Learning a new board game

I discovered a strategy game called Splendor. It’s a game of chips that you accumulate in order spend them on cards that give you scoring points. The rules are simple, the strategies to win are numerous, and randomness plays just enough of a role. It is surprisingly addictive.

Reflecting on my experience of first learning then teaching that game, I realized that it has been a good opportunity for me to apply to education a technique that I discovered in digital product design.

The concept of progressive disclosure

The idea of progressive disclosure is to sequence the things you’re exposing people to, and only disclose them when people have digested the previous ones. It’s a trendy topic in digital product design, but I now realize it’s a cornerstone of any education system. To my knowledge, most education systems teach simple concepts first, and then build on them to teach more complex concepts. First you teach numbers, then you teach operations using numbers.

(The first counter-example that comes to my mind is the « global method » way of teaching how to read: first you teach people how to read words, then you teach what words are composed of. But you could consider that it remains the same philosophy, in the sense that you start by what you believe is the easiest starting point, and then you use that first consolidated piece of knowledge as a stepping stone for something more complex. In fact, if you look at oral language as the previous block of knowledge to build on, it does make sense to rely on words rather than on syllables, especially in languages like French where the link between pronunciation and spelling is imperfect.)

Progressive disclosure applied to teaching a game

To explain Splendor to people playing it for the first time, I used progressive disclosure in 3 ways.

First, I explain the rules in a way that makes logical sense, starting with the end and walking backwards. What is the end goal? To reach 15 points. How to do I get points? By buying cards. How do I buy cards? By spending chips. How do I get chips? By taking them at the bank when it’s your turn to play. Once this is established, I explain the slightly more complicated parts of the game (cards not only give you points but also discounts on future purchases; if you can’t buy a card now, you can reserve it and buy it later; one type of chip acts as a joker, replacing any other colored chip; you can earn bonus-points by accumulating certain combinations of cards; etc.)

Second, I voluntarily ignore some parts of the rules before the game starts and only introduce them when the situation presents itself. For example, a player cannot hold more than 10 chips. I could mention it before the game starts, but it doesn’t help a beginner get started, so I explain that rule only when someone at the table is approaching the 10-chip limit. It allows to start the game faster and let the new players to focus on fewer things. After a couple of rounds, they have experienced the game rhythm, they have memorized the basic actions: they are ready to take in another layer of constraint.

Third, I leave out entirely one rule for the first game. There is a limit to how many chips of the same color you can take depending on how many are left in the bank. While it is an important rule that contributes to perfect balance of this game, discarding it doesn’t ruin the game at all. As a first-time player, you’re gonna make so many mistakes anyways that this slight imbalance introduced is worth the reduced complexity.

The mechanics of progressive disclosure

Dissecting the progressive disclosure technique apart, you can see what it is made of.

A content set. That is the total amount of knowledge you want to transfer.
Example: The rules of Splendor is a content set.

Content chunks. The content set is divided into smaller units. The sum of the content chunks is equal to the content set.
Example: « The end goal of Splendor » is content chunk. « The 4 things you can do in a round » is another content chunk.

Pyramid of chunks. Not all chunks are equal. Some are dependent of other ones.
Example: The « Limitations about the number of similar chips you can take » chunk is hierarchically dependent to the « The 4 things you can do in a round » chunk.

An audience. At the beginning, the assumption is that the person knows nothing about the content set, and everything about all the content sets required to be exposed to that particular content set.
Example: When explaining Splendor to people, the hidden assumption is that they have played at other board games before, and therefore understand the concepts of goals, turns, actions, etc.

Internal triggers. The exposure to some content chunks can be defined by the assimilation of other foundational content chunks.
Example: Introducing the « Limitations about the number of similar chips you can take » chunk only when players play for the second time.

External triggers. The exposure to some content chunks can also be defined by an external event that doesn’t take into account the assimilation of previous content chunks.
Example: Introducing the « Limitations about the number of chips you can own » chunk only when the situation in which it applies approaches.

Next step

Next time I’m given the opportunity to teach something to someone, I’d like to try and map my approach using progressive disclosure. We’ll see if it helps.

D'autres articles sur l'apprentissage, l'éducation, la communication, le jeu, les choix