I recently learned to play Inis and Lords of Waterdeep. These are both strategy games, gamer games in that they come with rulebooks instead of a page of instructions. Despite the number of pieces and pages of rules, these are both surprisingly simple games to learn and teach.
Lords of Waterdeep is the clearer example. This is one I hesitated to learn because (1) themed tie-in games are usually crap; (2) anything with that many moving pieces must be over-complicated instead of elegant, right? I mean, it comes with a 24-page rulebook! But no, the actual rules of play are about 2 pages of the rulebook. You could get by with the reference page on the back of the book. Those 24 pages are mostly explaining setup in detail, reprinting text that is on the cards, and fluff. Maybe they thought D&D gamers insisted on a rulebook. If you have ever played a worker placement game before, this is ridiculously simple, with only two agents to place in each round (with max players).
And the fluff is pure fluff! We had one player explicitly refuse to learn which cubes were fighters or rogues or whatnot. “They’re orange cubes and black cubes.” And he is right! Give me some backing and an artist, and we can re-skin this game to any theme. I walked someone through how you would re-skin this as My Little Pony: Crusade for Canterlot.
Inis is a bit more complicated, but again the rules of what to do each round fit on a page. The rules there are more complicated, in that the rulebook has a dedicated column for reminders, clarifications, and explanations of edge cases. That was a little bumpy for first time players, wondering if we were missing something or if the rulebook effectively had errata.
Here, the fluff fits the game well. It is not Blood Rage levels of perfectly merging fluff and crunch, but the game mechanics tie in to the theme of Celtic competition for rulership. There are battles and bards and blood feuds of the clans.
A primary means of simplifying the rules is putting them in-game on the cards. All the action in Inis is in the cards that you draft each round, and Lords of Waterdeep does the same with having your worker placement info on the board. Inis adds a lot of text in its epic cards, as Lords of Waterdeep does with its intrigue cards. There is a downside to this, in that players are stopping to read mid-game, which can drag out turns and kill momentum. The upside is that you can teach everyone the game in a few minutes and get them rolling. Players tend to tolerate having lots of cards to read much better than getting a 10-minute block of instructions. This does give some advantage to return players, because they know what is in the deck, but it also gives new players the joy of, “Whoa, you can do that?” when cards come up. It feels like the early days of Magic the Gathering, when we thought anything could be in the cards.
Fun games. I enjoyed both, albeit with one play of each. Inis seems like a stronger and deeper game for dedicated strategy gamers, whereas Lords of Waterdeep is simple enough to loop in non-gamers. It’s D&D theme, however, probably reduces that general appeal, but it makes it good for your more casual gamers who like the theme but may not have the attention span for long rules.