How to Teach a Game Well

People Around Cogs

As the one who tends to introduce new games to my immediate circle of friends and family, I am the designated ‘rules explainer’.  I have read the rules and taught people how to play literally hundreds of games over the years.

Every Thursday I go to our local ‘gamers’ game night, where many people bring their latest purchases and as a result I have had other people teach me how to play just as many games as I’ve taught.  However, the quality of these explanations varies enormously.

Teaching, like any other skill, requires practice, so it is no criticism of any individual to say they aren’t very good at explaining games.  Everyone gets better with practice.  I am a teacher by trade though, so today I’d like to share with you a few pointers for how to teach a game well.

  1. Read the rules

Hopefully it goes without saying, but a key component of teaching is knowing your stuff.  In this case that means reading the rules.

Now this can be painful at times.  Rulebooks vary in quality as much as people’s explanations of games.  They are written by people after all, most of whom have never had any training in how to teach.

If you want to do a really good job of explaining the rules though, it’s not enough to have watched a ‘how to play’ video.  For all but the simplest of games, these videos will not be able to cover every little detail of the rules.  Someone needs to know all those details and if you’re the one explaining the game, that someone should be you.

  1. Play the game first

This might sound a bit odd.  How can you play the game before explaining it?  Surely you have to explain the game to the first group you play with?  Sometimes, this is inevitable, but not always.

I always try the game out with my son first.

Before explaining a game to any group, I will always try the game out with my son Noah, or by myself, first.  Noah loves games and is very happy to learn new games with me.  Being able to do this is great as I am able to practice explaining the game to him, and we can make lots of mistakes in a safe environment.

However, you may not have a gaming buddy with which to do this, and sometimes Noah isn’t interested in playing certain games, so in that case you can always try it out by yourself.  You don’t need to play through an entire game, but playing through a few sample turns goes a long way to helping you understand the game and how it works.

This will really help your explanation.  It’s one thing to have a theoretical knowledge of how to play, but practical experience will give you an insight into how the game plays that you could never get from reading the rules.

  1. Know your students

To be a good teacher you have to be a good student first.

There is a mantra in teaching that to be a good teacher you have to be a good student first.  This doesn’t mean that you need to have been well-behaved when you were at school.  It means that the first priority for any teacher is not to teach, but to learn what their students already know.

I don’t teach the same game in the same way each time I teach it.  It depends on who I’m teaching it to.  In order to teach a game well, I need to provide an explanation that’s appropriate to the people playing.

Gamers will want a complete explanation of every single rule in the game before you start and will be quite happy to sit through a long explanation if it is clear and comprehensive.  Woe betide you if you miss out any of the rules!  They will cry foul if you try introducing new rules half way through the game.

Casual players will be far less tolerant of long detailed explanations.  Typically they want to have fun and aren’t too bothered about winning.  So in this case I would make a point of not explaining all the rules at the start.

Explain enough to get going and then introduce extra rules as they become relevant.  If you explain all the rules at the start, they won’t take them all in, so you’ll just end up repeating them later.  You’ll probably end up repeating rules anyway, but give them a chance to get the hang of the basics and then you can add the extras.

  1. Context first – details later

Even when explaining a game to hard-core gamers, it helps enormously to provide a context for them to place concepts into before providing all the details.  Personally, I like to explain the theme first (very briefly) and then give them an idea of the key mechanisms involved.

For example: “In this game, we each play Viking warriors attempting to gain fame and renown by conquering land, building on it and dying gloriously in battle.  It is a deck-builder, with some worker placement.”

The next key step in providing context is to explain the objective of the game.  Again, be sparing with the details:

“The winner is the person with the most points after 7 rounds.  There are three main ways to acquire points: 1) conquering ‘land’ cards that will go into your deck; 2) spending resources that you get from the worker placement spaces to build ‘structure’ cards that will be placed face up in front of you; and 3) killing off your ‘Viking’ cards by sending them into battle.”

Don’t be afraid to skip certain details.

Then you can go through what a typical turn would look like and explain the details of how to do each of the available actions.  Don’t be afraid to skip certain details that will make more sense once they understand the rest of the rules:

“The first player will change each round depending on the ‘structure’ cards that people have built.  I’ll explain it in detail once I’ve gone through the rest of the rules.”

This lets people know that there are rules for determining the first player and creates a slot in their brain ready to accept those rules without bogging down the main explanation.

  1. Questions at the end

This isn’t always necessary, but I find some people who are new to boardgames constantly interrupt the rules explanation to ask questions.  There are so many new concepts being thrown at them that they feel overwhelmed: “Wait, what?  But what’s this thing for?  And why have I got different cards to her?  And how do I attack?”

Everyone will find it easier to follow without interruptions.

If you find this happening and you are confident that your explanation will answer most of the questions by the end, try adopting the ‘questions at the end’ policy.  Eg. “These things will all make more sense once I’ve finished explaining the rules.  Bear with me and then I’ll answer any questions you have at the end.”

Everyone will find it easier to follow the rules explanation without the interruptions.  It allows you to introduce the rules in a logical way, rather being at the whim of whatever chaotic thought processes are going on in the questioners mind.

These tips aren’t going to revolutionise your teaching overnight, but with practice you should hopefully see a marked improvement in people’s responses to your teaching.  Do you have any tips for teaching games well?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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