How to teach games

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how games are presented. The tear of the film protecting a box, the smell of new components, the crack of opening a board replete with potential and possibility. We could all go on for ages about the physicality of games. This is not the presentation I want to talk about.

There are many barriers to getting folk into our hobby. One of the greatest of these is how to get people playing the games we love as smoothly as possible. Rulebooks vary in quality, so much so that a whole business had cropped up around ‘How to Play’ videos.

I personally prefer to learn from the written word, you’ll have seen/heard me complain about rulebooks on numerous occasions. I am the primary game buyer in our group and my privileged position as a critic means I get access to a fair few games without having to buy them. It also means I need to learn games and, more importantly, teach them in a consistent fashion.

Got there in the end. How do I teach games, and how can it help you teach games? What can companies do to help us teach their games? My list goes something like this:

  • Engage your players
  • What is the game about?
  • How do they win?
  • The anatomy of play

Engage your players

My aim when teaching games is to get people handling components as quickly as possible. This can start during setup, before you even get to explaining how the game works. Give player components out while you are setting up, ask them to help shuffle cards, layout components, and sort tokens. Get your players interested and engaged.

What is the game about?

You can probably cover some of this ground as you are engaging your players with setup. You want to talk about two separate things here, though they might crossover a bit: setting and theme. Setting is the colour of the game, the flavour of it. Let’s use one of my personal favourite games Lords of Vegas as an example. The setting of Lords of Vegas is Vegas, Nevada before the casinos came to town.

Get them handling the money, laying out those tiles, touching the dice.

The theme is what the game is about, which should lead us rather neatly into the ‘How to Win’ part of our teach. Lord of Vegas’ theme is capitalism and the risk and rewards of betting big (at least in my interpretation). Setting is generally straightforward, the theme is more down to interpretation. Go with what you think, you are the teacher here.

How do they win?

This is the first mechanical thing any player should know (and it is still baffling to me that some rulebooks hide this away). Is the game co-operative, competitive, or some mix of the two? Is it a victory point race? Are points hidden or open? Be clear and concise, and make it very clear where the players can find any tracks that show them who is winning.

As well as how to win, you’ll want to let players know when the game ends and how that will happen. These are not always the same thing. In Lords of Vegas you win by getting the most points from building casinos. The game ends at a random point somewhere about 3/4 of the way through the deck of cards. At this point I would also explain how casinos get you points and the difference between points and money.

Anatomy of Play

This is where things start to get really tricky and will depend a lot on you and your group. We are going to go through how I do things.

Some people like to go through all the available actions on a turn before making the first move. Some want to dive straight in and push the buttons to see what works.

I like to get folk playing as soon as possible and explain as we play. That often means I’ll take the first turn and show off some of what you can do. How much you can show off will depend on the game. A simple card game, you might be able to show everything you can do in a single turn. To come back to a game like Lords of Vegas, we simply won’t be able to show all the actions on a first turn, or even the first round. What we can do is show the structure of the turn to give a basis for everything that comes next.

Player Aids can be as simple as this.

When teaching this way, when showing actions as you go along, you have to not only show the mechanics, the how, you must also explain the reason, the why, of each action. In Lords of Vegas, why would I gamble my money at a casino? Why would I sprawl? Why would I remodel? In answering why we can give the players the basis of strategy.

Explain, Demonstrate, Participate

All of this basically comes down to these three principles. We explain the game and how to win, we demonstrate how a turn and round work and we get the players to participate in the demonstration until the training wheels come off and they are just playing the game.

Throughout your teaching, you must resist one thing. You must not make player’s turns for them. Let them make mistakes, let them follow odd strategies, but don’t let them get the rules wrong. It doesn’t matter if what they are doing isn’t the optimal strategy, it doesn’t matter if they are making tactical errors, it matters that they have fun and absorb the rules. That’s what we are aiming for with a good teach: fun is had, the game is learned.

Tutorials and Player Aids

Some games come with their own tutorials, but nowhere near enough. Oath and Root from Leder Games both come with walkthroughs and great player aids and I applaud them for it. Tutorials have long been a part of computer games but in board games they are few and far between. Considering how complex games can be, this seems like a missed opportunity. A tutorial turn or two, especially a good one that says why, not just how, actions are taken could be a god send to getting games to the table. It would also maybe cut down on the number of rules questions that companies needed to answer.

Player aids just seem like a necessity to me for most games. For some games it seems like I spend a lot of time remembering rules rather than playing the game. Surely the designers would prefer that I do the latter and not the former. It also penalizes people for whom retaining lots of rules can be a struggle, like for instance people new to our wonderful hobby, I would urge all publishers to provide at the very least good player aids. You can also check out the wonderful work from the Esoteric Order of Gamers, who pick up the baton that a lot of publishers drop.

Go slow, be patient

Teaching games is part knowledge, part art. I’d like to credit Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules for influencing my own style and to all those who have taught me games at conventions and clubs over the years. It is a hard task and I have admiration for all those who do it well. They have taught me that taking your time, and being patient are probably the most valuable tools in teaching games.

In this article I have laid out how I do things, partly for my own mind. It is useful to talk out loud about such thoughts, to make them more concrete. I do so not because I think this way of teaching is the only way, but to start a conversation about how we can do better when it comes to teaching games. We will be talking about this subject more over in our Discord. There are great examples out there of companies doing this well, and I hope that in starting this conversation, I can encourage others to do the same.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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