Modern board games can be wonderfully complex and intricate, weaving a web of overlapping mechanics, visual design, and storytelling to create a fun and memorable experience every time you play. But before you start exploring mysterious ruins, terraforming a planet, or just building a really nice zoo, you need to learn how to play. And after that, you have to take on an even more daunting task: be the brave soul trying to teach your friends how to play a new board game.
In my group of friends, I’m inevitably that brave soul, which is probably not surprising given my current job writing board games for Wirecutter. After teaching dozens of games to family, friends, and co-workers for various Wirecutter board game guides (and also just for fun), I learned how to make the prospect of being a living board game tutorial a little less intimidating.. Plus, I’ve gathered tips from experts like Donald Shults of Plaid Hat Games, who taught games to hundreds of GenCon board game convention attendees, and Rodney Smith of the Watch It Played YouTube channel. And for other perspectives on how to make learning and teaching rules a little easier, I looked online for advice from sources like the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down game review channel.
Before your game night
Choose the right game for the group.
I firmly believe that table games are for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that every gamer is going to appreciate every game. Although complicated and heavy games can be exciting and deeply rewarding, not everyone will want to invest the time and energy required to learn how to play such beasts.
For players who are new to modern table games, it may be better to start with a simpler fee. Games like Splendor and Ticket to Ride are wonderful introductory board games for new players. This is partly because they are great games that are fun to play. But it’s also because they serve as useful lessons, each highlighting common game mechanics that come together to create more complex and complicated games, like Terraforming Mars and Root.
For example, Splendor is all about using resources to buy cards, from a shared market, which then produce more resources, which you can use to buy more valuable cards (a game mechanic known as engine building). Ticket to Ride emphasizes claiming territory on a shared board and predicting the other players’ routes and plans (to potentially foil them). Add Skull, a wonderful little bluffing game that also includes an auction/bid mechanic, and you have all the skills needed to play Power Grid, a delightfully intricate and brain-burning game.
Smith also noted that theme is another thing to consider when choosing a game. “The topic will buy you a lot of grace from your audience. If someone is interested in the subject, if they think the game looks great, they are suddenly willing to undergo a little more complicated rules teaching.” If you know that everyone in your group was a big fan of the Redwall books (novels about forest creatures that have Arthurian-style battles and adventures) when they were younger, they’ll probably be on board to try to learn Root (where the forest creatures forest battle for control of a picturesque wooded area), even if they have avoided intimidating war games in the past.
Learn the rules before trying to teach the game.
This may seem obvious, but it is important that you have a good grasp of the rules of the game before attempting to teach it to others. If you get past that hurdle before introducing the game to your friends, you’ll be in a much better position to help them have an easier and more enjoyable experience.
There are several ways to do this, from watching rules tutorials and walkthroughs online to running a simulated game where you play solo with all the player characters (I spent a good portion of the day doing this to learn how to play Brass: Birmingham). But at the very least, you’ll want to open up the rule book and make sure you understand the finer points pretty well. As Rodney Smith said during our conversation: “Ultimately, generally speaking, someone has to read those rules. In your playgroup, someone will probably have to do it.”
As you learn, try to focus on finding and internalizing how the game flows and progresses. “A lot of board games are like rhythm,” Shults told me, adding that “it’s weird give and take, and once you get the rhythm it’s easier.” [to play the game].” Finding that rhythm will make it easier to play and teach others to play.
Plus, as a reward for your efforts, the first time you’re developing a new game to learn the rules, the sheer joy of punching out all the little pieces of cardboard is yours alone to savor.
Practice teaching the game.
Once you have chosen the game and learned the rules, it is a good idea to try it out. “It might sound a little silly, but I recommend doing a teaching-aloud practice,” Smith told me. It’s a great way to make sure you really understand how the game works, as well as map out the easiest route to follow when teaching it, by marking the parts where your group might have questions.
teaching the game
The rule book is a reference for you, not a script.
One of the easiest mistakes to make when teaching a game to friends is reading the rule book to them (or, more often, in my experience, to them). “The rulebooks are not written like a thrilling adventure novel,” Smith said. “So reading them out loud is super boring. The interest that people might have had in joining you for a gaming session will evaporate very quickly. Probably after the second sentence.
Smith and Shults had slightly different approaches and starting points, but both emphasized providing relevant information to the group when and how they need it.
Smith starts with the theme as a hook. “I don’t usually tell people what the goal is initially because I don’t think it means anything to you,” he told me. “So first I want to give you a sense of place. ‘We’re armies trying to take over the world,’ whether it’s Risk or something.” He recommends explaining the goal and turns after players are more settled in the world they’ll be playing in. Smith also tries to be as complete as possible. before playing, but understanding varies by group.”Not everyone has the attention span to take the entire rules dump at once. But the problem is some players want that. They don’t feel comfortable starting to play if they don’t know what all the options are. So I have to have an idea of what the table wants that way.”
Shults, on the other hand, starts with the goal of the game. “I want to tell you how we are trying to win, what is the goal, what are we doing, what does the end look like.” From there, he moves on to how players achieve that end goal, following the rhythm of the games’ actions, turns, and rounds. He tries to engage players quickly so less time is spent on the rulebook and more time is spent interacting in the game’s playspace. This method works well for players who enjoy learning by doing and those who don’t mind making decisions without full information about their possible ramifications.
Either of these methods will work well with different groups, and having an idea of how your playgroup learns and processes information is helpful in finding the balance between them. One way to help players is to focus on the broader, more universal concepts and rules during the initial explanation, keeping more situational or edge-case information just for when they come up in the game. For example, instead of explaining the inner workings of Terraforming Mars’ special reserved areas before the game starts, wait until this appears in-game or until a player specifically asks about it. This helps players process information in context, rather than trying to hold everything in their head until it comes up later. “There are many times in a teaching where someone says to you, ‘You never told me that,’ and you told them that,” Smith told me. “But it was so abstract and meant so little to them at the time that it didn’t click, it meant nothing to them.”
However, don’t worry too much about making sure everyone fully understands the rules before you start playing. Try to be consistent and fair as the game progresses, but if you don’t follow the rulebook to the letter, that’s fine. As Smith said: “There are no police rules, no one is going to break down your door if you are playing poorly. Get comfortable making mistakes.”
When in doubt, google it
The board game community has created a number of resources to catalog, compare, and share information about games. BoardGameGeek is one of the best known, and is where you can find a lot of information about the rules. In general, if you have a question about a particular situation or rule in a game you’re playing, there’s a good chance there’s a discussion about the exact same thing on the BoardGameGeek forums. Googling the name of the game and the specific rules question is usually a quick and easy way to get an answer.
be okay with losing
Objectively, winning may be the point of playing a game, but (in my experience anyway) it’s rarely the point. The games offer a structure in which to have fun with your friends. They allow us, as players, to adopt new and unfamiliar goals, constraints, and temporary abilities in an effort to inscribe and communicate a cross-agency experience.1 To do this, we have to try to win the game, but winning is just a means to an end, not the end itself.
When you’re introducing others to a game, teaching them the rules, and making sure you’re available to answer their questions as they come up, you’re often more focused on making sure everyone is having fun than on your optimal game. strategy. And that means you’ll probably be less likely to win. That’s okay, because if your friends end up liking the game, hopefully you’ll be playing it again soon.
This article was edited by Erica Ogg.
1. At least, this is the case of philosophy professor C. Thi Nguyen in his book Games: the agency as art.