People that can teach games are so important to the hobby. Board games are unique in the entertainment realm. A person must sit down, learn a rules set, and then impart it to someone else so that they can translate what they are hearing to the abstractions of the game. This is a challenge but it can be done.
At the risk of hyperbole I will say that we teachers have a “sacred duty” to teach well and continue to hone our teaching skills. Teaching a game haphazardly can create a bad experience, ruin a game, or, worst of all, discourage people new to the hobby from going any further. As far as board games go, the stakes are high.
You cannot lead someone where you have not gone.
Something to keep in mind: Not all of this will work with every game, every group or every teacher. Use what works only when it works. Ignore it if it doesn’t. Forcing a round peg into a square hole never helps.
Preparation – Learning the Game
I believe in layered learning. Our brains process information differently depending on how we consume or output that information. Watching a video lights up your hearing and visual senses. Reading uses a different part of your brain, writing yet another. The best way to make a game’s rules stick in your head is to layer as many of these ways as possible
Read the Rule book
This may seem obvious but I don’t think it can be replaced. There is a temptation to replace this step with watching a rules video, which have their place but cannot replace reading and the comprehending the rules yourself. While you are reading, get the components out and move them as the rules tell you to.
Watch a Video
After you have read the rulebook go find a rules video about the game. This will fill help fill in gaps in your understanding or reinforce what you read by taking it in through another part of your brain.
Summarize the rules
After you have a solid grasp of the rules take a few minutes to summarize them. This doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be a simple outline.This will help solidify the rules in your head as well as give you a reference when you are teaching the game. A reference may already come with the game but I have found that if the summary comes out of my brain onto a (digital) page, I can recall it better.
Send the video and/or rulebook to the players
This can work well for people already well acquainted with games. Just watching a video can prime people and provide a baseline understanding for you to build on when you teach it. If the players will do a bit a prep themselves it will cut down on the time needed to teach at game time.
Know your audience
The goal of introducing a game to people is for them to have a good time. If you have a game that you really want to play but isn’t right for the people you will be playing with, don’t force it on them. Also, knowing your audience will inform how you go about teaching the game. You may be playing with seasoned players who already have a frame of reference for the concepts in the game. Or it may be with people newer to games who need a bit more. Try as best you can to mold your teaching to the players at the table. And always err on the side of the newer players.
Pre-Game – Teaching the Game
My normal teaching method is to get players into the game as soon as possible. It can be tempting to go over every exception and sub-rule in the game but I have found this to be cumbersome, tedious and boring. This sets players up to think they have a complete understanding of the game before playing. This sets me up for failure as I will inevitably forget a rule crucial to the end of the game only to introduce it as it comes up. This leaves some players feeling frustrated since they would have done things differently had they known and leaves me feeling like I did a bad job. To avoid most of that I use the Learning Game approach.
I almost always start by letting players know that this is a learning game and I encourage questions during play. This can take some pressure off of players to perform in a situation they don’t completely understand and encourage experimentation. I also let them know that I will offer a restart during the game (see below).
Lead with the Goal of the Game
Start at the end by letting players know how to win the game and deliver it as anchored in the theme as possible. Give them the goal of the game so that they can tie everything else they learn to it. This gives your players an understanding of why they are doing the various mechanical things you are telling them to. After you have given them this, then go back and give them the details of how to get there.
Teach the basics
Try to make teaching time as short as possible. This means not teaching all of the little sub rules, exceptions and what-if scenarios. Make sure you let players know that some rules will come up during play. Use the summary you created in preparation to stay on task and not go down bunny trails.
Anchor yourself in the theme
Leverage the theme of the game to teach as much as possible. Don’t just explain that you move this cube here or that cube there. Tell them why. Tell them the cube goes there because it is a seed you are planting in a field. Connecting the abstractions of the game to real things players understand will go a long way. The theme is the shortcut in your player’s brains to understanding the abstractions.
Set the game up before you teach
If at all possible, have the game set up on the table before you begin explaining the rules. This will allow you to use the game components to illustrate as you teach. If you cannot set up before game time then use set up time to introduce players to the components as you put them on the table. However, don’t try to teach the game while you are setting it up.
Get players involved
As mentioned above, it is good to illustrate what you are teaching by moving game components around. It is even better if you can get the other players involved. This can help keep them engaged and interested. Also try to keep them engaged by offering them times to ask questions. I like to ask something like, “Does that make sense?” or “Any questions so far?”.
Don’t play a game you haven’t learned
Someone may know that you are a good teacher and plop a game in front of you that you don’t know with the request that you teach it. Be extremely wary of this situation and be willing to say no. Reading rules while trying to teach can and often does end in disaster. There can be exceptions to this. If you are with people you know and they are ok with reading the rules out loud and stumbling through their first play of a game, then fine. Go for it. But as a general rule – no, don’t do it.
Offer a restart
In the spirit of the learning game mentioned above I will offer players a restart once we are a couple rounds in and they have seen better how things work in action.
Make sure players are comfortable asking questions even if that means revealing hidden information. Remember, this is a learning game and these questions will help everyone understand the game better.
Sub-Rules and Exceptions
Teach the sub rules, exceptions, and bunny trail scenarios as they come up in the game. Don’t be afraid to tell players they can’t do something they think they can. Allowing players to do something the rules don’t allow can be tempting, thinking it will help them have a better time. Remember you are still teaching them the game and if you have set this up as a learning game then this is just another opportunity for them to learn how to play the game correctly.
This is a tricky one as some players want these tips and others do not. I think the key is to ask if they would like a tip and let them tell you. If they ask, I prefer to point out choice implications (“Keep in mind that if you do A it may cause W or X to happen. But if you do B, Y or Z will be options”) over specific strategy tips (“You should do A since that will mean you get to do X”) . Make suggestions but leave the choice up to them. However, don’t shy away from reinforcing or teaching rules. Being reminded of rules may inform their strategy but it is not you telling them what to do.
Ask how you did
Now that the game is over, get feedback from the players on how your teaching went. Is there anything you could have done better? Is there a rule they wish they had known before the game started? Find these things out so that the next time you teach it you can do better.
More Teaching Resources
I’m not the only one with teaching ideas. There are many more out there that I’d recommend you check out. Here are a few of those.