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To Teach, Perchance to Learn: Part I(A Guide on Teaching Games)

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One of the biggest barriers of getting into a new game is learning how to play it from scratch; but we covered that in our Learning guide. The next, and possibly even more difficult step, is teaching the game to your friends or family. This can be an enormous hurdle to overcome, as the players at the table may be coming from all different levels of experience; they will all have different questions at different times; and if the game bombs because of too much confusion or too lengthy of an explanation, players may be turned off from even trying the game again.

So how do you teach a game in real time to a bunch of new players without losing control of the situation? Read on for some helpful tips.

1. Learn the Game

This may seem like a very obvious statement, but that’s why it’s number one: make sure to learn the game yourself. Obviously there may be times when you have never played before and you’re teaching the rules to a new group of players, but make sure you follow all the “learning guide” steps. Read and re-read the rules. Familiarize yourself as much as you can. Despite your own inexperience, you will be the go-to person. You need to know as much as possible and be able to look things up quickly. Be prepared, or you’re going to have a messy time trying to teach your players.

2. Patience, patience, patience

This is of the utmost importance when teaching a game. You’ve probably had some experience with the game you’re teaching; if not, you’ve read the rulebook a few times under no pressure and with no time limit (because you followed step #1, right?). Well, your students have not. They have no experience, they haven’t studied the rulebook, and they are under time pressure. This means that some things that seem clear to you will be confusing to them. Some things won’t “click” right away, and you’ll have to field many questions, sometimes more than once, throughout the entire game. If a player senses your impatience with them as you clarify a rule for the 4th time, they will not have as much fun. They will feel stupid, and they will feel like the game is too hard for them. This, of course makes it even harder for them to learn as they lose focus.

If you accept that there will be many questions and treat those asking the questions with respect, you will encourage people to learn and not give up.

3. Don’t offer too much right away.

With many games you can get started with a basic overview of the rules, and explain specific situations as they come up. This prevents players from feeling too overwhelmed at the start of the game and allows them to get into the flow of things before they encounter trickier situations. If you can hold off information until it is actually useful, players will have time to grasp the basics, and the trickier stuff will make more sense in context.

It becomes a lot easier to do this when you are more familiar with the game (hence #1), because you know which things are important and which can wait. Of course, sometimes this is impossible – either the rules are just too simple, or it just won’t work if players don’t know essentially everything from the start. You have to make a judgement call, but just consider it as you think about your rules explanation.

4. Don’t offer too little

Players will quickly become frustrated if they look at a board and have no idea what they’re doing at all. You’re going to have to give them clear enough information, and enough of it, so that they can start playing. It’s tricky balancing how much to explain and how much to hold back; but give each section of the rules serious consideration as you prepare to explain it. I’ve seen many a frustrated player cry out, “well I wish I would’ve KNOWN i could do that” when they learn a rule they hadn’t been introduced to yet. You don’t want them to feel like they can’t make their own choices or that you’re just trying to slam them to bits by withholding useful tools from them.

5. Set some goals for the players.

The most important goal, which I usually lead with, is “how to win the game.” Most of the time this is by scoring points – and then I offer a quick overview of how you score points, before diving into the mechanisms of the game. However, it can often help to offer ‘lesser’ goals to the players – strategic tips that will help them be successful and give them clear direction at the start of the game. A good example of this is with Dominion: the objective of the game is to get points by buying Victory cards. But if you leave it at that, players will make terrible choices by buying Estates and Duchies when they can afford them instead of building a better deck to get those provinces. So I usually say, “your goal is to build your deck so that you get valuable hands that let you buy Provinces.” I then offer a quick overview that getting Gold into your hand, and using action cards to build your hand and increase your buying power, is a great way to win – not just buying the point cards at every opportunity. I think Dominion is a lot easier to process when your first goal is to “get a Gold” instead of “buy victory cards” – then, halfway through the game, you can offer more strategic tips, and the player isn’t ruined because they filled their deck with useless cards.

6. Do not read the rulebook verbatim (unless it’s hilarious)

Rulebooks tend to be tedious little monsters that lay on the step-by-step instructions pretty thick. That’s just dandy when you’re reading, studying, and taking time to examine the pieces and run through scenarios; but you don’t have that leisurely time when you’re starting up a new game with friends. And you certainly don’t want to send everyone off to take turns reading the rulebook. Rulebooks are generally not very useful when read aloud; they come with many useful diagrams and they just aren’t designed for the reading circle. The rulebook is a tool to help you learn the game; you need to paraphrase, summarize, and demonstrate the game. Most rulebooks are pretty dry and you’ll lose people pretty quickly. Unless of course it’s the rulebook for Kill Dr. Lucky or any game by Vlaada Chvatil. Even then, your time is probably spent reading the humorous introductions and then going on in to your own rules explanation.

7. Demonstrate demonstrate demonstrate!

If you’re teaching players a game, you better have the board and pieces and cards out in front of everyone. This makes it really easy to show people exactly how something works instead of telling. Visual reinforcement goes a long when in teaching. Don’t be afraid to repeat a demonstration over and over if people don’t seem to be getting it. Give a variety of examples as well, especially when a mechanism can play out in different ways. If it’s easy to do, you can even get the players to try doing it themselves; participating in the physical motion is another great way to help players remember what to do.

8. Think through your explanation beforehand

Something I do every time I get a new game and I plan on introducing it to my friends, I spend a lot of time thinking through how I will teach it. I consider how the rules flow together; what sections make sense together; what order to teach things in. I consider multiple possible ways of explaining different mechanisms; I consider how to break down complex mechanisms into steps that make sense; I consider what goals to offer the players. There’s a lot to be said for just thinking about it, allowing your brain to process the loads of information you’re about to dump on everybody else. This is also something you can do when your mind wanders during the day; in a 30 second elevator ride; on the drive home from work. Squeeze it in, it will help your explanation go smoother.

9. Set up as much as you can beforehand

Nothing slows a game explanation down like trying to set up all the pieces while you’re trying to explain. Multitasking doesn’t really work; if you set up and explain at the same time, your explanation will not be cohesive. If you can’t set up beforehand, it helps to have another person with experience set up while you explain. If you don’t have someone like that, you should probably take a few minutes to set up everything as quickly as you can, and THEN start rules explanation.

10. Practice!

The first time you ever teach a game to someone, it’s probably not going to go that smooth.  But the more you do it, the better at it you’ll get.  Try to remember the above tips; you can even “practice” explaining the rules by speaking to an empty room, just to get used to talking through it all.  Pay attention to when you flop or when players are confused or where you go wrong, and learn from your mistakes.   You can do it! You’ll get it!

To be continued?
All right, you’ve gotten through the explanation. That’s just part I, though. In the next part of the teaching guide (coming next week), I’ll give you help with facilitating the entire first game; how you can handle mistakes and problems, and continue reinforcing rules and offering strategic tips.

You can now read part 2 of this guide here.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. I’ve personally had problems with 3 (Don’t offer too much right away) in the past, especially with games that have a lot of icons. I often want to explain what every single icon means, even if it only shows up on one card. However, I’ve found that most players prefer a brief run down of iconography and are fine using a reference sheet or player aid to look up what icons mean during play.

  2. Nice explanation. I’ve actually played games where no one has told me how to win! Talk about frustrating. I think it’s an important balance making sure they know what their goal is and methods of achieving it, but after a simple explanation the best way to learn any game is to play it.

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