The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Sight Reading

Joe Huber

January, 2004

There are plenty of skills which go in to being a good game player. Depending upon the game, some combination of analytical ability, deductive reasoning, memory, ability to read your fellow players, visual acuity, spatial reasoning, negotiation talent, and other skills may be tested. In general, however, games test the same skill on each playing. There is one skill, however, that is usually only tested on the first couple of plays—the ability to assimilate the rules and derive a plan for the game. Michael Tsuk has applied a term from music to this skill, which I feel does an excellent job of describing the skill: sight-reading.

Sight-reading isn't always among the most respected of skills, as evidenced by the term "beginner's luck". Someone who has strong sight-reading skills but not the more mainline talents needed to excel at a given game over the long term could be at a disadvantage in the end in spite of doing very well initially. For example, imagine a good sight-reader playing Puerto Rico with other players new to the game. On the initial play, the good sight-reader is likely to excel at the game, as she will be very quick to understand the production cycle, the financial aspects, and the costs and advantages of buildings, and will develop a competent strategy. However, if she isn't as strong at analysis and reading other players as her fellow players, they are likely to surpass her performance on subsequent plays.

Having a strong sight-reader in your gaming group offers a number of advantages. First, sight-reading ability is built upon comprehension of the rules; having someone who can quickly take in and apply rules helps games to proceed smoothly. Second, strategies uncovered by a strong sight-reader are often the stepping-off point for future strategy analysis. Additionally, sight-reading ability can help a group to reach a fast conclusion as to how well-suited a particular game is to the group.

There is a significant downside to this last item, however—if a good sight-reader runs away with a game, is it because the game is unbalanced or because the weaker sight-readers didn't balance the game as well as they will on subsequent plays? For a concrete example, I recently had my first chance to play Princes of the Renaissance with a reasonably strong sight-reader in the game. This player never built an army, never purchased any treachery items—and won the game with a score nearly 50% higher than that of the player in second place. What am I to take from this? Is Princes of the Renaissance a nicely-produced but unbalanced game? Possibly—but it's at least as likely that the problem was simply one of our collected inexperience with the game. With more experience, we might have known how to counter such a strategy—and had a more competitive game for our efforts.

There is one additional area of game play where sight-reading skills are not only advantageous, but critical: playtesting. The dangers of having a new design playtested by only a single gaming group are well known and understood; as a consequence, most designers will be sure to try their games with multiple groups. But if, as is often the case, these other groups have a very limited number of opportunities to play the game, the design is in fact relying upon these groups for not only their honest feedback, but for their sight-reading skills. I've witnessed some cases and heard of others where games considered ready for publication or nearly so have been delayed unexpectedly when a first time player has hit upon an unacceptably effective strategy. While bluntly honest playtesters may be the most important variety for a designer to have, good sight-readers must be a close second.

So, how can sight-reading skills be improved? I suspect that a key element is playing a wide variety of games; the more the problems of a new game can be thought of in terms of previously played games, the more existing knowledge can be brought to bear. I believe it's also important to listen to rules with an explicit goal of forming a strategy. This has some negative effects—sometimes a late rule will scrap an initial plan, possibly without time to regroup. Finally, I believe that a daring attitude can help—taking on an extreme strategy on a first play may pay dividends, or may lead to a secure last place finish.

- Joe Huber

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