So, You Got a Board Game for Christmas. Now What?


Now that the holidays have passed and the dust is beginning to settle, you may be looking at that shiny new board game your bonkers cousin gifted you (or you won in some sort of Dirty Santa enterprise) and which you promptly stashed in a corner because… What are you going to do with that? It looks nothing like the games you’ve seen at the local super-mart or drug store. It looks… Kind of scary.

Or, you made a New Year’s resolution to spend more analog quality time with family and friends. In the rush of this great idea, you headed to the hobby game shop and bought some board games because they looked cool, or the shopkeeper told you they were “sure things.” And then you stashed them in a corner because… Now that you look at them, they look kind of complicated. And your family is looking at you like you’ve lost your mind because they’ve never played anything that looks like that before. 

Whatever happened, you’ve got a brand new modern board game in your house and, like an unruly pet, you’ve banished it to a corner because you just don’t know what to do with it. While there are rules in the box, no one’s stapled a handy, “Care and Feeding of Your New Board Game” pamphlet to the box and you have no idea how to start.

Have no fear. I’m here to help. So before you go looking (or asking) for the receipt to return the game, read on.

Depending on which game you’ve acquired, it may indeed be complicated. Or, it may only appear that way. There are many modern board games that appear complicated at first if you aren’t familiar with the concepts laid out in the rules, but are quickly mastered by anyone who can read. If you’re reading this, you can figure out a modern board game. Even the most difficult ones. Trust me. 

Modern board games range from very simple family games all the way up to extremely complicated, hours-long festivals of rules and chits. Hopefully, you have not managed to acquire one of these for your first game. But, even if your crazy cousin was clueless enough to gift you a complex game, there is still hope. If you want to learn it, you can. It may take a little patience and effort, but this is true of learning any new skill or hobby. You don’t start out knitting full sweaters, or making complex woodworking creations, do you? No, you start with the basics and learn as you go. So it is with modern board games. 

So, what do you do with this board game thing that’s now living in your house? 

First, go get the game out of the corner. It won’t bite. (I know for a fact that board games like attention.) I’ll wait. 

Next, remove the shrink wrap and open the box. Do not freak out if there are a lot of components in there, or if the rulebook seems large or filled with lots of steps. Do not shove the lid back on and say, “This is just too hard. Forget it.” (And please, for the love of Mike, do not go leave a negative review on Amazon saying, “This looks too hard. One star!”) Set aside a little time because we’re going to work through that initial anxiety. 


Read through the rules as you punch out and inventory the parts

Now that you’ve got the box open, you’ll probably have to punch out some cardboard and inventory all the parts. Make sure everything that’s listed in the rulebook is present. Mistakes happen in packaging and missing components can be a hindrance to successfully playing the game. You don’t want your first gaming experience marred because the most-needed card in the game isn’t there. (If you’re missing parts, look up the publisher online. Most will send you replacement parts for free without you having to return the game to the store.)

Assuming everything’s there, read through the rules as you sort out the components. Start making a mental map of how the components interact with the rules you’re reading. This will help you visualize how everything is going to work together when you actually play the game. If the game is really complex, you might need to read through the rules multiple times before it gels in your brain. 

Set it up and learn

You can do this alone and then teach the other members of your group, or you can have everyone sit around the table and work through the rules together. Set the game up like you’re really going to play and then work through the rules, taking a couple of sample turns to get a feeling for how the game flows. Let everyone ask questions. Hint: Food and drink make this process a lot more fun, so offer up.

Hit YouTube.

If the rules are really giving you trouble, try to find a “How to Play” video on YouTube. Many of the most popular games have rules explanation videos, and you can probably find one for an obscure title, too. Watch the video and see how the explainer deals with the areas that are giving you problems. 


If you’re still unsure about the rules, go to this website, enter your game in the search box, and browse the Rules forum. There you’re likely to find that someone else had the same question and some helpful BGG’ers posted the answer. If you can’t find what you need, it’s simple to create an account and ask your question. (Many times rules videos are also posted here in the Videos section for each game.)

Be a good teacher

Make sure you can explain the game if the other potential players haven’t seen it yet. Play through the game a few times until you’re sure of the rules. Nothing ruins a new game faster than the teacher stumbling around a making a hash out of the rules. Learn it cold yourself before you teach someone else. 

Don’t play to win or lose on the first go.

If the game is a little intimidating, either because of the rules complexity or because there are a lot of moving parts to manage, take the stakes out of the first couple of games. Just agree to play it through and if mistakes are made, so be it. Correct them and move on. The first games are learning experiences, not go-for-the-throat grudge matches. That can come later. For now, just get comfortable with how turns work, how the various parts of the game work together, how scoring is handled, and what triggers the end of the game. Discuss potential strategy with other players, or play with open hands so others can see why you might be choosing certain actions. Don’t worry about keeping your strategy secret; learning time isn’t the time for secrecy. It’s a time to be helpful. Repeat as often as necessary to get players comfortable with the game. 

By now you should be starting to see that the modern board game isn’t at all scary. Sure, it’s maybe a bit more advanced than Clue or the Game of LIFE, but you are probably well on your way to figuring it out. Even if you ended up with a very complex game, you should be beginning to see how the parts work together. You’re on your way to a successful game night!

Now, what happens if it turns out that this game you got is super fun and everyone loves this new board gaming thing? Where do you go from here? On to more games, of course. But tread carefully. Many people have been bitten by the board game love bug, only to see their wallets shrivel and their closets explode under the enthusiasm for their new hobby. Remember: You don’t have to buy everything at once. Nor should you. 

Also remember that playing games is a social thing, so be sure to include your gaming partners in the discussion about where to go next. Make sure that the people you’ll play with most agree with future game purchases. You want to get things that everyone is happy to play. Don’t buy just what you want. That way lies wasted money and angry friends/family. 

So, start by figuring out what you and your group liked/disliked about the game you just mastered. Look for games that match your taste. Maybe you liked the simplicity, or you hated the monsters. Maybe you loved the theme, or hated the inch-thick rulebook. Maybe it was too short, or too long. You loved rolling the dice, but hated flipping so many cards. Narrow down what you do and don’t want from your next game. 

Once you’ve figured out some preferences, there are a few places to ask for more recommendations. (mentioned above) is the big resource in the hobby, and they have a huge database of games spanning decades. They also have forums where you can post questions and ask for recommendations. It’s a huge site and overwhelming at first, but a little time spent browsing around should orient you pretty quickly. If that’s not your style, Reddit has a subreddit for board games

If you’re fortunate enough to have a game store in your area, you can ask for help there. Either the owners or other patrons should be able to help. The store may also have game nights where you can come in and try some games with other patrons. 

You may be really lucky and have a game cafe in your town. If so, you’re all set because these places let you play all the games you want, usually for a nominal fee. The owners and patrons are usually very knowledgeable and can direct you to good games to try. 

If you were gifted the game by a friend or relative, ask them for ideas. Chances are if they gifted you a modern board game, they are involved in the hobby in some way, so they should be able to guide you. Don’t be bashful: They gave you the thing, so they owe you some help.

Failing any of this, you may be able to find board game meetups in your area. Board Game Geek can help with this, and you can also look on sites like or Facebook. Local community centers like libraries and senior centers may offer board game nights as part of their social calendars. Look around. This hobby is growing and there are bound to be groups out there.

Trying before you buy is the optimal way to wade into the hobby. Games aren’t cheap and it stinks to get stuck with a dud. But, for some people without game stores/cafes, you just have to learn as much as you can about a game online and then take a leap of faith. Most of us have done this plenty of times and had it pay off. It’s scary, but as long as you move slowly it shouldn’t be too detrimental to your budget or space. Read a lot of reviews and watch videos to see if the game aligns with your wants. And, again, make sure that it will satisfy your fellow players. 

Board gaming as a hobby is exploding in popularity. It’s a great way to introduce some human contact in an increasingly digital world. Sure, it’s not for everyone, so don’t feel bad if you just don’t care for it after trying a few games. But don’t write it off on the basis of one game that you didn’t like, either. There are thousands of games out there for every level of experience and interest. Try at least a couple before deciding that the whole thing isn’t for you. 

It may turn out that your crazy cousin did you a huge favor by giving you that game this Christmas. And it may turn out that you are a freaking genius for bringing your family together over the gaming table. New hobbies and change are often intimidating, but you just may find that there is a huge reward for learning to love that scary game hiding in the corner. 

(Image by Bernd Marczak from Berlin)

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Jennifer,

    If you ever find yourself visiting Philadelphia or D.C., I invite you to our Gaming Groups . You seem like a great gamer and absolutely wonderful ambassador of our industry.

    The Professor’s Lab

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: