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Teaching board games

Board game evening. You have invited a few of your friends to play the latest game, fresh off the counter at your local game store. Tonight is the night; the end of a months of hype and waiting. You have read through the rules feverishly, all that remains is explaining the rules to your fellow players. You start going through the rules in a well-ordered and structured way. Still, it is not long until you get attacked by questions: “How do I do this?”, “What does this thing do?”. People start zoning out, or having tower-building competitions with the game components. With great patience and perseverance, you explain all the rules. Finally, you can start playing. Not too long into the game, you execute a brilliant strategic move. All should be in awe of your wit and intelligence, seeing the game played by an expert such as yourself.

“Wait, what? You can do that?!”, says one of the other players. The words hit you like a bag of bricks to the face.

So, what went wrong? I have explained the rules of quite a few games, to players of varying levels of board game literacy. And it is hard. Even so, I have compiled a few tips and tricks to help avoid some of the problems of a poorly explained game. As I compiled this list, I also made some parallels to video game tutorials, but I will save those thoughts for later.

The calm before the storm.

So, what are our goals as board game rule teachers? Much as in “real” teaching, there are a few goals that are important:

  • Creating interest in the game, and board gaming in general.
  • Smoothness and flow in the explanation.
  • Avoiding hurt feelings and boredom.
  • Having fun!
  • Constantly improving your teaching.

With our goals set, let’s get to the tips and tricks!

Create interest early: What is cool about the game? Is it the setting? A particular mechanic or rule? The artwork? Don’t gush too long; keep the “hook” short and simple. It is very important to tell each player their role, be they pirates, generals, or ponies.

…Or best friends! How could that go wrong?

Be prepared:  Read up a bit on the rules, especially numbers such as how many cards each players start with. Sometimes, letting all players set up the game can help them get a spatial and physical sense of where the components are, but be wary of handing out stuff with a lot of text on it. Rather, let players set up the sweet miniatures or other cool components. Reference sheets are best handed out after explaining the rules, as someone might start reading them, and stop listening to you.

Allow for errors: Be clear that the players may not understand all the rules, let alone the best strategies, in their first play. Tell them to enjoy themselves, and experiment. Be clear if you allow take-backs. Together with your players, agree on the rules around the game itself.

The onion approach: Start by explaining the overall theme and goal of the game. Keep it short, simple and understandable. Then, tell the players how to achieve the goal, and how the turns and phases of the games flow. Then, it is time to explain the mechanics and more detailed rules. If there is a special mechanic that is unique or especially fun, try explaining it early.

When you are done with the mechanics, repeat how they work together, and how they help the players reach their ultimate goal. A good, but risky, advantage of the onion approach is that you can start playing, and leave some rules a bit more unexplained. This is very risky, and all players have to agree on this.

Know the rules: Not just the rules themselves, but know which rules are tricky to explain. Sometimes, the wording in the rulebook is not so good. Be sure you can explain it in your own words, and in different ways: different wordings, with visual aids, with a few examples, etcetera. A deeper explanation may satisfy one player, but leave the others bored out of their minds. Finding these rules can be hard, but take note of them when you learn the game.

Sometimes, it is good to explain the rule from a game design standpoint: “While it is weird that you can’t do X, if you could, the game would be broken because of Y”. Or from a story or setting standpoint: “Grok is the strongest Orc. Once, he broke a table by just looking at it, so he does double damage against wood-type enemies”.

Japanese games do not need to make sense, they just have to look cool.

Know your players: Try to anticipate questions, and if people have questions, respectfully tell them you will answer them later, and integrate the answer into your explanation. A poorly timed and long-winded explanation to a question may break your flow, and bore other players.

Scan for players who are not listening. People who stop paying attention are probably full of information, and can take no more. Try to be attentive, and if you realize people will not be able to sit through the explanation, change up your teaching methods. Eye contact and waiting for confirmation is a good way to ensure no one is zoning out.

Improve: After the game, try to collect data about how well you did explaining the game. Direct questions are not so good in getting an honest answer, so ask about their general feelings about the game. If they say something was hard to understand, or that a certain mechanic or dynamic was really fun, remember that when you explain the game again.

There you are! Some of these techniques may not apply for everyone, but they are a good framework to base your rules explanations on. Hopefully, you will avoid the biggest pitfalls, and get to the last and most important tip, which is to continually improve, inspect and adapt as you explain more games. You might find you enjoy teaching the game to new players, and introducing them to a new world of board gaming fun!


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