(Do not) let them win

Introducing people to board games can sometimes be tricky. Finding the right game (both interesting and simple enough), introducing rules clearly and concisely, exercising an extra level of patience when it comes to things that are simple to seasoned gamers, but not as obvious to newbies. Finally, letting them win.

Wait, what?

Almost three years ago Andrei posted an article (on our old incarnation of the NSKN Blog) about playing with children, and not letting them win. While his story of playing countless games of chess against his father, and finally winning one on his own (after countless defeats) is both inspirational, it is also has another facet. One to take into account when introducing people to games.

Board games are an amazing pastime, and as their popularity today suggests, the pool of people that can get into them – and enjoy them on a regular basis – is vast. Not everyone will find gaming enjoyable, but some people who would probably like it, will not try, or will need a lot of convincing to get a taste. One of the reasons is the fear of being humiliated.

If this is how people are reacting to your introduction into gaming, then you might be doing something wrong.

Many adults shy away from gaming because they are afraid of losing. They are afraid of losing so bad that they will be laughed at, or (more realistically) that they will be perceived differently from the moment of their in-game defeat: not quite as smart, not quite as proficient.

We tend to forget that children are sometimes surprisingly similar to adults. Their self-esteem is similarly prone to being seriously undermined, and some events can have more of a lasting impact on how they perceive themselves.

In short, not many adults would exhibit the willpower and determination to play a game multiple times before achieving their first victory. Expecting this level of commitment from anyone (let alone children) may end up in them hating the hobby we want to share with them.

Does that mean then that we should let people win? No. But there are varying ways to lose.

I’m going to skip the obvious (being a good and gracious winner), and get right into the point: if you’re teaching someone a game, you should take into account the power of positive reinforcement. I’m not saying you should let them win, but you should give them a chance to be victorious.

There is a very good reason why competitive online games start with teaching people how to play via tutorials against winnable bot-opponents. Your fist games of Hearthstone will let you unlock cards for your decks by facing challenging but beatable opponents, giving you regular rewards for your effort. Your introduction into the world of Destiny 2 will start with a rather simple campaign. All that will happen before you face actual players with their assortment of dirtiest tricks and itchy trigger fingers, who will take you down repeatedly and dauntlessly before you score your first win.

Play a few games, win a few games, get your basics down, and then be cast into the shark tank.

Few people will do really well in a game they are playing for the first time. Even fewer will find all of the intricacies that make some of the more complex ones what they are, while offering experienced players tools for smart circumventions and spectacular takedowns. Perhaps instead simply letting people win, it’s better to introduce them step by step, without unleashing your full power on their first try.

Simply put, when you’re facing a newbie, consider being competent without being vicious. Unless you see a living embodiment of determination sitting down across the table, leave the rigid swordmaster routine for the movies, instead becoming a patient teacher who knows when to give a lesson, and when to offer a hard earned gift.

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2 thoughts on “(Do not) let them win

  1. Hello.

    Thank you for the article.
    I’ve got a daughter, who’s 5 yo, and whom I’m introducing to the boardgame hobby. Let’s say that I play with her so that she wins half of the times, losing the other half. It’s not easy teaching to kids the value of defeat. Sometimes, when she realizes she’s losing, she cheats so to change the ranking. I’ve told her that ‘s not the way and that not just me, but no one will ever play with her if she does that. It’s a hard lesson, but I think that learning to win and to lose when you’re still a child will help you a lot in your life.

    1. Allowing cheating at the table is never a good idea, no matter who you are playing against. Playing competently but not to your full potential, thus allowing for a win is (in my opinion) not only acceptable, but also great at teaching new players how to win: both how victory is achieved in a given game, and how to be gracious and still fun to your opponents once you have won.

      Plus, teaching both winning and losing seems to go a long way towards teaching the ability to find oneself in different situations, and in different positions.

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