UnUXpected Lessons: Board game rules as a design challenge

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to explain the rules.

Robbin Arcega
Jul 8 · 5 min read
One of my (many) shelves of board games.

Last weekend, I was at Ragecon, a board game convention in Reno. On the drive back, my partner and I were talking about how much we liked the people who took the time to teach us how to play new games. It occurred to me that rule-explaining was extremely similar to performing in a design challenge. One needs to explain the goal of the game, talk about the constraints, and then give instruction on ways to achieve the goal. As a product designer who regularly meets with stakeholders to get approval for features, it felt like a solid parallel.

We spent a good amount of time brainstorming how we might utilize board games into interviews (okay, I’m obviously not in HR, so it’s probably not okay to do this, but it’s an interesting thought experiment nonetheless). I’ll be talking about the hypothetical challenge of giving a candidate a 3–5 page rule book (say, over a week or so). The in-person presentation would be showing the interviewer how they would teach this game to a) someone totally new to board games, b) someone who plays games occasionally, and c) someone who is considered an expert at games.

And so, my hypothesis:
If a designer has the ability to read, comprehend, and explain something as complex as board game rules to different audiences, then they are probably going to be fine when explaining design decisions to different teams.

Why would explaining board game rules be useful as a design challenge?

If you’ve ever borne the burden of being the rule-explainer of a complex board game, you’ll know that it’s often a thankless job. It is your responsibility to guide your players through the first couple of rounds. You must also make sure they understand the goal of the game as well as the rules they must adhere to in order to have a shot at winning. Oh, and the rulebook can be anywhere from 8–40 pages long. And it is 100% your fault if someone didn’t understand a rule, convinced that it prevented them from winning.

Now pretend the rulebook is a massive design/product document that you were supposed to have read last week, and you have to explain it to one of the new designers on the team. Bit of a challenge if you haven’t actually done the reading.

Board game rules: an exploration of onboarding (and more!)

A good rule-explainer, like a good designer, will be mindful of their audience. They’ll be cognizant of what the players need to know, and when they need to know it. It’s “mission complete” for both rule-explainers and designers is having everyone on the same page, because they’ve been mindful of how the information is being absorbed. It’s “mission accomplished” if they see that information being used in a solution that builds toward the original goal.

Okay, sure. But how would that tell me anything about a good designer?

Whiteboard challenges are stressful, but companies do this so that they can get a sense of how a designer approaches a problem from scratch. Personally, I find that one of the vexing things about these challenges is that a lot of people tend to hyper-focus on how they might make a super creative, unique, blah blah blah solution, and this may not be a good indicator of design process, but how farfetched they can stretch their creative solutions. (It’s a good indicator of someone who might jump straight into solutions, though.)

Here are some reasons why I feel that having a set of rules from 3–5 board games could show more traits of a designer/engineer/etc.:

It shows how designers communicate their ideas with others

The designer has to think about a lot of things when figuring out the appropriate solution to a problem, but how do they present it to stakeholders? Product managers? Other designers? Engineers? Rule-explaining can give a sense of how a designer can communicate ideas to several different teams, and how they choose to frame it. For example, they’d choose the audience to explain the game to: newbies, casual gamers, or experts. I’d be able to see if they actually are as collaborative as they say if they are making an effort to reframe things for a different audience.

K, so how are you going to explain this to the Justice League??

You can get a sense of their ability to explain complex problems

If they can explain a complex board game, they can probably explain a complex design solution. The beauty of a board game rulebook is that it’s already been laid out for the candidate. The goal, problem, and potential solutions are there, and it’s their job to explain it to the audience. Some design teams may have several designers on one product. If the candidate were to hand their project off to another designer, does it get received properly? If it doesn’t, how do they choose to clarify things?

Learning is hard, but so is trying to iron out a really complex issue. Poor Doug.

It offers a chance to watch how they pay attention to people

The main goal of this exercise is making sure the interviewers a) understand the rules and b) can execute actions based on what they know. Content-wise, I’d be listening to how they explain aspects of the rules. Did they understand the rules, or are they just regurgitating what they read? Behaviorally, are they okay with admitting that they didn’t understand the rules, but will give it their best shot to explain? I’d also be listening to see how often they check in with their audience for clarity, which shows that they are attentive to their audience, and therefore, may find more success in negotiating situations.

On a scale of one to Kenneth, what does your audience look like during your explanation?

Conclusion? TBD.

I haven’t done any testing on this, of course, because there’s usually a standard set of rules around interviewing. Thus, I accept my bias, and will say that I would personally be 100% okay with working with someone who makes an effort to explain how to play a board game. To me, that says that they care about making themselves understood. They will probably take the time to check to make sure that everyone’s on the same page so that the engineer isn’t building the thing they designed which isn’t what the PM was expecting in the first place. If that isn’t workplace harmony, I don’t know what is.

Thanks for reading my blurb on board games and design, two of my great loves!

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Robbin Arcega

Written by

Product designer, puzzling over UX. Crocheting in between. Tea at all times.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +527K people. Follow to join our community.

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