game. Why does it do this?

Learning the core mechanisms of Azul are very straightforward. Take tiles of one colour from factory, push other tiles to the middle, place taken tiles on board (smashing tiles as necessary). This simple loop doesn’t really need an aid to memory (if you aren’t familiar with Azul you can read my review for an idea of how the game works).

However it would be easy to forget the end of game scoring. You score one way throughout the game, and at the end an additional scoring set of criteria is introduced. Someone in the Azul team realised this could be forgotten and put those scoring conditions on everyone’s player boards. In doing so they removed the mental load of remembering the end of game scoring so players can just get on with playing the game and remembering the rules. 

This simple example should get you to where I am in terms of how I see some of the difficulties of teaching and learning games. As I said at the beginning I spend a lot of time teaching and learning games. I love teaching games to people. I do find that I spend a lot of time when the game gets going, helping folk remember rules, turn, and round structures. 

Player Aids can greatly assist in this endeavour. Let’s take a look at a more complex example in Root

Leder are a company that put a lot of effort in making their games easy to play. You can get playing Root pretty quickly, despite its complexity. This is down to the fantastic player aids that not only show you the turn structure, but tell you exactly what you do at each step. 

Lizard Cult Board for Root
I love the Lizard Cult

Now I recognise it’s not all the rules and there is complexity in battles and how you move. These player aids though mean you spend less time remembering how to play a faction, and more time playing the game. On this player aid is the turn structure, what my faction does at every step of that faction, reminders that discard cards come to me not the general discard, how my conspiracy actions work, exceptions to the normal rules of the game along the top, and a tracker for who the outcast faction is and how I score points. It is everything I need to keep track of what I can do on my turn without dictating that I do it.

A good player aid like this allows players to be more present. To engage with the game and not be forced to sit an exam every turn where we test the recollection of the rules.

So many games suffer from this malaise. Sure if you play a game a lot you get to learn the systems and player aids are less needed as your familiarity with a title increases. What if you want to introduce that game to new folk though. What do you need to do that? How would you go about it? I think you’ll quickly realise that for the vast majority of games a player aid would be a really handy thing to have. 

Accepting that it is surely in a publisher’s best interests to provide such a thing. Yeah, about that. 

A lot, I hesitate to say the majority but that is probably accurate, of games provide either 0 or 1 player aids. That player aid is normally on the back of the rulebook. If I’m learning a game I need to read the rulebook for at least the first game, and then folk don’t have access to the player aid when they need it. This is obviously a rubbish solution. 

I’m not asking for anything fancy here. A plain sheet of paper or card with a reminder of the turn, actions you can take, and main symbols I’ll need to recognise. It wouldn’t cost a lot. As we’ve seen with the examples of Azul and Root, the player aid can be integrated into another component like a player board, providing a one stop shop for everything a player needs to know about the game. I would even accept a player aid being provided on the publisher’s website as a free download. It would be better than nothing and I could print multiple copies. 

We’ve come a long way as a hobby over the last couple of decades. There is a bigger selection of games, with diverse themes that appeal to more people. Accessibility is still lagging behind. We still don’t have publishers accepting simple solutions to something like colour vision deficiency. 

Providing player aids is a step towards making your game more accessible. They allow folk to relax into your game more, to come back to it after time away and get a quick refresher from the information you present on it. I know folk who have trouble concentrating, or just don’t want to be front loaded with all the rules. Having something to refer to as they play can provide comfort, and make sure your game gets played more. Don’t you want that? Don’t we all want that? Help me to help you. 

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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1 Response

  1. 21 Sep 2023

    […] flipping back and forth required to get a handle on the game. There is also an unforgivable lack of player aids. A summary on the back of the rulebook just doesn’t cut it. Especially when that summary […]

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