The most common customer service request I receive reveals some important lessons about how people interact with games.
I don’t receive a lot of customer service requests for our products. (We’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, for example, and I get about two or three requests a month.) But one request in particular stands out as the most common: “I’m missing a flower platform tile.” This request is also noteworthy because none of these customers are ever actually missing a flower platform tile!
Receiving this request and interacting with these customers has really ingrained in me some important lessons about how people interact with games they buy and play:
- People use the Components section of a rulebook to verify they have everything, but usually only if they have some reason to believe they don’t.
- People often skip over setup instructions of a rulebook, especially after multiple plays and at the maximum player count.
- People make a lot of assumptions and inferences when they interact with a game.
[Note: This post describes customers making mistakes.
This post is meant to describe how customers interact with
games so we can help them avoid these mistakes; it should
in no way be interpreted as a criticism of customers.]
Before handling these customer service requests, I believed the goal of the Components section was to help players identify the components they had. The text of a rulebook will refer to lantern cards and dedication tokens, supporters and influential figure cards, and many other names for game pieces they have never seen before. I thought of it like a glossary: the small cardboard rectangles are called dedication tokens, the small wood cubes are called supporters, etc.
To see this in action, here are some instructions from the Lanterns rulebook:
- Place the starting Lake Tile in the center of the play area.
- Deal 3 Lake Tiles from the draw stack to each player face down.
And here is the corresponding image from the first edition of the rulebook:
From the Lanterns Rulebook (first printing)
The goal of this image was to say, “The Lake Tiles are the cardboard squares that have blue backs like this. One of them has a boat on it, like this: that’s the starting tile.”
But I suspect you can see the issue. How many large cardboard squares does the game have, 36 or 37? It’s supposed to be 36. (All the total counts are in bold. The “1 Start Tile” text was in non-bold to indicate that it was a subset of the bolded “36 Lake Tiles” text, but I can see now that this is too subtle.) These customers do have all 36 tiles, but they believe they are missing 1 tile out of 37 total.
Change: Starting with the fifth printing, this image has a different caption:
From the Lanterns Rulebook (fifth printing)
When people tell me they are missing a tile, they usually tell me when they realized it. It’s surprisingly not when they first opened the box, counted the pieces, and compared them to the Components section; they never did that. I suspect most gamers assume they have all the components, gloss over the specific numbers, and only look carefully at them if they have some reason to believe something is missing.
No, these customers usually realize they are missing a tile in the middle of a game, when the last tile is drawn from the draw stack in a 4-player game. Here’s one email I received:
“Yesterday we were playing with 4 people and I noticed I was missing a tile (the last player didn’t have a tile to draw on the last round where people draw tiles). I counted the tiles and I definitely misplaced one.”
The game has 36 tiles total, 1 starting tile and 35 regular tiles. You’ll notice that 35 doesn’t divide evenly by 4, so it looks like one tile is missing. These customers expect all players to get an equal number of tiles (that’s correct), but they also expect to use all the components at the maximum player count (that’s not correct in Lanterns).
Here’s the step in the setup these players miss:
- Create a draw stack of Lake Tiles. The number of tiles in the stack depends on player count:
- 4 Players: 32 tiles
- 3 Players: 27 tiles
- 2 Players: 22 tiles
After you put the starting tile in the middle, you have 35 tiles left. In a 4-player game, you only use 32 of them. (That number 32 is divisible by 4; all players in a 4-player game place 8 tiles.) Why remove some tiles? With all the tiles in play, the next to last player on their last turn could deduce what tile the last person is holding in their hand. We didn’t want to encourage someone in any way to memorize all the tiles and then take time to count out everything that had been played. That didn’t seem like it was in the spirit of the game, and (with extra tiles removed) it’s just not possible.
People do sometimes skip this step in the setup. But I’ve noticed it’s less likely to happen the first time someone plays. On that first play, players are going through the rulebook to learn how to setup the game and cover all the steps. But on subsequent plays, since they already know how to set it up and play, they are more likely to skip the rulebook and (especially at the maximum player count) just use all the tiles. This led them to believe that a tile was missing.
Future Change: I haven’t changed Lanterns yet to address this, but I think the best way to handle this going forward is to include the differences in setup on an extra reference card. I believe players will be more likely to see that card as they separate it from the game cards, even if they plan to skip the rulebook.
ASSUMPTIONS & INFERENCES
When someone interacts with a game, they make a lot of assumptions. Sometimes those assumptions are incorrect. I mentioned one above (“all the components are used at the maximum player count”), and there are plenty more. (I’ll never forget the “all games have a winner” assumption that led to this rules question for Hanabi on Reddit [link].) But another assumption led these customers to infer the identity of the “missing” tile:
“During one memorable Thanksgiving game we ended up with one less Lake Tile. It is one of the Lotus symbol cards. We have the one with the red/black/red/gold pattern and the one with the green/white/green/gold pattern but are missing the third one.”
Lanterns has 11 platform tiles. (Why 11? That’s the number that playtested the best.) They were originally all going to be flowers, but for the Kickstarter campaign I invited backers to nominate and vote on 3 other platform images to include. Since 11 is a prime number, there wasn’t a way to evenly divide the images among all the platforms. I decided to include 3 of each backer-voted platform and only 2 flower platforms:
Platform Quantities in Lanterns
If a customer is missing a Lake Tile, it’s nearly impossible to identify which one is missing. It still amazes me that people lay out all 36 tiles, thinking they could somehow identify the missing 37th one. But they do! And they seem to be rewarded with a pattern: 3 dragons, 3 fish, 3 pandas … but only 2 flowers! Seeing that, it seems natural — even obvious! — to assume that each image would appear the same number of times and to infer the identity of the “missing” tile.
Change? I don’t plan to make any changes to Lanterns to address this, but I’ll definitely think twice before settling on a prime number for something in the future! I’ll also think more carefully about what counts should be in the rulebook: it could have made sense to mention in the rulebook that the game has 11 platform tiles. In the expansion Lanterns: The Emperor’s Gifts, there are 11 pavilions (that number 11 again!) in 5 different colors. We showed each color and its count separately to make sure the quantities were clear.
Pavilions in Lanterns: The Emperor’s Gifts
And this, step by step, is how some customers come to believe they are missing a flower platform tile:
- They skip a setup step and use the wrong number of tiles.
- That results in an uneven number of tiles per player, which they (correctly) assume is a problem. They suspect they are missing a tile.
- They check the (ambiguous) Components section, which seems to confirm that a tile is indeed missing.
- They look through all the tiles, see a pattern in the number of platforms, and (reasonably) infer they’ve identified the missing tile.
Every time I get a request like this, I’m a little sad that the components section is ambiguous and that the rest of the numbers (coincidentally) line up so perfectly. But it helps remind me (a) how easy it is for players to make a mistake and (b) how many details there are in a game to help the players avoid those mistakes.