Explaining the rules of a game? Start with the goals

Learning the rules of a game

If you’ve ever been introduced to a new game, it’s important to start with the rules. In all likelihood, if you’re playing a game as a group, someone else around the table — maybe, the person who played it most recently — will volunteer to explain it to you. But, five minutes later, despite paying close attention pawn, card type, and wildcard option that they describe, you might find yourself still scratching your head with not a single clue as to what they said.

“It’s easy!” they might say. “You’ll pick it up as we play.”

And so you begin. Am I an idiot, you wonder? Do I have poor listening skills? Maybe so (we all suffer from this in our focus-deprived society), but in all likelihood, the diagnosis is far simpler: Rather than start with the objectives, your friend launched right into tactics.

Let’s see how this might play out in a basic game explanation, one that you likely already know how to play: Tic, Tac, Toe. For this exercise, we’re also going to use visual cues.

Here’s how someone might explain this game, starting with the tactics.

  1. Start by drawing a 3 by 3 grid with all of the corners open. [Visual A]
  2. Decide whether you want to be the “X” or the “O” player. The “X” player goes first.
  3. If you’re the “X” player, draw an “X” in any of the nine boxes. It doesn’t matter which one. Your turn is over.
  4. Then, the “O” player draws an “O” in another empty box.
  5. Keep going back and forth on turns, trying to form a line that spans for 3 boxes with your letter. These lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal.
  6. Important note: You can’t use a square once it’s been filled in, but you can try to block the other player from using a spot they may want. For instance, on your next turn, you’re going to want to put an “X” in the top right corner to stop the “O” from forming a line. [Visual B]
  7. Keep going until either the entire grid is filled in, or until one player gets a line first.
  8. In this case, if you’re the “X” player, you won! You got three in a row! [Visual C]

As you can see, in this first explanation, we launched right into the how (draw a grid, pick a letter, put a letter in a box without acknowledging the why (you want to get three in a row). It’s not until more than halfway through the explanation that we learn we’re trying to form a line of any sort and even this description is confusing. While it’s certainly tempting to jump right in, skipping that critical first point will likely only lead to conflict during game play.

Now let’s try it again. This time, starting with the objectives.

  1. The goal of the game is to get three in a row of your letter before the other player.
  2. We use a 9-box grid to play the game. [Visual A] You’ll win if you form either a horizontal line, or a vertical line, or a diagonal line.
  3. The game starts by assigning a letter to each player — either “X” or “O.” The “X” player goes first and draws a letter in any one of the nine squares.
  4. Then, the “O” player draws an “O” in another empty box.
  5. Keep going back and forth on turns until the entire grid is filled in, or until one player gets three in a row.
  6. Important note: You can’t use a square once it’s been filled in, but you can try to block the other player from using a spot they may want. [Visual B] For instance, on your next turn, you’re going to want to put an “X” in the top right corner to stop the “O” from forming a line.
  7. In this game, if you’re player X, you got three in a row first. You won! [Visual C]

In this example, the objective is clearly laid out upfront. And this makes the tactics far easier to understand, even though you might be explaining them in the exact same way. With just one clear sentence at the beginning of the explanation, “The goal of the game is to get three in a row of your letter before the other player,” everything else falls in line, avoiding a lot of confusion.

As it turns out, this temptation to start with the “how” is incredibly common when explaining games, or rules of any kind. So much so that my husband actually designed and delivered a short presentation on this topic for a group of our friends about a year ago. I’m telling you: The struggle is real.

Starting with the why in other contexts

Once you start to notice this problem — that people start with the “how” and not the “why,” you start to see it in many other contexts of your life.

Just this week, my husband and I met with a lawyer to discuss the creation of a will for our families and future offspring. When she presented us with a new document to review, The Power of Attorney, she immediately launched deep into a few very specific clauses about the risks involved if certain privileges were to be invoked. She asked us what we thought, and neither of us understood the question, let alone the context behind her explanation. It took us 10 minutes of asking questions back and forth until we were able to figure it out. That’s just how long it took us to back all the way back out of the “how” all the way back to the “why.”

This incident highlights another common mistake in explaining rules: Spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about the exceptional or fringe cases upfront. For example, in a game like “Uno,” you may find yourself deep into a discussion about what happens when a player in a two-person game uses a “Draw Two” card. (Do they go again? Can the other player fight back with another “Draw Two” if they hold one in their deck?) While this is certainly important to define before game play begins, this debate should not take up more time than the overall goal: That a player wins when they get rid of all their cards.

Suffice it to say, starting with the “why” is easier said than done. Whenever we are asked to explain something that we consider ourselves to be an expert in, the “why” context becomes even more buried. Why is this? We take shortcuts in our brain, since we’ve played out these scenarios for ourselves hundreds of times before. The only problem is — nobody but you lives inside of your brain. And sometimes it’s hard to remember that.

Yesterday at work I fell victim to “leading with the how” when asking for feedback on an annual survey that we run for our portfolio companies. “Here’s my draft,” I shared hastily in an end-of-day email. “On the first tab, you’ll see last year’s survey, then my suggestions for this year’s survey, and on the second tab, you’ll see a supplemental survey that I think we should run by a group of key stakeholders. Let me know what you think.”

It wasn’t until I left the office and was walking to the subway that I realized my mistake: I didn’t explain the goals of our survey. I quickly pulled out my phone and typed up a follow-up email, sharing a bit about “the stuff that was in my head” when I wrote those questions, and what I perceived to be the objective of this year’s project, compared to prior years. It’s hard to remember to start with the “why.” Particularly when we’re busy, or feeling stressed, or under a tight timeline. But starting with the goals — whether in a board game explanation or a memo at work — will likely always save more time and confusion down the road. Happy explaining!

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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