When Games Go Wrong

Games don’t always work the way you expect them to. That can be serendipitous, leading you and your students to new ideas, but it can also derail a carefully planned class. Here are a few ideas for why things might go wrong, and what you can do about them.

I find that there are three common reasons why my games don’t go the way I want:

  1. The game is poorly designed and doesn’t encourage the things I wanted it to.
  2. Students are stuck in a local maximum because a better solution hasn’t occurred to them.
  3. Students are stuck in a local maximum because they lack some prerequisite skill to perform the better solution.

The first one pops up pretty often when creating new games. The rules could be unbalanced or end up rewarding entirely different things than I expected. The only real solution is to fix the game. I might be able to do that on the fly and get the class back on track, but if I don’t see an obvious quick fix I’ll just set the game aside for the time being and move on to something else.

Sometimes a “bad” game still leads to productive or interesting fencing, just with a different focus than I wanted. It can be interesting to let these play out if you’re not too attached to your original topic. Otherwise, you can file them away for later use.

The second problem can happen when introducing students to a game they haven’t played before, or trying to develop a new skill. Just because a technique or strategy is effective, doesn’t mean it’s obvious, and it can take a while for the class meta to evolve in the desired direction. If the class gets stuck in this process, I can try to help them along by introducing some new ideas for them to experiment with. Discussing the game in a group can be a good way to do that, or I might directly introduce a new action or strategy.

The third problem can look a lot like the second, and telling them apart is tricky. The difference is that students aren’t able to successfully perform the action you’re looking for, so introducing the idea isn’t enough. This could be due to a 3P problem/lack of action capacity, or some undeveloped tactical ability. In this situation it can be useful to switch to a simpler game which is more directly focused on the missing prerequisite. One-on-one coaching can also be helpful here.

Finally, a useful trick for both of the “local maximum” problems is simply to rotate partners a few times. This can help break people out of ruts and spread ideas throughout the class. And if someone is struggling to execute a technique, they might be able to pull it off against some opponents but not others, so giving them a few different opponents can be useful. This doesn’t always work, but it’s so easy that it’s usually worth a try.