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

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So you’ve gotten through the initial rules explanation and you are ready to start the show. Dice are rolled, pieces are moved, and… things start to veer of course. The game grinds to a halt. Confusion over rules is muddled by other confusion over other rules.

Fortunately, you’re reading this guide, the part II to the initial teaching guide. Below you will find some helpful strategies to help keep your game moving, how to handle rules questions without cheating too much, and other tips to help you master the art of teaching a game once you’ve already started playing.

1. You should go first

Anytime someone claims the first place in turn order, other players call shenanigans. Obviously the first player has the advantage; they get to shoot right out of the gate with no one there to stop them, right? Well, that may be true if you’re playing monopoly or sorry sometimes, but in most hobby games turn order will not dictate the winner.

The key reason for the most experienced player going first is that the new player gets to see someone who knows what they’re doing make a decision before they have to. This means they won’t get stuck on their first turn with absolutely 0 clue what to do.

This doesn’t actually have to mean “you” specifically go first. Any experienced player will do. In fact in a game with 3 experienced players and 1 new player, I will always try to have the new player go last, so they can see more turns pan out before they have to do anything.

This way they can see clear examples of the in game turn structure, in practice. They see sample starting moves. They don’t have to start from scratch in their minds; they’ve seen what some others have done. Even if they can’t get an immediate, overarching strategy by viewing one turn, they can start, and starting is the most important thing.

2. Dictate what you are doing and why

As you go through your first turn and any future turn where you do something new, or even the second time you’re doing something, clearly state the steps you are taking and why you are taking them. This will reinforce the turn structure, the steps that need to be followed, and offer strategic tips without having to shovel explicit directions for the new players down their throats. They want to learn and have an idea of what’s going on, but they don’t want to feel like someone is playing their game for them. Explaining what you’re doing and why gives some insight into the purpose behind your actions.

For example, take Cosmic Encounter, which has a fairly straightforward turn structure. It also has a lot of steps, which can be intimidating. but if you say:

Okay, step 1 is Regroup, which means I get a ship back from the warp. Next is Destiny, so I draw a card from the destiny deck. See, I flipped over green, so now when I Launch i choose a planet in the Green system and I can put up to 4 ships on it. Then, I get to invite allies…” and so and and so forth, performing the actions as you talk about them, that puts a lot of context into what’s going on.

3. Enforce proper procedure

Dominion was one of the first hobby games I got into, and so I was pretty inexperienced when teaching it to my friends. Now, I see a lot of bad habits – playing cards directly into the discard pile, dropping their “dead” cards from their hands into the discard or into the play area while they play the rest of their cards, not clearly revealing the treasure that they’re using to buy. None of this stuff is particularly a big deal, especially when playing with the base set alone.

However, as you play Dominion more, you will find scenarios where this stuff does matter. Where you end up shuffling your discard pile halfway through your hand, even though you just played all your cards into it. Counting how many cards are in your hand or your play area. There are a wide variety of this situations which can get very confusing if players aren’t doing it right.

So players need to practice doing it right even when it doesn’t matter as much. You need to get them into the habit of proper turn procedure and proper form. As pretentious as that may sound, if players are doing it right when it doesn’t matter it will make the times that it does matter that much easier to deal with. When they’re not doing it right the game can grind to a halt as players have to step back and figure out what’s going on. 3 years, and I’m still working on getting some players into the right habits in Dominion.

4. Remind players of tricky rules or out-of-the-way actions

Some games have rules that allow you to do certain things that you normally can’t do, or that just aren’t within the standard set of actions and thus are easy to forget. Don’t forget to remind players of these special actions that they can do, especially when it might be a good time to do those things. There can be a lot going on and when a new player is just struggling with learning the rules, they might miss something and feel like they missed out. But if you point out the special rules, they might be able to do something pretty cool. Doing something cool in a game is fun, and will likely draw the player in further, making them more excited about a game and more willing to play again.

5. Point out strategic options

Sometimes it’s easy to miss a great opportunity or just do something stupid because it’s not obvious the first time you play. As a teacher, your first responsibility is to teach, not to clobber your opponents into oblivion. We all know you could kick their butts, but how is that going to help them have fun and come back again and again? And is it really all that satisfying to destroy someone because they don’t know what they’re doing?

If you want a challenge, if you want to bring players back, if you want them to have fun, point out the less obvious things that will help them. Yes, in some cases that does mean pointing out a move you just made and warning them to watch out because you can do such-and-such if they ignore you there. Give them honest, real advice they can use and learn from. Avoid manipulating them to do what you as a player want them to do, and give them real guidance as a teacher who is willing even to lose to a newbie.

6. Watch for flops

Sometimes you bring a game to a group and it fails to launch. Maybe the group just doesn’t get it; maybe it’s not their style. Maybe they just hate it for some unknown reason. If the game you’re teaching is hitting the ground hard, be willing to hit the eject button. Not every game is for every group, and if you end a bad experience quickly, you’re more likely to convince the group to try something else. If they know you wont force them into something they don’t enjoy, they’ll take more risks. And they may even be willing to give the game another shot some day. But, if you drag the experience out you’re going to lose them, and that’s no good.

On that note, don’t hold a grudge if people don’t like a game that you do. It’s better to know what they like and they don’t so you can bring the right games to the right group. And, as my wife likes to say, if they tell you when they don’t like a game, you know they’re being honest when they do like a game. Hopefully if you love a game you’ll have a group somewhere you can play it with, but in the long run it’s better to bring the games that everyone (or at least as many people as possible) can enjoy.

7. Remind players of the goals

It can be easy to for a new player to get distracted just by figuring out all the rules, and forget the ultimate goal of a game even if you told them one time already. This is especially necessary in games with lots of shiny parts or cool things you can do. Take for example Dominion. In Dominion there are a lot of cool cards that look fun to play. However, if you spend too much time buying the fun action cards, you probably won’t have a great deck and you won’t be very successful. Remind players that they need to buy provinces when they can in order to win.

This applies to any game, because most games allow you to do fun things. It’s okay to allow them to try strategies that might not be the best or do crazy things (heck, you might even learn a new out-of-the-box strategy from them by accident), but make sure to bring them back to the ultimate goal.

8. Point it out when they do something intelligent

Players learning new games generally feel like they have no idea what they’re doing. Some people can work with that pretty easily; others will feel hopelessly outgunned. Regardless, it’s a good idea to point out to someone when they have made an intelligent choice, pulled of a cool maneuver, or done something otherwise interesting, exciting, or useful within the board game. This will not only reinforce those intelligent, cool things that they did, but it will help the person feel like they’re starting to understand what’s going on. Encouragement breeds positive feelings which, in turn makes it more likely the players will come back for more. Doing something cool also makes for more memorable experiences that you can talk about later (another reason why I like to re-live cool moments from all players during and after the game, regardless of experience level.)

Pointing out their successes will help players feel like they CAN succeed, and telling them why it was cool can help them understand the game and remember the rules even better. So do it!

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Perhaps the most important thing to remember when teaching a game is that you’re not just teaching people the rules. You’re trying to give them an enjoyable experience that they will want to come back to. We don’t teach our friends and family games so that we can play it once and then throw the box in the garbage. We play games so we can have fun together, create memorable experiences, and challenge each other in a safe competitive environment.

On that note, I’d like to add one more major point to the list – this is something you should do when teaching AND while playing, and it’s a harsh rule I learned clearly just recently when teaching a new game to my parents.

Make Sure Your Players Understand What Kind of Game They’re Playing

Different games have different “feels” to them. Kill Doctor Lucky is a much different experience than Ticket to Ride, which is much different than Cosmic Encounter, which is much different than Escape. No matter what, people will have expectations when they go into a game, and if their expectations are way off base, it can ruin the experience. A game might not normally be a flop in your group, but if it’s not the game players are expecting to play, it might crash and burn anyways. Is it a brain-burning euro? A friendly cooperative game? A tense negotiation game? A humorous, lighthearted family game? Knowing what you’re playing is extremely important.

Never has this been hammered home to me so clearly as when I taught my parents Galaxy Trucker the other day. I mentioned to them that it was a silly game, but I did not make it clear enough that the game shouldn’t be taken too seriously; that your ship would fall apart and be blown to pieces and you’d be lucky to have any ship left at all by the end of each round.

No, I did not make it clear enough at all, and so when we were playing they were quickly frustrated by the wanton destruction, by the poor luck they seemed to be having, and when asteroids and weapons blew sizable chunks of their ships to space truck heaven. The game ground to an awkward halt; they weren’t having any fun.

We decided to call the game after playing two of the three rounds, and while I’m not sure the real-time nature of the game is right for them in the end, I believe the experience would have been drastically more enjoyable for everyone if I had made it clear what kind of game this was. I could sense the awkwardness and frustration in the air. But, when we tallied up our scores after the game end, they were surprised at how relatively close it was. And then, when I read the line from the rulebook that states “everyone who finishes the game with more than 0 credits wins!” it suddenly ‘clicked’ with them. I don’t know if Galaxy Trucker will ever make it back to my parent’s dinner table, or if it will work for them. But I do wish I had emphasized the silly destructiveness of the game, that the point of it was the humor of watching people’s ships fall apart, and that it wasn’t really about building an impenetrable ship that would survive all these crazy attacks. If I had, we all would have had a lot more fun.

So let that be a lesson to you all: make sure your players know what to expect.

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That’s all I have for now. I’m constantly practicing and learning new things about teaching. Hopefully all of these tips will help your teaching go smoother and faster and get your players into more games; just remember, have fun and try to help your players have fun as well. That’s what board games are all about.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions, or anything to add to the topic!

Read part 1 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.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. This is brilliant. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of going first when I’m teaching a game–it’s so obvious and correct, but it never occurred to me. I also particularly like the advice of pointing out when players make good moves. That’s a good way to reinforce good strategy and make them feel good about trying a new game.

  2. I like your last point: make sure players know the kind of game they’re playing. There are different genre expectations depending on what’s chosen (just like books), and it’s helpful for players to know which story they’re in.

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