How To Teach Board Games to New Players
Board games date back to Ancient Egyptian culture. In ancient culture, game mechanics were primitive; resources to produce the components were precious. In those days, games were simple and (typically) without a theme. Games involving abstract thinking, spatial reasoning, moving pieces, or playing tiles on a board in a particular fashion. Generally, the difficulty of a game sits in the player’s mind rather than in understanding a complex series of rules.
Today, games are more complicated, with more interworking mechanisms, than ever before. Players receive enjoyment when they compete and win. However, there is more to playing board games than winning and losing. Players want to win; however, when asked, (most) players will sacrifice winning or losing over a pleasurable experience—especially when it comes to enjoying a new game. Contrary to popular belief, teaching a game is more than going over the rules. The role of the teacher is to equip players with the correct information to understand and enjoy their experience. An excellent teacher not only teaches but gets players excited about the game. Excellent teachers understand the ebb and flow of the process.
There are three different, but essential, factors when players surmise the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of new game experience:
1. Who they play the game with (social).
2. How long the game takes to play (duration).
3. How well new players understand the rules and gameplay to the game (player learning curve).
As somebody with a future in education, and no stranger to teaching games (I host a board game event every Friday which is open to the public), the third reason can make or break a player’s enjoyment of the game. Out of the three elements previously listed, the third is the one you can control. Learning how to teach a game, developing a flow, a rhythm, and making sure you cover the essential elements of the game is of paramount importance. If a new player cannot understand the game, they will be subjected to feelings of anxiety, feeling lost, and feeling embarrassed, or feeling stupid. All of which create a negative experience.
How to Teach a Board Game: Step by Step
As with any teaching task in life, it is of paramount importance you, the teacher, learn and fully understand the game first. One may do this by reading the rulebook—multiple times, preferably. Next, learn the flow of the game: everything from setting it up to knowing when it will be over. Know not just the basic rules, but the technicalities that can occur. Learn the terminology and iconography. Many game publishers will have “how to play” videos for their games on video hosting websites such as YouTube, make sure you watch them a few times. Also, many game publishers post frequently asked questions or erratum (a list of errors made in the rulebook or text within the game). The magic of teaching is that it loves to give and give and give. Once you feel comfortable enough to teach the game on your own and field questions from players, you may continue.
1. Give the Title
The first step is the easiest part. Give the title of the game. Even though the players already heard the title when somebody suggested to play it five minutes earlier or caught a glimpse of the name on the front of the box, give the name again.
The title of a game usually has no impact on gameplay, but it will aid in explaining the overall theme—especially if the game is attached to some intellectual property (IP). For example, if someone were to tell you the title of the game is called Fury of Dracula, the title alone says that the game deals with vampires—Dracula, more specifically. You could glean the setting as Victorian England. Giving the title during the ascribed “rules” portion not only aids in opening the “rules” portion but drastically helps players remember the title the next day.
2. What is the Game about?
The answer is simple: theme. The theme of any board game encapsulates what the game is about, what the players are attempting to do, and how the game ends. For example:
Terraforming Mars is a game that takes place in the not-too-distant-future. Earth is dying, growing uninhabitable, and humanity desperately needs to relocate. We all represent different companies that are receiving government money to terraform Mars—make the planet livable. There are three different parameters in which we will be terraforming: increasing the heat, increasing the oxygen levels, and creating oceans on the planet. When all three parameters are maxed-out the game will enter into the final round.
Here is another example using the incredibly popular worker-placement game published Stonemaier games entitled Viticulture:
The story of Viticulture begins with dismal news… You are living in the early 20th century in Tuscany, Italy. Your mother and father have died. In their Will they leave the family business, a vineyard, to you. In order to be successful at running the family business there is a four-tier system. You need to plant vines into your field, harvest them into your crush pad, bottle the wine and fill your cellar, and finally, fill various orders requested by long-time patrons. When you are able to fill orders your business will receive prestige points. When a player hits 20 prestige points the game will terminate at the end of the current round.
Also, it is recommended you use this portion of teaching to inform players whether the game is competitive or cooperative. Keep in mind, explaining the theme does not delineate any rules or gameplay. The players need to get wet before they get in the deep end. However, this portion is important because it assists in player immersion and sets the stage for gameplay.
3. What is the overall objective?
How do you win? If the game is competitive—where players work against each other—or cooperative—where players work together to beat the game—knowing how to win is important information to new players. Competitive games implement a scoring mechanism, while cooperative games have winning and losing conditions; it is imperative to describe both to players in detail. Typically, competitive games score using points, money, a victory tracker, last man standing, first place in a race, or set collection.
In Stockpile, a popular stock market game, the goal is to have more money than other players to win. El Dorado is a racing game in which the winner is determined by the first player to move their meeple from the starting location tile to the opposite side of the modular board. Love Letter, a popular card game, uses the last man standing mechanic. In Love Letter, if players run out of cards they are eliminated from the game; therefore, the goal is to be the last player remaining. Ticket to Ride, a modern classic where players attempt to connect cities on the map, issues its winner to the player with the most cumulative points at the end.
4. Player Turns
Even more important than how to win, new players are curious as to what they can do on their turn—this is due to circumventing embarrassment. Modern games offer multiple things or “phases” during a player’s turn; the optimal way to tackle this portion is to start by disseminating information in a linear fashion. Go through the phases in order: First, you begin your turn by drawing a card. Second, you may play a card or get a coin. Coins can be used to lower your threat. Threat is bad, it works like this…
For example, in Great Western Trail there is a reasonably complex scoring system at the end. Specific resources count towards points at varying denominations.
5. Filling in the Gaps
This block reserves as a placeholder meant to cover outside elements not directly addressed by the previous section (player turns). This placeholder may include a multitude of game designs or game elements; from components to additional actions to game end bonus scoring (this section is nebulous as it will change drastically based on the type and complexity of game). Filling in the gaps fleshes out the full complexity and terminates surprises for new players—which is indicative of an unpleasant first-time experience.
6. End of Game / Q&A
Finally, putting a stamp on the teaching portion, the game end trigger, along with determining how scoring works (most points win, least points win, etc…). It is a positive experience at this juncture to field questions from new players in order to expound on areas glossed over or not fully understood.
7. Putting It All Together
The above steps to teaching games exist as mere guidelines, to serve as a template for individuals that find themselves teaching a lot of games. This template, created to be a tool, is not meant to be used for a lifetime. Once individuals use this as a template for teaching, they will grow comfortable enough to use their own tweaked system and style—which is excellent news as it is indicative of personal growth and a sign of not only understanding board games better but how to teach them!
Hopefully, this helps as a tiny guideline for an educational structure for the next time you have your friends or loved ones over to your place for game night!