We all love new board games! Opening up a game as an adult is similar in many ways to the sensory thrill of opening up a new toy as a child. It’s fresh! It’s shiny! It smells like new game! We love getting new games so much, that I’m sure many people reading this have bought more than they’re even able to play. So, getting a new game is fun, but OH. You have to learn it. Not only do you have to learn it, you’ll have to teach it.
The way you teach a game is much more important than you might think. The simple fact is this: learning the game will be most players’ first experience with it, so a bad teaching session can ruin a game for someone before it’s even played. Now yes, it would be ideal if people could put aside their prejudices and say, “even though learning this game was a mess, I can see how it could be fun once I understand it all,” but the reality is that a lot of people won’t give a game that second chance if their learning experience was a mess. If a game is explained badly, it will make it seem like it’s the game that’s the problem, and not the teacher. If that’s the impression that your players have, good luck recruiting them to play again.
So, do you suck at explaining games? Don’t worry, I’ll help make everything feel better. I’m “that” guy in our group, the one that teaches almost every single new game that comes to the table. Over hundreds of teaching sessions, I’ve learned some techniques that will help anyone who wants to teach a game. Let’s do this.
1 – Learn How to Play the Game Before You Teach Others
This one should be self-explanatory, but unfortunately for some people, it’s not.
LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE GAME BEFORE YOU TEACH IT.
In other words, don’t invite people over for games, and then have them walk in on a sealed, unopened game. The thing is, most games, even if they’re simple in practice, take a while to learn if you’ve never played them before. Reading the rulebook can be an arduous process, and more often than not, you need to play a “practice round” by yourself to even understand some of the concepts. Game night will be more fun for everybody involved if you take this burden upon yourself before they show up. The exception is if your group WANTS to learn the game from scratch together, but the vast majority of people prefer to be taught by somebody who already understands.
There are plenty of ways to learn a game by yourself. I like to do the good ol’ fashioned “rulebook” method. Every game can be learned from its rulebook, though some are much better than others. I like to “play” the game with myself as I learn it, though only certain types of games allow for this. If you want a better picture of how to play, you can try checking out Youtube tutorials. Watch it Played, for example, is a popular Youtube channel for learning how to play games.
Regardless of how you learn it, make sure you understand the game as best as you can BEFORE you invite people over to learn it. Nobody wants to come play Twilight Imperium only to find out that you haven’t even opened it. Don’t be that guy.
2 – One Person Teaches, and One Person Only
This one is huge. Some of the most disastrous teaching sessions I’ve seen have been when multiple people try to take up the teaching mantle. One person should teach the game, and it should be whoever is best at teaching.
The reason why it’d bad to have multiple teachers is that there is usually a lot to process when you’re learning a new game, and it’s most effective when concepts are explained to you in an orderly, logical way. There are a lot of different ways that you can teach a game, but if you choose one, you need to stick to it. The problem happens when you have a “structure” for your teaching, and then somebody jumps in and starts going off about some tangential nonsense that’s not at all relevant in the moment. It’s likely, if you’re teaching, that you’ve got a plan to cover everything. Make sure your fellow players understand that. If concepts are explained at the wrong times, then players can become easily confused and flustered.
The exception to this is when the main teacher sucks at teaching. If the person playing does a terrible job at explaining, then it might be important to replace him or her with someone else. Even in this case, however, it’s usually best if someone just takes over, rather than interjecting every other moment to clarify the bad teacher’s subpar explanation. If someone can explain concepts more clearly and cohesively, it’s likely they naturally have a better idea of how to lay the concepts out in general. Don’t be afraid to step aside is someone else can do a better job.
3 – Explain the Objective of the Game First, and Keep Coming Back to it.
This is simple–the players need to know WHY they’re making choices in the game you’re explaining. Every game has a central objective, a win condition that players need to strive for. It’s easier than you might think to miss that when you’re explaining a game, leaving a players with a knowledge of how to do everything, but confused on why. It’s incredibly important to not only explain the objective, but to keep coming back to it as you teach new concepts.
For most games, the objective can be pretty clear. For example, X-Wing’s goal is simple: kill your opponent. However, some games have SO many choices, SO much variety of action, SO many possible strategies, that it can be easy to overlook the actual point of the game when you’re explaining them.
Eclipse is a great example of this (you can read a rundown of the rules in our review here). The object of the game in Eclipse is to have as many points as possible at the end of the game. However, Eclipse’s victory points don’t really jump out at you. You get some by posessing certain tiles, , or you can win them in battle. You can get some by upgrading your tech tree, or by buying them through monoliths. At the end of the game, they’re all added up and that’s that. The thing is, Eclipse has such a satisfying sense of exploration, expansion, and combat that it’s easy to forget what’s actually earning you points. The Galactic Center tile, for instance, is the best tile in the game, and it’s got sweet bonuses for anyone who occupies it. I’ve seen more than one game where players build up huge opposing armies to get that Galactic Center because it just “feels” right. In reality, there are often easier, simpler options for acquiring VPs in Eclipse that will give you a higher net gain for less effort. If the object of the game isn’t taught well to players, then it might be easy for them to overlook things like this.
Explaining the object of the game provides a context for everything else you teach. Let’s go back to Eclipse. You would want the players to know that the game is about getting points, and tell them that your actions in this game, are a means to that end. Take exploring, for example. Let’s compare what an average teacher would say, compared to a good one:
“When you explore, you get to reveal a new tile. Outer tiles are generally less risky, but give you less rewards. Inner tiles are a bit more dangerous, but give you better stuff.”
This isn’t wrong. In Eclipse, inner tiles are usually more valuable in terms of the resources they give you, and with a slightly higher chance of running into opposition. However, tiles give you victory points, but that’s easy to overlook when they also give you resources, which are used for almost literally every other mechanic in the game. In the thick of teaching, the resources probably seem more important, but then the player might miss out on the actual object of the game, which is having more points. Let’s examine what a good teacher might say:
“When you explore, you get to reveal a new tile. Every tile can give you certain bonuses, such as victory points and resources. Outer tiles are generally less risky, but give less VPs and sparser resources. Inner tiles are a bit more dangerous, but give you more points and a higher concentration of resources. Remember that the player with the most VPs wins the game, so make sure you’re paying attention to the VP values of each tile.”
See the difference there? The same concept is explained, but it highlights the point of the game. For a game like Eclipse, you would always want to re-mention the object of the game any time you’re dealing with a mechanic that’s connected with VPs. This cements into people’s heads of what they’re trying to do, and why.
In regards to the object of the game, the easiest way to miss the mark is to only mention it at the beginning. Players usually have tons of concepts at once, so if they’re told the object of the game, and then 500 other mechanics, it’s possible that they would have forgotten it by the time you finish. That’s why it’s important to not only lead off with it, but to explain why every action would bring you closer to winning.
4 – Explain Concepts First, and Details Later
One of the most important things in teaching a game is relevance. This is why explaining the game in a certain order is important–if players are given information that’s not relevant, it won’t stick with them at best, and it will confuse and frustrate them at worst. The devil is in the detail with most games, so it’s important to explain all those little nitpicky details. BEFORE you do so, however, make sure that the players understand the most basic concepts, are all of those itty bitty little details won’t have relevance, and you’ll have wasted your time.
Start off with the object of the game, and explain the basic round/turn structure without going into great detail.
Let’s use Kemet as an example, a game that I’ve only just recently learned. Kemet is a great example, because despite the astounding quality of the game, the rulebook is quite terrible, and it was only after reading through the entire thing that I understood the basic flow of the game, and why you’re doing certain actions.
Let’s look at our two teachers again, and how they might cover the game from the onset, but this time, let’s start with the good teacher:
“Kemet is a conflict/area control game. The object of the game is to be the first player to reach eight points. You can earn points in various ways, such as controlling areas on the board, fighting other players, and buying upgrades; these will explained more thoroughly a little later.
The game is broken into rounds. Every round, players take turns taking actions. You have five action tokens. Each turn, you’ll place a token on an action space on your board, which will play that action. These actions allow you to do certain things that will help you to gain victory points, which I’ll also explain in more detail later. Once every player has used all of their actions, a new round begins, and this continues until a player has reached eight points, which ends the game.”
The first teacher explains the basic concepts and structure of the game, and sets up a precedence for more complicated details to be covered later. From here, the teacher could slowly start adding onto the foundation of what they’ve taught. A good progression would be to move on to the general methods of obtaining victory points. Due to the nature of Kemet, it would still be hard to explain these in full detail, so the teacher could touch on the basic ideas, and then remark how they will make more sense a bit later as they explain what each specific action does. As they explain the actions, they would use our advice in point 2 and tie them into the object of the game, which is acquiring victory points. Player confusion on VP acquisition would slowly be cleared up, and at the same time, more and more details of the game would be taught. Let’s look at the bad teacher:
“Kemet is a conflict/area control game. The object of the game is to be the first player to reach eight points. There are six ways to earn points. The first is by attacking. If you move one of your squads into an enemy space, it will start a battle. If you win a battle that you start, you’ll get a permanent victory point. You won’t get the point if you lose the battle, or if you win when you’re defending (you have to be attacking). You can also get a point from buying a Victory Point power tile. These tiles on the side of the board can be bought with your prayer points, but only if your pyramid is strong enough, and the pyramid has to be the right color. So if you want to buy this red level 4 victory point card, you have to upgrade your red pyramid to 4, which will take two actions and you also have to pay the equivalent prayer points for each level, so a level 4 pyramid upgrade costs four prayer points. Once you have that you can buy the victory point power tile, but you also have to take an action to do it and pay 4 prayer points. The next way to earn points is[…]”
See the difference here? Pretend that you’re a new Kemet player, and ask yourself if you wouldn’t be left with questions after hearing the spiel above. Once again, the teacher isn’t wrong, but he’s teaching principles in an unwieldy way that brings up concepts before they become relevant. For example, how do you move a squad? How does a battle work? Why did he say that the VP was permanent? Are there temporary ones? Wait, what are prayer points? How do I get them?
If the player were to actually ask these questions during the process, a bad teacher might immediately try to answer them. Now he’s explaining all the actions in detail without the player even understanding how and why they factor into the game! A better teacher would say “Good questions, these things will make a bit more sense later, so we’ll get back to them eventually.” However, an even better teacher would prevent these questions from coming up in the first place by explaining the concepts in such an order where the instruction flows logically and orderly.
While this is something where you kind of have to use your intuition, a general rule of thumb is to give an “explain like I’m 5” explanation of the game before getting more complicated. The most important thing is to not mention specific mechanics until they’re relevant, and if you must, to let the players know that you’ll get back to those ideas. Order is very important in teaching, and screwing it up can ruin the entire teaching session.
5 – Ask Questions and Verify Your Players’ Comprehension
“Does that make sense?”
If you were to ask anyone I’ve explained a game to, they would probably tell you that this question pops up at least a hundred different times. It’s important to verify how well your players are understanding your instruction. This is pretty simple–you just ask. Most players will let you know if they don’t get something, or they will just ask straight away. Either way, it’s better to ask for understanding 100 times over when it’s not needed, than to not ask it at all when it is needed.
Some players, for whatever reason, might be timid about this, and they might not be honest when you check for understanding. You’ll have to use discernment here, and most of the time, it’s easy to tell when something isn’t clicking. However, you can also help to avoid this problem by establishing a comfortable atmosphere before you start teaching. By saying from the very beginning something like, “this is a complicated game, and it can be really difficult to understand at times, so don’t be afraid to let me know if something isn’t clicking. That’s totally fine, it took me a while to learn this game too,” you can help other players to ease up and be more open about their misunderstandings.
Whether you use my phrase or one of your own, just make sure you’re always checking back with them. It’s never fun to spend half an hour teaching a game, only to find that it went in one ear and out the other.
6 – Recognize Your “Need to Know Basis” Information
For most games, everything can be explained before you start playing, but there are definitely exceptions, and this is what I like to call “need to know basis” information. Not everything needs to be taught before you play the game. Save this stuff for when it becomes relevant. A good example would be the Development Cards in Catan: Cities and Knights. There’s a giant slew of development cards, all of which bestow different effects onto the players. Sitting there and explaining them would take forever, and it’s not information that players need to know until they actually draw the card. Development cards are reactionary events, and they don’t affect your game in any way until they’re drawn. This is “need to know” information.
On the other hand, Cities and Knights has different types of development cards. Green cards facilitate your growth and expansion, yellow cards enhance your trading abilities, and blue cards give you offensive abilities. This is information you should share, because that affects player strategy. For example, putting cities down on wood hexes will give you higher odds of getting green cards. If you really want to expand in Cities and Knights, you’d do well to focus on getting green cards. That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to know what all the green cards are.
If having knowledge of a certain mechanic can affect your strategy, it should be taught. If the mechanic is irrelevant until it comes into play, save it. For the most part, this usually applies to special abilities that are seen on cards and so forth. However, there can also be other applications. Sometimes certain rules have certain exceptions, and these quite often don’t need to be taught unless players start flirting with their contextual trigger. Regardless of what you choose to explain, the point here is that some stuff is on a need to know basis, and skipping that stuff can significantly reduce teaching time.
7 – Give Examples
No matter how good you are at explaining something, using examples will always make it better. Show, don’t tell, when you’re teaching. For most games, this is easily possible. It’s not like you have to set up an entire game to do it–you can simply grab whatever components are necessary to make a quick, three second demonstration of whatever you’re talking about.
Imperial Assault is a game that’s very visual. Every action that you can take is well represented on the board, and this is a great example to show off the rules that you’re explaining. To demonstrate how this can be effective, I’ll do it right here. The following paragraphs are what you might say if you were teaching Imperial Assault’s combat. The picture underneath will demonstrate the description, as if it were being shown in person. Read the description before you look at the picture, and then take a look and ask yourself how much more sense it makes.
“When a unit declares an attack, first he has to be able to see the figure. To draw line of sight, a figure must draw two lines from a single corner of its own space, and connect them, without impediments, to two different corners of the opponent’s space. After the attack is declared, the attacker and defender both roll their specified dice. There are attack dice and defense dice. Attack dice have “hit” marks on them; each one deals one damage to the enemy, but can also be blocked by a “block” result on the defense die. Every “block” negates a “hit.”
However, attackers can also add special modifications to their attacks which are triggered by “surge” icons on the attack dice. Every unit has different surge abilities that are listed on their card. These abilities can also be blocked by defending dice if the circular “surge cancel” icon is rolled. One surge cancel negates one surge.
Surge abilities can add damage, apply “harmful conditions,” or modify the attack roll. Harmful conditions, such as stun (which removes one of the figure’s actions on its next round), can only be applied if a minimum of one damage was successfully dealt. Attack modifications, such as Pierce (which negates a defense block) might increase your odds of hitting.
Finally, you have to be able to have accuracy to hit your enemy. Your required accuracy is equivalent to the number of spaces that you are away from the enemy. The numbers on the attack dice represent your rolled accuracy; if you roll greater than or equal to your accuracy, the attack hits. Otherwise, it misses, regardless of the rest of the results.”
If you’ve never played Imperial Assault before, it’s possible that it’s hard to visualize this description. At worst, it might look like rocket science, and at best, it might be understandable, but fairly heavy and easily forgettable if there’s no visual representation to back it up. Now, look at this picture, and tell me if it isn’t a lot easier to process:
If you’re still greatly confused after seeing the picture, then I suppose I fail as a writer to convey this point. I hope that’s not the case, but the simple fact is that visual examples almost always help people to learn, so don’t just tell your players the rules and expect them to remember. Show them the components, show them examples of how the game works, and make it play out right in front of them. This will be far more engaging for them, easier for you, and more enjoyable for everyone.
8 – Solicit Strategy Only as Wanted
This is something that is more relevant while you’re actually playing the game with first-timers, but it’s still relevant to the topic of teaching to new players.
The first thing that’s important to understand here is that teaching gameplay is different from teaching strategy. The former demonstrates how to play the game, while the latter demonstrates how to play it well. One problem I’ve seen is that many rules teachers are not sensitive enough to the wants and needs of the group when it comes to giving strategy tips. This can swing both ways–some players are hopelessly oblivious to the scope of their actions, and need all the pointers they can get, while others hate being given strategic advice because it’s something they want to figure out themselves. Strategy isn’t something you have to teach, but you should figure out whether you should or should not be helping your players out with it.
Once again, this is easy–just ask them. Hardcore players won’t want the crutch, while softer players might resent you if you don’t ever make it a point to help them out when they don’t know what their best choices are. You can quite easily avoid this problem by just getting it out of them:
“John, I know you usually like to figure things out for yourself. Keep in mind this IS a complicated game, so if you want, I can point out tips for you if you’re ever feeling stuck or confused. If not, that’s totally cool. Just let me know, because I want your first game to be as enjoyable as possible. I can go either way.”
Odds are, you probably talk to your friends in a more cavalier tone than I do this hypothetical italicized scenario. Regardless, the point stands that, as the teacher of the game, you’re the steward over their first experience, and you should try to make the game as enjoyable as possible for them. If that includes unbiased strategy tips, so be it. Who cares if YOUR strategy ends up giving them the win and making you lose? They enjoyed the game, they will want to play again, and next time you can tell them things won’t be so easy (note: I’m not advocating that you purposefully throw a game, only that true, unbiased strategy tips can work against your own favor). If they DON’T want tips, that’s just as well. I’ve just found that different players are more receptive than others to strategy, so don’t just go blabbering off about useful tips if it’s not ideal for your group. You’ll figure it out.
9 – Put those distractions away
There’s nothing more frustrating when you’re trying to teach than players who constantly distract themselves. It’s annoying to the teachers, and to fellow players, when that player has to keep asking questions because they can’t stop checking their phone during the rules explanation.
The thing is, this isn’t limited to phones. Anything can be a “phone.” The television or movie playing in the background can a “phone.” The variety of snacks on the table can be a “phone.” The opened laptop or tablet in the vicinity can be a “phone.” The needy cat or dog in the room can be a “phone.” The newly opened LEGO set that’s on the table for some reason can be a “phone” (hey, you never know). The point is, there are plenty of ways for players to distract themselves during the explanation. For goodness’ sake, just remove those distractions and everything will go much smoother. You don’t have to remove them permanently, but getting rid of them during the explanation will go a long way into reducing the length of your first session.
10 – Just Watch a Video
It’s my personal belief that games are better taught in person than from a video. Videos are a great source for learning the game by yourself, but I always enjoy hearing the rules from somebody I know.
That being said, some people simply can’t teach well, or they just hate doing it. Furthermore, you might find yourself still having some questions even after you’ve explained everything. For these kinds of situations, it might not be a bad idea to just pull up a Youtube video and watch an explanation of the game.
This is also useful for when you’re teaching a game that you don’t have a lot of experience playing, or a game that’s hard to really “get” until you’ve played it. Sometimes, you can only go so far in teaching a game without actually playing it. If it’s your first time, and everybody else’s, you might not have the game down even if you’ve read the whole rulebook. I played my first games of Kemet and Cosmic Encounter last week. Despite having read the rulebooks, I found myself referencing them a lot during those first sessions, which really slowed the game down. If your group is up for it, it might not hurt to say, “I’ve taught you what I can, but if you guys want, we can watch a video playthrough just to make sure we’re doing stuff right.”
Ultimately, what matters is playing the game, so whether you choose to teach it yourself (hopefully using some of these points!), watch a video, or a combination of the two, as long as you’re playing and having fun at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.
So, there it is. I hope that these ten tips have helped you if you’ve been struggling with your teaching. Don’t leave a bad first impression! This is far more more important than people give it credit for. Got any other thoughts about teaching board games? Let us know in the comment section!