The Pedagogy of Play: Bite-Sized Pieces, Part I

I thought I’d start walking my talk and actually provide an example of how to make a game not only learnable and accessible, but also enjoyable at every level of ‘tutorial’ play. In a sense, all play then becomes a tutorial stage, because once you master the present stage you can always make the game more complex by adding another. You don’t have to…but this does give hope for some games that bet the farm on complexity, but lose a lot of players because of it. Complexity doesn’t make a game unplayable; the lack of a workable play pedagogy makes a game unplayable (or at least, played by less people).

I have a indie story-game I love, called Polaris (“Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North”), by the much esteemed Ben Lehman. I recommend this game. I love reading the evocative text and looking at the ornate illustrations.

Problem: I have played this game maybe five times, all single sessions, all but two in convention environments, and I still don’t feel at all confident in the rules of play (and only really enjoyed a single game of any of those – the one with Lukas, Jordan, and Ogre at Indie Hurricane 2008). In fact, five sessions barely manages to count as one long-term story. For some reason, for me and my group, we just can’t learn the game as it stands. For my entire core group, our experience of the text ranks far higher than our experience of the game.

So I decided to make Polaris the subject of an experiment, of which I will write down the rough structure here.


1. To play an honest-to-goodness long-term game of Polaris, learning the rules until I know them without thinking.

2. To more generally change how I interact with the learning curve of all indie games, so that I spend at least 95% of my time playing and enjoying them, not flipping through books for rules, discussing the pros and cons of how and when to apply them, and generally reducing the overall non-fun handling time of game materials, like dice, text, and cards.

3. To constantly increase the amount of playing time in which I/we create fiction, and constantly improve the quality of the contributions to that fiction.


Some of this applies to just to Polaris, some more generally to all games. Even the Polaris-centric bits, if you poke at, you’ll see they have a pretty general application. I envision a stack of POLARIS GAME CARDS, each one having the stage below written on it, with a short description, and maybe a page reference. Once you slap a card on the table, the entire group knows what to work on.

[Cont’d in Parts II and III]

Written by Willem