The experience a Player has with your game is going to vary based on a lot of factors. Imagine someone brand new to your game. Thay have no familiarity with any aspect of it, though perhaps they have seen the box. Maybe they have read the rules, but there’s no way to know. At the other extreme, lies you, the designer. You’re not only familiar with all the aspects, but also the history of each component, and the full evolution of each mechanic and each system. Anyone who sits down to experience your game is going to fall somewhere along this spectrum of familiarity.
As a player brand new to your game sit down to play, all they have to go on are the Affordances and Constraints you’ve given them, and the Conceptual Models they are able to build based on the art and components you’ve provided them, as well as those you’ve attempted to impart via the rulebook.
How able they are to build those mental models is also highly dependent on how familiar they are with games in general. To a brand new, never-seen-a-hobby-game player, a sequence of squares or wells for tracking a value, like the elastic resource markets in Wealth of Nations using a cube may not offer any clearer a conceptual model than a complex tech tree from a game like Twilight Imperium. To the experienced gamer, it may be sufficient to point out which components represent the concepts they know from other games. The generally-experienced player doesn’t to be walked through a scoring track, a representation of a network, the concept of “hit points” a “discard pile” or “spending resources”. Those are doors it’s sufficient to show them to, and they can walk through. Not so for a player who sits down to your game without any other hobby games under their belt.
Ideally, as players play your game multiple times, they will become familiar with it, and be able to sit down and play it without much struggle. They will develop an understanding of the conceptual models to mentally represent the things your game conveys. This is, of course, contingent upon having a good experience the first time.
Therefore, as players repeat your game, they will be trending toward becoming “familiar” with your game and likely games in general. Even though “familiar with your game” and “familiar with games in general” aren’t entirely independent, I think there are some interesting insights to be gleaned when we plot them against each other.
Now, consider where people may be when introduced to your game: they could be distributed anywhere along the bottom of this chart — maybe they’ve played everything on the Board Game Geek ‘hotness’ for the last 15 years, and have seen everything under the sun, or maybe they’re my mom — never tabled a board game in her life but talked into trying it by a friend.
If your players have a great experience, they will repeatedly interact with your game, and will necessarily trend/drift to the right. Between this, and perhaps through playing of other games in the interim, (between sessions), they will also drift rightward on this plot.
How quickly they move to the right during their first session can have a dramatic impact on their experience. A fast-payoff learning curve (I’m working hard to keep my pedantry in check here… what I really mean is “steep”, though I know the colloquial use of “steep” is actually the opposite :)) can help with that, as a new player will progress quickly into familiarity with your game if you guide them in the learning process.
Anecdote: I recently sat down with a group for our first game of Study in Emerald. Through the use of affordances and our previous conceptual models of board deck locations, scoring tracks and deck building, most of us knew what many of the components were intended to do. The rules specific to this game came off as bewildering to all of us at the beginning, but all five of us progressed rapidly along the “this game” axis, and by the end, we all walked away willing to try again; my next tabling will see me starting off much further to the right, and my experience will be different. My mental models of the systems are improved, and I’ll bypass a lot of early frustration. Same game, same rules, same affordances and constraints in front of me, and my experience will be different. Because my Familiarity changed.
A great interface can teach a User how to use it, and a great game can teach a Player how to increase their familiarity with it. Facilitating this quickly is going to leave players with one kind of experience (perhaps a satisfaction payoff, we’ll be covering things like dopamine hits in a few weeks), conversely, a gradual growth into familiarity could lead to a more rewarding experience when they finally ‘get’ it. Philosophically, you can also consider how your game cues up your players to experience the greater world of hobby gaming, if you’re into that kind of thing. If I haven’t explicitly called it out yet in this series, I’m not looking to make prescriptivist declarations of how games should be made… only attempting to define a framework of considerations to empower designers to think about the experience holistically.
These Familiarity Spectra make up, in my opinion, the second pillar of the board gaming Player Experience (PX). Next up, because any tabling could include any combination of players in any quadrant of these axes: We’ll explored how the each player at the table impacts the Player Experience of the other players, and how what a person brings to the session, as well as the dynamics between players can be a powerful consideration.
This series continues with “PX is Other People“!
 Exaggeration for effect — my mom was always a trooper when it came to sitting down for endless sessions of Hero Quest or The Omega Virus when I was a child. Thanks Mom! Love you.