Newbie Do 1 - The New Player Experience

Are yes a report of November 14th 2014. I made a slight mistake in this topic of mentioning some tactics a player (who will remain nameless but might be guessed if you have followed the re-posts closely) actually used…Still smarting from something really….
I was hit recently with a thought whilst reading one of sitreps latest post ( in an excellent series of articles on the starter kits) at a similar time to eion posting a link to a blog post concerning the death of wargaming that I had first read years ago.
The bit that I found interesting was the ‘Death of Wargaming”  articles comment on ASL Death Article link
 “culminating with the release of ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER, a game so complex than one could teach college-level courses in its play, so convoluted that its developer, Don Greenwood, felt compelled to include such minutiae as the Kindling Availability Table and the Sewer Emergence Chart. It is hard to believe that even the most macho of ‘I-know-the-rules-so-I’m-better-than-you-you-poor-pathetic twit’ complexity enthusiasts play this thing much.”
He is obviously an idiot who is making snap decisions based upon his own preconceptions considering that ASL is played by a lot of people and more importantly is ‘played’ – something a large section of the board games out there cannot really lay claim to. Anyway his opinion one that is held by a lot of people and is one of the very common rods held over ASLs head (along with no command and control).
This led me to consider the difficulties of the game and how people move from being overawed by the game system to understanding it enough to enjoy it and ‘get it’. To a certain extent a lot of it bears many similarities to learning a new language. If you have to ask someone where the toilet is and you do not speak the language you are left feeling stupid and spinning through a phrase book or online dictionary which takes time. Those that know the language do not even consider this translation difficulty so would just spit out the words automatically.
Many beginners react to the rules in much the same way if not assisted!
The antidote to this often confusing and unpleasant learning experience is a teacher and  most of us recognise that a huge portion of players do not have access to one of those. In ‘loco parentis’ of one of these most newbies either attempt to learn the system  on their own which naturally might provide flashes of understanding but is often a difficult task or alternately have the luck to come across a blog or website that explains things in a way that removes the maths and the huge amounts of numbers and instead institutes a reason for those numbers.  Let me provide some simpler examples
Firstly infantry. Our counters come with lots of pretty numbers and the rule book(s) explain that this is range, that is fire power and that is morale . Great, but this does not assist with comprehension and they are just numbers. To the less mathematically inclined this looks less like a game than accountants at war.  Instead let us see how an excellent teacher explains it (my highlighting)
* I intend to provide a lot of background information concerning the rules and components of ASL. For example, to simply point out that an American rifle squad has higher firepower and lower morale than the corresponding German rifle squad is not, I think, very helpful to a beginner. I’d rather take time to explain WHY these squads differ from each other – by explaining what the various numbers represent – because I think it will make more sense when the beginner then sees these squads in action. The game is easier to understand if you can visualize what is occurring on the imaginary battlefield.
… A German 1st Line rifle squad has the following values printed on the front of the counter: 4(1)-6-7. These are, from left to right, Firepower (FP), Smoke Exponent, Range, and Morale Level. A squad typically represents ten soldiers, although this will vary somewhat depending upon nationality and date.
A squad’s FP is primarily based upon its weaponry. In the case of the German 1st Line squad, this would be a light machine gun with a two-man crew, six riflemen with bolt-action rifles, and a sergeant and a corporal who could be armed with either rifles or submachine guns.
To better understand FP, compare a German Elite rifle squad: 4(2)-6-8, to a German Conscript rifle squad: 4-3-6. The elite squad is a highly trained, highly motivated unit, while the conscript squad is either a poorly trained unit, or a unit that has suffered casualties to its key personnel. But both squads have the same exact FP… because they have the same equipment.
A squad’s range, however, is based on both equipment and training. A German 1st Line squad has the same range as a German Elite squad, 6 hexes, so both squads are capable of effective fire at long range. But the German Conscript squad only has a range of 3 hexes; it has the same basic weapons as the other two squads, but it does not have the coordination (again due to lack of training or casualties to key personnel) to fire effectively at the same range as the better squads.
A Russian 5-2-7 squad has a range of only 2 hexes because it is equipped with submachine guns, which have a much shorter range than rifles. An American paratrooper squad, 7(3)-4-7, uses a mixture of carbines and submachine guns, so it gets an intermediate range of 4 hexes. The presence of submachine guns boosts the FP of both of these squads as compared to the equivalent rifle squads of those nations.
Perfect! Now when I am shooting and moving I have an idea what these numbers mean I can see the squads and the numbers have become more than numbers. This particular range of articles helped me immeasurably in understanding and more importantly enjoying the game when I was learning solitaire and I have a wargaming board/miniatures background. Without it the numbers would probably have got me down and I would have been likely to have stopped playing.
That is at a fairly basic level but even now after years of play I still do not ‘get’ tanks as there are so many numbers and so many options they are vastly more complicated than infantry. Let us see how sitrep treated some of these in those starter kit articles.
Right so now you can feel what a very small target means. You might think it is self-explanatory but when a beginner pictures a ‘tank’ he probably pictures a Sherman or a Tiger I doubt he would imagine something could exist as small as this. He also covers detailed explanations of other numbers and what they actually mean. I particularly liked the explanation of ‘bog’ Again the rules state a vehicle can ‘bog’ entering certain terrain dependant on a die roll. This is information that a lot of beginners may forget and are not likely to understand in practice.
Although a Fully-Tracked vehicle may enter woods by expending as little as half of its MP allotment, entry comes at some risk. Whenever a vehicle enters “boggy” terrain like woods or buildings, there is a possibility that it may become hung up, or stuck. This possibility is factored into the game by means of a compulsory Bog Check. In our example above, the King Tiger would become bogged in a woods hex on a Bog Check Dice Roll (DR) of seven or greater, once the various Dice-Roll Modifiers (DRM) are factored in. A more prudent commander would order his driver to enter more slowly, expending the tanks entire MP allotment in the process. In this case, the Tiger would bog only on a DR of ten or greater. If this 68-tonne behemoth has problems bulldozing a trail through woods, what hope is there for a tin-on-wheels PSW 232? More than you might expect, because this eight-wheeled scout car has Low Ground Pressure. The square around the unit identification (ID) letter (top left-hand corner of the counter) indicates that this vehicle is very efficient at distributing its weight across all four axles. In spite of its wide tracks, the PzKpfw VIB does a poor job of distributing its weight, and is therefore considered to have High Ground Pressure, as evidenced by the circle around its ID. On the surface, bogging may strike some as an annoying, but temporary inconvenience. However, failed attempts to unbog can leave a vehicle permanently Immobilized, unable to move or change VCA.
You probably all know that but a beginner would not. After reading the rules and then sitreps article a beginner having difficulty may have little light bulbs going off in his head so he knows what is happening, and why it might happen and it makes the game more fun because of it. It becomes less of numbers on numbers but provides reasons for those numbers.
To a beginner the rules only give them various restrictions and difficulties that they do not understand.  The above goes some way to explaining the why as well.
I have admittedly banged on about this in probably excruciating detail but do feel the point it important. The majority of very active players understand this so intuitively that they might even have moved to the stage where all they care about is the numbers. For someone learning the game this is a barrier to understanding and the more a comprehensive list of helpful beginners articles or translations of what the rules refer to can be found or generated the more people will stick to the game and the longer life it will have.
The next obstacle a beginner faces when he(she?) actually starts playing lies in players using their knowledge to deliberately beat them. Some might scoff at this and say that that is the point but I believe they are incorrect. At a simple level it is true that a beginner (for example) would not feel particularly put out by moving in open ground and then taking a 4 down 2 shot.  What I am talking about is situations where the opponent knows that a decent player would never do a certain action, lets the beginner do it and then smashes them and moves on. For example a beginner has a tank for the first time and the veteran drives his own tank into LOS. The beginner immediately announces they will take a shot.
Now let’s look at the veterans potential approaches to this
A – Works out the odds, rolls the die –  a miss. Carry on. The vet stops his tank takes a bounding to acquire and the next turn blows up the newbies tank
B – As A but the veteran explains that because the shot was taking early it has a low chance of success and it would be better next time to hold off (if possible) to see if those odds can be lowered. Perhaps pointing out the Panzer Gergen panzer article (or lending the newbie it)
C – As B but the veteran says – ‘are you sure? As there is a good chance you will miss’ and explains how to get the best shot. This may assist the veteran in losing but in reality how much glory does the veteran achieve  from smashing someone doing a bone-headed move because they don’t know the rules?
What a veteran beating a beginner should actually feel like.
.
(A) would irritate a lot of beginners, (B) is ‘tough love’ and the beginner (if they stay with the game) will eventually learn whereas © has the best chance to keep the beginner in the game. Beginners do not have the tactical knowledge of the Experts and the best way to keep them is to give them that knowledge and give them a chance to win. None of this comes close to the ‘you did not put your reinforcements by the hexes they were supposed to come in before making a wind roll so you cannot have any reinforcements’ sort of obnoxiousness that some players can display. Those people are too far gone for even regular players to play let alone beginners.
Basically a beginner who does not know that the best defensive tactic for their panther may be to smoke, start up as an enemy unit has appeared in LOS (after a die roll) and be in motion is not a magnificent victory for a veteran who then Blows up that Panther. Veterans should do their best to try and let the newbie win or at least give them the tools to see how they could have won.
Now follow some more general Newbie playing tips
  • Permit them (not the vet) to have pull backs if they forget things and if you don’t favour that particular approach then   prompt the player before they forget things – ‘you have not self-rallied – you should do that first before officer rallies’ or ‘you haven’t rallied that broken squad under the LMG and can’ or ‘if you hold your fire I am likely to move next to you which will double your firepower and increase your chances of success. On the other hand if I don’t move next to you then you may lose the shot entirely..’. Then again we don’t want to go entirely down the Jedi Mind Trick path here so we also don’t want the Vet to essentially play both sides but to provide the information for the newbie to see what his options are.

  • Let the newbie win If possible. This can be surprisingly hard. I remember one game of ‘Retaking Vierville’ where I essentially just ran around the Germans in the open to give my opponent as many easy shots as possible. He still lost due to some horrific dice rolling. So we are not talking losing stupidly ‘woops I am supposed to take this house and have accidentally moved all my units In the wrong direction for two turns’ as instead not using every experienced trick you have to get that win – let’s not forget this also ties into confusing the newbie as well so would be a double fail. One way to do this Is to pick an unbalanced scenario and give the newbie the heavily favoured side AND the balance. Don’t tell him though, that would be bad, and definitely don’t go the other way,“lets play this scenario which has ten Italian conscripts versus twelve US paratroopers. I’ll take the Yanks. Apparently this is a bit unbalanced in favour of the Americans 400 wins versus 0 but since you have not played the Italians yet you can take them. Should be fun!”
This man always beats newbies in ASL..Let’s not be that man
  • Unless a newbie is a tank head or particularly keen on U.S Marine beach landings then don’t introduce new stuff just because you like it. Start with infantry then when the newbie is happy move on to guns then tanks. If they show an interest in a particular phase or action in the war then by all means pick scenarios to pique that interest. It has to be the newbies interest though,” I only play Russian front, I know you were in the Marines, your father was in the marines as was your grandfather who also served in the Pacific against the Japanese and you really want to play pacific scenarios – but let’s play a Kursk scenario. Not done tanks yet? Don’t panic it will be easy”. Most newbies will not have such a focused interest but it may happen.
  • Don’t pull back your own actions. i.e Your turn ‘I forgot to check for wire removal in the movement phase can I just roll for that as my attack would be screwed otherwise’ then on the newbies turn when the newbie realises the shot they just declared was invalid/stands too little chance/can’t succeed- ‘ you can’t take that back as otherwise it would unbalance the game’ This makes you a twat as well as a bad teacher for a new player.
  • When you heroically lose don’t explain to the newbie how with just a little change of tactics you would actually have won. “If I had rolled less than 7 then you would have lost. I am only playing like a retard to lower myself to your level” – is not how to ‘win newbies and influence them’. This is remarkably prevalent in most game systems as people focus on their own opportunities and rarely consider what their opponent could or did not do. If you are one of these types of gamers then try to remember teaching newbies is about getting them to have the ability and knowledge to do what you are doing and not an extended ego trip for yourself.
  • Explain where some of the resources above can be found to make the game seem less threatening. “Yes it does appear complicated but once you have a game or two under your belt honestly it will all come together – you could try Reading this article on infantry play as it will really help you to get the game and does a better job of explaining things in plain English than I ever could.”
  • Never criticise a newbies move without offering a reasoned alternative,” Why did you do that? Are you brain dead. You really suck at this game” or even worse if playing in a club have a good teacher playing the newbies and not “HEY GUYS come over here and look what this idiot did” or “my eight year old can cope with this so get a grip”. At the very least explain why a potential move ‘could’ be a bad idea.
  • I should not have to say this as this should be a rule universally applied but it occurs and  some players don’t seem to be able to help themselves. Cheating is bad enough but to cheat against a beginner is appalling, “oh box cars hold on that wasn’t really My to hit attempt that was a warm up die roll. I’ll make my real die roll now’, “what’s that? If you enter brush I cant shoot you….Whoops you fell for my trick, I can actually shoot you…wow snake eyes! “
Toilet roll for cheaters…
  • Utilise KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid). “For our first scenario I thought we would try ‘The Last Bid’ – should be great it is set in Stalingrad, here have five minutes to set up”
  • Don’t steamroller beginners,” Ok your defensive fire phase, none of your units can see me which means there is nothing else you can do so lets move on to the next phase” – the newbie needs time to work that out himself. The game is complicated enough without the expert making phases disappear regardless of whether they are right (or worse ‘not’). A simple structure is an aid to learning so keeping that framework as something to rely on is important. Plus steam rolling makes the newbie feel less competent and makes the game appear more complex. Neither are good things for a newbie to feel.
  • Keep it fun and don’t get grumpy when things don’t go your way. Some players seem to channel Sauron when playing and potentially losing and Binko the clown when winning. Bad combination either way really. The aim when playing a beginner is for him/her to want to come back and learn more and play more. There is no other aim. It really does give you no credit to smash someone who has never played the game repeatedly until they give up playing due to your ‘brilliance’.
A Beginner almost beats a bad loser. Nastiness will come in that beginners direction
  • Watch your personal hygiene if playing face to face (Hell this covers tournaments and life generally, I would recommend doing this in normal life but some of you are ‘true’ gamers). Gamers (of all persuasions) sometimes have a tendency to be all about the game and nothing about washing. Don’t be that gamer. A newbie wont appreciate three hours in a fog smell of yaks urine with breath that could kill. I would recommend washing every part of yourself and cleaning your teeth (actually I would recommend that generally but against a beginner it is even more important as you are functioning as an ambassador of the game. Use these simple rules ‘shower, clean teeth, deoderant, clean clothes – then go to play a game’.  Washing whilst playing is taking it to the other extreme and probably counts as gamesmanship whether you are an attractive female or an overweight gamer (let us be honest the first is an unlikely scenario – the second perhaps less so)
Someone is a master at distracting ASL players.
  • Watch your own psychological quirks-  “use your own dice these are mine that I love so much that I sleep with them using a handy bodily crack to stop them escaping” (actually the last comment might help the newbie not want to use the dice but probably hits the point above as well). More likely “no one touches my dice, they are perfectly balanced compared to most normal dice. Like the ones I am giving you to use.” or impatience, “how long does it take to make your mind up about such a simple move – we haven’t got all day and I want to play a decent player before I go”
  • Don’t complain about the lack of new blood coming into the hobby if you do not play newbies (or claim you are too busy) “I have two games a week already and I only play beginners who show commitment by buying every published module plus most of Critical Hits stuff. Never met one who would yet and that’s because young people today lack commitment. Incidentally there appear to be less players around. It’s all MMPs fault.. “
  • Use the starter kits or simple scenarios for beginners even if you don’t particularly like the starter kit. It provides a cheap way to test the system and so is the easiest way to get other gamers to try it out and when playing a beginner your preferences do not count. This is not the time to make your superior business knowledge known on how if you were running MMP then ASL would be being played as a sport at the Olympics.
  • Teaching a beginner is not an excuse to display all your geek knowledge “you fired a mortar there which has a fire power of 50 yet in reality that mortar took slightly larger rounds and should be on the next column up. I am amazed MMP don’t get me to clear all their products before release” or worse to put the game down,” the game is okay but the lack of command and control worries me. Instead I recommend platoon commander”. Instead try and sell the game,” That’s what I love about the game. All of sudden everything changes and other games just don’t provide that depth” or “That was just like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ you totally wiped out the squad attacking that tank”. Admittedly it helps if the newbie has seen the film in question.
  • Never add a sprinkling of politics or religion – ‘ I never play games with the SS in, instead I have a house rule that says all SS are 1-2-3’s so they always lose”. Most newbies are unlikely to be impressed with ‘how Germany would have won the war if only’ or ‘I play this game to teach people about the atrocities of [combatant A]‘ or even ‘the Nazis were not that bad’.  Saying that it does depend on the newbie but as a rule keep your personal dislikes out of it “you have black SS counters and your name is John Meyer – you Nazi bastard I would not play you ever. Scum” followed by throwing things at the newbie in question.
Some ASL players will not find this funny and they would find it even less so should those guys be wearing SS uniforms
  • Try  not to let your own preconceptions of how people should play ‘leach’ onto a newbie. We have all seen these people.” Aha you want to play ASL well you will have to purchase every module. It will probably cost about $3000 to get most of what you need. Don’t worry that will give you centuries of enjoyment”. At its heart all a newbie needs is the rule book and Beyond Valor.  That is all they need to play ASL and will give them hours and hours of fun (hopefully). After playing that and enjoying it they may eventually want to start buying more modules. That is up to them. The problem here is that there is a strong streak of collectivism in the hobby and people assume that because they have ‘everything’ the only way to play is with ‘everything’ and that is total bollocks. One of the primary strengths of the system IS that you could buy Beyond Valor and the rulebook and have years of fun playing. One of the primary reasons board games have suffered is that later systems have proved far, far better at screwing the customer out of money (CCG’s – make all cards invalid for play after a couple of years so people carry on buying more along with random boosters so they cannot get what they want OR Games Workshop with its – no playing with out of date miniatures in competitions and lets re-release the rulebook/system every few years OR MORPEGS that get a monthly fee to play so are guaranteed a huge income) which means they can market better and push better resources into it. The antidote to this is that all those actually are a money sink and that if you stop paying then you stop playing (unless you are lucky enough to have a local opponent who is not concerned about playing Wh40k version 6 or whatever else it is). This conversely is a strength of board games but is one that is lost under a stream of people thinking you need to buy everything to truly enjoy the system…
  • Newbies in their first competition almost need a blog post to themselves but the only point I want to make here is for tournament organisers to seriously consider random assigning opponents or if you must allow competitors to find their own games make anyone in the top half of the crusader rankings only be able to play other gamers in the top half of the rankings. I dislike ‘newbie farming’ where anyone who has not played before (or is known to be a less than stellar player generally) is set upon by masses of elite players who want an easy game for the first round who having won their easy victory then disappear from sight for the rest of the tournament. It makes the newbies experience much worse and results in less people being willing to play in tournaments of that nature generally.

That will do for now. With a little thought a newbies experience of the game can be a pleasant and easy one and not a scary nightmare. Very few players go the really bad extreme and if you are one of those then recognise this and avoid playing them. Most players know the above already but there are a few, very few who don’t. Existing players should regard themselves as the vanguard of the game, ASL pathfinders whose actions help define the community and keep the game safe and growing. It is partly because most players already act this way that the game has lasted as long as it has. Let’s keep it that way for longer.
Be so good an ASL teacher that you too will get posters placed around town about a newbies experiences.
Some Resources…

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