I recently read a great article on BGG about How to Teach Games by RyanSturm, and I thought that it would be a good topic for me to discuss a little here on GamerChris as well. In my game group (as well as at home and in pretty much any other situation where I play games), I’m one of the main (if not the only) rules-teaching people. Sometimes I do better than others at it, but teaching comes pretty naturally to me (which may be why my nursing career took a turn towards being a professional educator), and I’m not sure if some of the things I do are quite as obvious to other people. So, let me lay out my basic ideas and approach to teaching games.
Know Your Audience
How you teach a game should vary drastically depending on who your target is. With other serious gamers, I often teach games that I’ve only read the rules for a time or two, and my approach is pretty informal. I still follow the basic outline listed below, but I go into a heck of a lot more detail, even giving exceptions to rules as I go. The goal with gamers is to give them enough information so that they can begin to formulate strategy from the very beginning, because that’s what they enjoy. While they may still have fun with a game even if they get trashed, they want to feel like they have some basis for the actions they take and the choices they make.
With non-gamers or casual gamers, the goal should be to get them playing as soon as possible. Focus on the basics only, and leave exceptions until they come up. Since they lack the base knowledge of modern boardgames, strategy will probably be above their heads in their first play or two anyway, so instead focus on the choices they need to make and the overall experience of the game.
Know the Game
Please, for goodness sake, don’t try to crack the rules open for the first time and read it aloud to other players and call it “teaching the rules.” You absolutely must have some experience with the game before trying to introduce it to others. Read and re-read the rules a few times if you’ve never played before. As you do so, think about how you would explain them to others. For more complex games, I often find it useful to actually pull out the game ahead of time, by myself, and work through a few turns. Looking at and handling the components can usually give a much greater understanding of how to play a game than just reading the rules. But even with all of this being said, the amount of preparation you need to do also depends on your audience.
I usually take 5-8 games to game night each week, and sometimes it’s hard to be as familiar with all of them as I’d like. In those cases, I’d rather pull out the rulebook and, while I certainly don’t just read it aloud, make sure that I don’t miss anything important. But again, this is only with experienced gamers.
With non-gamers, I’d never try to teach a game that I wasn’t extensively familiar with. They will tend to have far less patience with rules, and seeing you struggle with how to play will give them the idea that it’s way too complex for them to understand. And of course, you’ve got to choose games that are of an appropriate complexity and hold some thematic interest for them. Thankfully, the simplicity of these games makes it a lot easier to know them well yourself, but be sure to refresh yourself close to the time you will be teaching it.
Before you can teach a game, you need to convince people to play it, and that’s what the “pitch” is all about. Whether it’s a matter of getting the guys at your regular game group to play the game you really want to play, or getting your dad or sister-in-law to play any game, you have to first build some excitement in your audience. In the matter of a few sentences, you need to convey what is most cool and interesting about the game.
Exactly what you include in your pitch depends on the game and your audience, but in general it sould focus more on the experience of playing the game rather than how you play it. Things like the theme, the goal, and possibly the main mechanic of the game are great to include, but please don’t try to cram in an entire rules summary. There will be plenty of time to explain rules later, once they’re already excited about and invested in the game.
General to Specific
In trying to optimize understanding, I’m a big believer in starting by presenting the big picture and then zooming in to explain the details. If you’ve given a good pitch, you’ve already started the process. But then, you still have to give some consideration to how deep and how fast you dive into gameplay. Most of all, it should follow a logical progression that provides information exactly when it’s needed and helps the learner see how all the pieces fit together.
Tell them how to win the game! Whether it’s collecting victory points, getting the most money, or eliminating all the other players, you’ve got to give them a heads up about the objective from the very start so that everything else you tell them can make sense. Rules and choices and everything else you’ll teach them is just meaningless goo unless they can recognize how it relates back to their goal. Adult learners need to find significance in what they’re learning in order to understand and remember it, and showing them the objective first will frame the whole process to provide that significance.
Next, you get into the actual gameplay. I usually find it best to go through a normal turn and to explain the different choices, actions, and options which are available. I tend to cover these in some significant detail, and I try to use examples whenever possible.
The key to helping players understand the game is to continually link actions back to the objective. You’ve told them that you win by having the most victory points, but what they need to know is how they can use the actions on their turn to earn those victory points. So explaining the player turn is a two-stage process, telling them what to do and then what it means. Again, with non-gamers, this second step may be a little over their heads, but with hardcore gamers, it’s the linchpin!
Players also need to know how the game ends. Sometimes, they can actually do something to influence when this happens, so they need to know to formulate strategy. In all cases, they just need to know so that they aren’t taken off guard.
For experienced gamers, I’ll also spend some time going over exceptions to the core rules. What’s important is that you don’t bring these up too early! Let them first get their head around the central mechanics before confusing them with situations that break those rules. With non-gamers, you probably shouldn’t be playing a game with many exceptions, but if you are, I’d tend to wait until a situation came up in play before I covered the exception that addresses it.
I’m also a big fan of giving a few strategy tips to players before they get started. Occasionally, a game will have a core strategy that almost makes it broken if all the players don’t understand it. Other times, there are facets of play that may not be immediately obvious to new players, but which drastically affect their ability to do well. For instance, in Arkadia, timing is probably the most important thing to understand in the game. If players don’t understand its significance, they will fall behind quickly, be taken off-guard by the end of the game, and possibly feel bad about the game in general. I don’t want that to happen.
In most complex modern boardgames, there are often several strategies available. I also like to spend just a few sentences laying out the basics of which strategies are commonly used in a game. This gives players a kernel of knowledge about where and how to invest their own ideas and effort, and generally makes “learning” games more competitive and interesting.
The idea of the “learning game” being a wasted experience or one that “doesn’t count” is offensive to me. As a learner, I hate the thought of wasting any gaming time, and frankly, one play may be all I get to decide if I like a game enough to buy or invest more time in playing it. And as a game teacher, I get no pleasure from beating the crap out of new players that have no idea what’s going on. As far as I’m concerned, teaching a game is about trying to place everyone on as even a playing field as I can, so that our gaming experience is fair and enjoyable for everyone.
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