Maybe you’ve been there. A friend has invited you to play this great new game. You’re excited. The theme is awesome, the artwork even better and this game just looks like it’s going to be fantastic to dive right into.
Two hours later you are sitting there glassy-eyed, trying to figure out a way you can politely leave because you have yet to complete one single round of the game. Your friend, however, is still reading the rule book… out loud. Any time you ask a question the response is “I don’t know” followed by endless page flipping and text scanning of the rules.
Don’t be that guy!
Board gaming is awesome but sometimes teaching how to play can feel like a drag….to the people you are trying to teach at least. So whenever you are about to teach a designer game to a group of friends, especially if anyone in the group is new to gaming – follow these quick tips for how to teach board games.
1. Before Game Day
Learn the game
This should go without saying, but unless you are teaching a game to die-hard gamers or people who are just really interested in the game theme, you MUST know how to play the game before trying to explain it to other people. This doesn’t mean you have to have played it with other people, but it means you must have enough knowledge of the rules and the layout of the rule book to be able to at least quickly find the answers to any questions that might come up.
If a game box says play time is 90 minutes and absolutely no one at the table knows how to play the game… you can easily expect that game to go to 3 hours – and you may lose a few players along the way.
Whenever I buy a new game I always look for online videos that explain the rules, then I go through the rules cover-to-cover… TWICE. Once I’ve done that, I set the game up on the table as a standard game and then I play as ALL players. I don’t necessarily complete the game this way, but playing just a few rounds gives me an excellent understanding of the basic game mechanics and concepts. This, in turn, helps me better explain it to the group on game night.
Build an Outline
Not all rule books are created equal. Some are great and explain everything in an order that is logical. Some…. not so much. Once I know how a game rolls, I sketch out a quick outline that I then use to explain the game to my friends. It usually flows like this:
- Theme (Basic intro to Cards, Bits, Chits, and Pieces – Tell players what each of these cards ARE – not what they DO)
- Goal (How do you win – How do you lose)
- Quick Overview of How End is Reached (What triggers the end of the game)
- Individual Mechanics (Now hit the details – explain how actions work, what the cards/bits/pieces do, what the phases are, what a turn looks like, etc.)
It may seem a little backwards to talk about the End of the game so early on in the rules explanation, but if you finish explaining a game and someone asks “So… how do you win?” You did it wrong.
Think of it this way – when you give someone directions to a location, you both start with the knowledge of the final destination. I find that people grasp the game much more intuitively if they know their goal from the outset of the rules explanation. The rest of the time you’re just giving them information on how to get there.
2. On Game Day
Set up the game
I find that having the game set up before I launch into a rules spiel ends up being a huge time-saver. If you are trying to teach the game while setting it up, it is easy to get distracted from your outline.
Speaking of distractions….
Anytime someone asks a question that you are going to cover later, tell them you are going to hit it in a minute and keep moving forward. Sometimes I ask players to save their questions till the end as it often saves a lot of time.
This next tip may seem a bit jerk-like to some… but I don’t think it is rude to ask players to keep their phones put away during rules explanations. I don’t always do this but if I had a dollar for each of times someone has said “You never said I could do that!” when I know for sure that I did but they were too busy on their phone… I could afford a couple more games this year.
Play a Practice Round
Depending on the game and how much setup is involved, it doesn’t hurt to play 1 or 2 rounds just so that all players can get the mechanics. During these rounds you can keep all information visible and players are free to ask questions since it is not the actual game. Once you have completed a couple of rounds, reset the board and start again. This is something that has worked really well whenever I have done it. It helps people understand the mechanics so that they can start to focus on strategy during the actual game.
3. After Game Day
To some, explaining rules can be arduous, to others it’s an adventure. It is most assuredly an art form. That means you can get better at it by developing your skills and finding the systems that work best for you. It’s totally ok to ask people how they felt you did explaining the rules. Take note of the times people seemed to be lost and confused and see if there may be a better way to avoid that in the future. Learn to take constructive criticism and apply it to the next time you teach.
Re-check the rules
I can’t tell you the number of times that I have gone over the rules the day after playing the game for the first time only to realize that I missed something important. In fact, my brother and I played Ground Floor 3 times before I noticed something we had been doing wrong. Don’t be afraid of these mistakes – but be sure you correct them when you play again with friends. Otherwise you might be teaching people “house rules” without even knowing it.
There you have it! If you are overwhelmed at the idea of explaining rules to a group of people start off slow. Take a simpler game like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne and try that first. Then you can move on to some of the more complicated ones. And just like anything in life, the more you do it, the better you will get.
Now go…. play games!