Cold Turkey: The Art of Learning Board Games


I’ll start off this post by admitting that I’m comparably new to board games.  Some people have grown up with board games since they were babies, learning games from their parents and friends.  Sure, I played Monopoly (shudder) and Life as a kid, but it took me up until just recently – a year or so ago – to call myself an actual hobby gamer.  If you’ve read my 1st post, you will know that through high school I had tried some games – Catan, Munchkin, Heroclix – which I enjoyed, buy never really got into (except for Heroclix.  Good golly I spent a lot of money on those.)

I feel fortunate that I kept a pretty solid group of friends through those years.  We all sort of transitioned through various hobbies together.  We played Heroclix, we played Halo, we played Soul Caliber.  And so, when we finally discovered Games Plus and started getting into DnD and Board gaming together… none of us really had a big background in board gaming.  None of us knew which games to start with beyond a few basics (Carcassonne, Settlers) and our first few shots were just guesses.  We picked up some games from other groups, but I lot of the games I own now I simply heard about and took a chance with a purchase.

And that brings me to the main subject of this post:  learning how to play a board game.

Because of the previously described situation, we learned a lot of games in perhaps a unique way – from the instruction manual.

Okay, that’s probably not that unique.  But I think a lot of people learn games by playing with another group that has experience with a game.  It’s definitely a great way to learn – when you encounter those tricky situations where the rules seem unclear, experienced players can offer a quick and usually correct solution without wasting time paging through a booklet looking for that hidden piece of information.

But many of the games our group picks up, we learn from scratch.  Android, Arkham Horror, Cosmic Encounter, Frag, even Dominion – our first few plays were enjoyable, but somewhat painstaking exercises in working through confusing rules and unexpected situations.  Dominion was easy enough, but Frag seemed a little unbalanced, and some moments of Cosmic Encounter were a little bit rough as we worked through the terminology of the game.  Android took hours to explain and longer to play, and Arkham Horror thrashed us through and through.  (Actually, our group has not yet successfully won a game of Arkham without cheating, though it can be assured that this cheating was due to a lack of knowledge of some of the finer points of the rules).

Still, there’s something.. rewarding about piecing together the subtleties of any game, working out the rules, figuring out the strategies, all by yourself.  And I’m sure it’s great exercise for the brain as well.

However I can certainly see the benefit of learning from an experienced player.  Though I’m often assigned the duties of learning the rules of a new game, my Nemesis (the other Jon) is excellent at explaining rules of a game quickly and concisely.  I feel like I understand a game better when he introduces it.  He’s also very good at pointing out some of the basic or key strategies of a game, which is another benefit to learning from an experienced player.  Sometimes games have very important strategies that aren’t always obvious from the get-go.  Learning Cosmic Encounter took a number of playthroughs to start to understand the strategies of offering alliances, attempting negotiations, and preventing others from getting too far ahead.  Carcassonne, which I learned from the Nemesis, made a lot of sense after 1 or 2 playthroughs – perhaps because it was a simpler game, but I think it had a lot to do with the Nemesis offering up some basic strategies.  After all, what good is a nemesis-ery if you’re not somewhat evenly matched?

There can certainly be a downside to learning from an experienced player, though.  Nemesis Jon has told stories of games he learned from friends or relatives during which he was totally creamed, because the experienced players used his inexperience to their advantage.  Instead of helping a new player into the game, these players took advantage of him to feed their egos.  Don’t be that guy.

Learning from scratch can be challenging but rewarding, and perhaps provide a unique insight to a game. On the other hand, it can cause some rough first experiences with a game until the rules are ironed out.

Learning from an experienced player or group can get you up and running faster, but with the wrong person or group a first-time with a new game can be very negative.

So how do you guys learn most of your games?  Do you play with others familiar with the game, or do you like to page through the rulebooks yourselves?  Do you feel that one way is better than the other?  Any other thoughts about it?

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.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. One thing that has really helped me learn a new game is to sit at the table by myself and set everything up as if I was going to play a 2 player game. Then as I’m going through the rulebook I play as both players step by step for as many rounds as it takes me to figure out how the game works. This doesn’t work for games with tricky end games or games that don’t work with 2, but it’s proven to really ingrain the flow in my head.

  2. I’m the “rules guy” in our group because:
    * the games we play are almost all mine
    ** nobody else wants to read manuals
    *** I’m uncomfortable playing a game WITHOUT reading the manual first

    which works out just fine 🙂

  3. Since I have a great game group I almost always play games for the first time with someone else explaining it to me. It might not always be an experienced player as is the case with new games that everyone is pretty much learning together. There are usually go to people that have read the rules to most games and are good at teaching and its great to have them around when a confusing situation comes up.

    The other nice thing about having experienced players is they can give you an idea of what the game is all about and the game play mechanics involved. This way you’ll have a better idea of whether to play or pass on a game you’ve never played before.

    I personally love playing new games. I love figuring out the basic strategies and seeing how all the mechanics of the game tie together. It’s great to develop depth of strategy once you’ve played a game many times but that first time is always a unique experience. On the other hand it’s nice when you know a game to skip the rules explanation and have faster game play.

  4. “Nemesis Jon has told stories of games he learned from friends or relatives during which he was totally creamed, because the experienced players used his inexperience to their advantage. Instead of helping a new player into the game, these players took advantage of him to feed their egos. Don’t be that guy.”

    Seriously, I dislike that guy. This is why I usually try to advocate for playing a few rounds of a game and then restarting. The experienced players nearly always have a huge advantage just because they understand how to play and what the victory conditions are.

    I have way too many other thoughts on this to squeeze into a single comment though. We’ll have to talk about this next time we’re in person.

  5. I’m the dedicated rule reader and game explainer for my group. Usually, I’ll play a sort of test game all by myself so that I can see how it all works before I try explaining it to the group.

    It also allows me to tell people what strategies may or may not work – though admittedly with only one play and only by myself I’m hardly an authority at that point.

  6. Yeah, I agree with Snuggles up there. Having the pieces out and going through a complete round before play can help.

    If I’m the only one at the table with experience on a game what I usually do is simply go first and explain step by step what I’m doing and why. This gets the game started and demonstrates the game flow. Hearing it and seeing it helps way more than just hearing it read out of a book.

    The thing that really bugs me is when someone else at the table decides that they need to explain a rule too and two or more people end up talking at the people new to the game. Its confusing and ends up taking longer.

  7. Running through a turn step by step definitely helps with a lot of games. Some games, though – like Android – are far too complex to just run through a turn without explaining a lot of goals you need to be looking at.

    Cadrach, I totally agree – it can get annoying when someone jumps in while someone else is explaining. It’s definitely a distraction and usually the rule-teacher is going to get to that element anyways. I try to stay out of it when someone else is explaining rules, at least until that person has finished their shtick. Sometimes I throw in a few tidbits after that if I feel like the new player isn’t getting something or if a basic strategy was left out. I probably occassionally cut in in the middle, but I try not to do that.

    It seems like a lot of people have somewhat of a designated “New Game Teacher.”

  8. I’ve been given the explainer role in my family, but mostly because I’m normally the one bringing the new games. I was asked over Christmas to read and explain the rules to Mystery Express by Days of Wonder cold turkey (it was my gift to my sister, at her request). That made it harder, and the sample play by myself would have helped immensely. As it was, the rules were slightly ambiguous on some points, one of the players didn’t like deduction games, and it was all around a bad experience. That’s how I rang in 2011, by the way. 🙂

    I appreciate the shout-out, and that my teaching methods are appreciated.

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