Tuesday, April 17, 2012

10 Tips For Teaching Board Games

By Julian
Almost every gamer I know can recall a bad experience where someone tried to explain how to play a game and was just awful at it.  They droned on and on just reading the rulebook out loud. They delved into unnecessary specifics before they even told you what to do on your turn, and they made it seem 10 times more complicated than necessary.  It’s unfortunate, but getting over that initial hump of everyone learning to play a game can be a real drag and a serious barrier to actually enjoying a game.  To help you avoid this tragedy in the future, here are some tips for making the experience of explaining a game as painless as possible.   
Lets try to keep your players listening, shall we?
1. Be Prepared
I once learned the definition of a mass market game as any game that can be explained in 30 seconds or less.  Games like Boggle or Trivial Pursuit are the games you can pick up, read the rules, explain the game and play within minutes of opening the box.  These are NOT the games you are reading this blog post for tips on explaining.  Most games that have any real level of complexity require you to read the rules well ahead of trying to them.  Think about the rules for bit and make sure you understand how the game works.  Plan an approach to teaching the game.  Don’t try to open the box and read the rules out loud to the other players hoping that everyone just “gets it.”  You’ll drone on, people will get bored, and the aliens from Omicron Persei 8 will enslave us all before you finish turn 1 of the game. 

2. Make It Sound Easy
Attitude matters for getting players excited about the game.  Try at all times to sound like what you are trying to teach is pretty easy to understand.  Even really complex games can be put into a simple framework so new people can believe that the game is learnable.  Magic the Gathering, for example, is a very complex game.  I could write blog posts for days and never cover all the special circumstances and oddball rules that can come up.  However, I’m not lying when I tell you that it’s just a game where you play a wizard that casts spells and summon monsters in an attempt to defeat your opponent.  First person to knock their opponent down from 20 life to 0 wins.  See, simple right?  Starting with a simple framework and a positive attitude will help your players pay attention because they will be confident that they game is both something they will enjoy and are capable of learning.

3. Objective, Turn, Essentials, Specifics
Go from wide to narrow when explaining a game.  In general, it’s best to tell everyone the objective of the game and how to win.  Then cover a simple turn structure.  What do players do on a turn?  Then start filling them in on considerations and choices that are essential to the game.  Finish by telling them only a few specific details to serve as examples of other choices the player might need to make along the way.  A word of warning, though. Do NOT break the rule of making it sound easy.  If a game has a complex scoring structure for determining the winner, tell them about turn structure and save the “how to win” for later.  Most of the time, however, players want to know what they are supposed to do, then how they are supposed to do it, and a few details of they need to be concerned about along the way. 

4. Learn What To Leave Out
Some things are better with the right element left out.
Players don’t need to know everything right at the start of the game.  In fact, you may hear several players say something like “Let’s just give it a try and I’ll learn as we go.”  Most players don’t want to be bogged down by the details.  They want to jump into the action.  It takes some practice, but learning what to leave out of the explanation can help you out quite a bit.  Good candidates for the explanation chopping block include things like specifics of card effects, complex if-then situations, and rules that only apply to late game or special situations.  Don’t leave anything that’s essential for being successful in the game, however, or players may feel cheated.

5. Repeat and Recap
Even if you’ve prepared for the game, take a positive attitude to make the game sound easy, explain the rules from wide to narrow, and leave out the unnecessary details, players can lose track of the things you’ve been saying.  You need to take the time to stop and recap what you’ve gone over at least briefly and at regular intervals.  This makes sure that everyone is keeping the major points of the game in their head and invites questions about things players may not have heard the first time. 

6. Connect To Prior Game Knowledge
If your players have played other “trick taking” games then explaining the game of Hearts is a whole lot easier.  Experience playing in a Magic the Gathering draft tournament will help a player understand the draft mechanic in 7 Wonders.  It’s easier for players to learn games that are similar in some way to games they have played before.  Ask your players if they have played games you think are related to the one you are explaining and whenever possible, mention those games to reinforce rules you are trying to explain.

7. Tell A Silly Story If You Have To
The Sillier The Better
Sometimes game mechanics are hard to understand or remember because they are just arbitrary or abstract.  They may provide better game play, but they just aren’t interesting to think about.  Settlements in Catan have to be at least 2 spaces away from another settlement.  You can’t build a structure with the exact same name as one you already have in 7 Wonders.  Making up a story that gives a reason for these rules to exist can often help players remember them.  Settlers in Catan need space to gather their resources and refuse to settle too close to each other.  Rulers of ancient civilizations are fickle and demand always to see something new and shiny.  They can’t stand the thought of spending resources to build the same old building they’ve already got.  Use whatever story you can think of and the sillier the better.  It can make boring rules seem more fun or at the very least easier to recall during the course of the game.

8. Play An Example Turn
You can talk about all the rules until you're blue in the face and certain players will still be confused.  It can save a lot of time to just run through an example turn.  Use the board and all the pieces and even let players make their own decisions so that you can show them how a typical turn in the game will play out.  Just make sure everyone knows that the awesome stuff they accomplished doesn’t actually count toward the real game.

9. Talk Less Strategy and More Starting Goals
Players will often want to know something beyond the basic mechanics.  They will want to know how to be successful in the game.  It can be tempting to dive into tactical considerations and the many overarching strategies for the game.  However, it’s often more helpful to give new players a good goal to shoot for at the start.  When explaining Dominion, for example, I often tell the players to try and grab an action or two that looks like fun, but to focus on just getting better money cards.  This is because a player is rarely going to regret drawing a handful of really good money in that game and money lets them explore other strategies as the game continues.  This goal gets them into the game and lets them start exploring.  If I tried to explain every strategic consideration of a deck building game the players would often be lost before we even started.

10. Repeat, Recap, Repeat
Repetition increases familiarity.
So you’ve prepped for teaching the game.  You know what to call out to make it sound easy.  You’ve got a plan for talking about the broad strokes of the game before diving into specifics and you’ve decided which details to leave out.  You’ve figured out other games that you can relate to this game.  You’ve got a silly story ready to make that one obscure rule really memorable and you’ve played through a few example turns by yourself so that you can lead the new players through one if need be.  You’ve even figured out what seems like a decent starting goal to give the new players to shoot for.  Yep you’re probably ready.  Just remember that while you’re actually teaching it, you really ought to repeat information and recap the important points as you go along.  It really does help people learn and remember.

Hope these tips help you the next time you need to explain a game.  Leave a comment and let us know if you've got any hot tips of your own for teaching.  Even better, if you have any horror stories of game explanations gone terribly terribly wrong we'd love to hear those too.  


  1. Very clear and concise points. It's almost a how to teach how to teach games. (double phrasing intentional)

  2. I would add a more important #11: Care less about winning and more about having fun the fist game or too. If people enjoyed it they are more apt to want to play it again.

  3. Good read. When I explain Catan I use the following to get the general point across.

    You need 10 points to win. You get points by building settlements and cities. You build settlements and cities by paying resources. You get resources by rolling the dice and collecting them from tiles where your settlements and cities are.

    Also didn't realize you can't build 2 of the same structure in 7 Wonders. Oops. :)

  4. I would like to add an important #12: (And #11 is a good one!)

    Only one person should speak at a time and present the game. Others try to jump in and often there is an unnecessary explanation or sidetrack coming. They are trying to be helpful, and thanks for that! but often times it just ends up confusing the learners more.

  5. Great article!

    I'm often teaching new gamers or nearby when they are being taught, and one of my big cringes is when I hear someone teaching a game and throwing in heaps of strategy information.
    Problem is
    a) it's more for the new players to remember
    b) it's easy for them to get confused and think the strategy hints are actually rules they have to memorise.
    I'm really in favour of giving a bare minimum of strategy in games instruction.

    Then again, I'm also not a fan of players saying
    "Let’s just give it a try and I’ll learn as we go".
    I hear this as
    "Meh, I don't feel like listening to any rules"
    and you just know they'll tune out during the actual game as well. It would be one thing if they did it when someone had been droning on for 1/2 hour but I hear people saying it both to me and other instructors, after only one or two rules!

    With any decently complex game, it's impractical to start the game with the players not knowing how to play. You'll just get around to the first new player and have to stop the game and explain all the options that you would have discussed at the start.
    It's worse with games where everyone plays simultaneously.

    While instructors have to be careful about keeping the rules upbeat, simple and correct, new learners have to have a little respect and patience as well. If you don't really want to learn the game, perhaps you could sit out and learn by watching.

    1. When players say "Let's give it a go", rather than saying"meh, I don't feel like listening to rules" they might be saying, " I'm not an auditory learner, I need to see it played out to understand."

  6. There's also what I like to call the Han Solo rule: Let the rookie win. Okay, don't actually let them win, but do skew the odds in their favor. If you're teaching Mage Knight, pick the character you're worst at using. If playing Heroscape, attack the rookie last, and maybe avoid that perfect synergy army.

  7. Excellent article!

    I would like to ask if I may repost this on my website? www.gaminglib.com

    of course credit will be given to you and the article will be linked back to this page.

    Let me know!

  8. Great article, a lot of good advice that could be used with children as well. I find that when I'm teaching a new game to my kids I make sure I'm excited and that it shows. That way they want to learn the game because they also get so excited to play.

  9. Good article, although I would recommend caution with the "make it sound like it's simple" step. If you act like a game rule is simple and a player is having troulbe understanding it, they may get frustrated and feel stupid and possibly just give up. I often say "It takes a little bit to get used to, but once you get it it's not too tricky..." and acknowledge that I occassionally have trouble getting around certain rules.