This article reprinted by kind permission of Ravage magazine.
Whether you play board games or miniature games, if the system you are using has a battlefield or board to fight over then it shares a common set of stages of learning. In broad terms there are three steps, though their edges are blurry and they blend into one another.
Step 1 – the Novice
When you first play a new game it is all you can do to follow the rules. You make mistakes and forget things, and work out afterwards what they were when you re-read the rulebook or talk with your friends. You need to work out the odds of each step carefully, and you worry more about getting the rules right than planning several moves ahead. Depending on the learning curve of the game this period may be one game or a dozen.
Step 2 – the Gamer
Assuming that you continue to play the same game then you will gradually learn the subtleties. After a while you won’t need to calculate the odds, you’ll just have a feeling for the balance of power in an area of the board. In reality, I think you are still calculating, it’s just that you’re now leaving it to your subconscious to do the maths. Of course, you will now be able to work out the rules very quickly if you want to, but what interests me is the feeling or intuition you have gained.
Step 3 – the Veteran
When you play a game for a long time you learn to read the battlefield/board instinctively. You can tell at a glance the balance of power in an area, and trust your sense of what is likely to happen to be right most of the time. You may count the hexes or squares and calculate the odds carefully when it is a close call, but a large part of your strategy is likely to be based on a feeling for where you are weak and where you are strong. This frees you up to think several moves ahead and to construct elaborate plans. You are now so familiar with the rules that you don’t really think about them as rules any more than you think about gravity when you throw a ball.
Use the Force
Oddly, I’ve found over the years that one simple trick can really help understand the game situation, but almost nobody does it. People go through these 3 steps and get really good at their chosen game(s), but then they stop. And for all its skill, it seems that for everyone I have met and discussed this with, there is one thing that the subconscious is rubbish at: turning things upside-down and seeing things from your opponent’s point of view.
For some reason, when you glance at the board, your instinctive judgement is based solely on what you see from where you sit. I suspect this is due to the fact that you spend the whole game sitting on one side, and your subconscious has learned this as the only viewpoint. But there is another.
Stand up, walk around the table and look at the game from the other player’s perspective. Imagine that their force belongs to you. How does your side look now? Again, it is a case of degrees, but far more often than not you will find that a position that you thought was weak may look impregnable (so you can stop worrying), and another that seemed strong may look sievelike and frail (so you can start worrying). Whatever the case it’s unlikely to seem the same.
Sceptical? I’m sure you are. Try it though, and see what happens. After all, it only takes a few moments and it can’t hurt. I’ve suggested this to many people over the years, and whether they were new to gaming or a seasoned veteran of the tournament circuit they almost invariably said they saw things about the game that they never noticed from their own side of the table.
Personally, I find this fascinating, and because it is a subconscious thing, it is somewhat magical to suddenly get a reappraisal of the game from someone (yourself) whose instinct you trust.
So your homework assignment today is to give this a try for yourself. Any tabletop figure game or board game with a positional or “battlefield” type of play area will work, eg Chess, 40K, Dust, Dwarf King’s Hold, Flames of War, etc. It will work better sometimes and worse in others, but it will work.
I look forward to hearing how you get on.
By the way…
Have you ever swapped sides in the middle of a game, just for fun? How did that feel? Was it strange playing against a side whose secret plans you already knew?
Do you listen to your subconscious (your intuition) when you play? Is it more often right or wrong?