Teaching Board Games in 13 Easy Steps: Part Two


In Part One of my handy-handy, how to teach games series, I talked about building a receptive table so that you could give yourself the best chance of a smooth teach from the start. In this Part, I share how I introduce a game to a table of people who have given their commitment to playing. In Part Three, I will talk about teaching nuts and bolts.

Thanks for your patience :).

III. Introduce the Game Properly

          5) Describe the Theme: “In this game, you are a _____ trying to do ____.”

          6) Demonstrate Game Flow: Show First, Then Tell

          7) Relate Game Flow to Victory Conditions

III. Introduce the Game Properly

[I’ve seen a lot of game teachers do these next few steps very, very differently. Ryan Sturm, who is an AMAZING teacher of games, advocates that introducing a board game should take no longer than about 30 – 60 seconds. My way is very comprehensive and take a bit longer than that, maybe 1 or 1 1/2 minutes to get through steps 5-7. I believe in laying a good foundation before building up to the main explanation. I will explain more below.]

5) Describe the Theme: “In this game, you are a _____ trying to do ____.”

I like to describe the theme of almost every game from the get-go. I find that starting with theme helps players become more receptive to the nuts and bolts, especially if they are newer to the hobby and/ or play casually. Or as Chris put it in a recent BGA podcast, a good theme guides player decision-making.

At a game of 7 Wonders at my FLGS, the teacher dove right into explaining the card drafting, the scoring system, and all of the other mechanisms. There was an older lady at the table, clearly frustrated because the teach was going over her head. Eventually, she blurted out “Yes, yes, I’m doing stuff with cards and whatever, but what the hell am I really doing?” When someone helpfully offered that the point of 7 Wonders was to build a city, the rest of the teach started to fall into place for her.

I’ll even mention theme when I teach Splendor. That game has one of the most fake, pasted on themes out there. Doesn’t matter to me! My go-to teaching script for Splendor goes something like this “in this game, you are a Venetian merchant trying to expand your fortune. You’ll be acquiring gems, trading them for more valuable goods, and eventually attracting powerful nobles with your household wealth.” Or something like that.

I am fully aware that no one feels like a noble merchant when they play Splendor. They feel like they are color matching and optimizing their card tableau, mostly in complete silence. However, describing the theme this way during an initial teach allows me to introduce key mechanical concepts of the game in a fun way. Without going into any detail, I’ve already given players a signal that they will be buying, trading, gunning for powerful cards/ tiles, etc.


6) Demonstrate Game Flow: Show First, Then Tell

I admit that I stole this from Jonathan on an episode of the Snakescast.

For this next step, I offer a mini-preview of the game by mimicking the core, turn-by-turn stuff that players actually do on each turn. For a worker placement game, I demonstrate placing my worker pawns into legal spots. In a card drafting and tableau building game, I will physically draft cards and place them in a tableau in front of me. With dice games, I’ll roll them a few times in the same way that the game asks for those dice to be rolled.

Let me follow my own advice and show you, rather than tell you, what I’m talking about by demonstrating game flow for Tiny Epic Galaxies.

The reason I do it this way is simple. The tactile is the best foundation for the abstract. I find that once people grasp the basic, physical game flow, they can figure out some of the more abstract concepts and mechanisms within the game much more easily on their own.

For the most part, I will perform the action and try to avoid letting players do the same during this part of the teach. Especially in larger player groups, letting everyone place workers or draft cards can become chaotic and hard to handle. On the other hand, I find that I can still trigger a player’s muscle memory if I do that stuff myself for all to see. If they are also touching and feeling their pieces during my demonstration, all the better!

The basic lesson, repeated for emphasis: Show first, then tell.

(As an aside, my friend The Brandt on the Portal Gaming Podcast shared an awesome tip about teaching Vast: The Crystal Caverns. That game is very difficult to teach because each character has such a different play style. Rather than waste time explaining everything to each person, he just does the first turn for whoever is new at the game. Once they see the game in action, Brandt found that people were much more able to figure out the rest from there. Brilliant!)


7) Relate Game Flow to Victory Conditions

Now that the players have seen the game in action, I think it follows naturally to explain when players stop taking actions and check for victory.

Going back to my previous Tiny Epic Galaxies example, the victory condition is very simple – most points wins. Since I’ve just shown people the planet cards and the player mats in action, I can easily direct player’s attention to the most important part of those game pieces – the point totals printed on them.

I’ve seen a lot of game teachers skip this step, or at least undersell it. Definitely don’t do that. Victory conditions give meaning to player actions. Why should I move my pawn to this space with a sheep on it? Because I can then trade for brick and stone, then build cities, then win, that’s why!

The only parts that I leave for later are scoring conditions and mechanisms that don’t make sense outside of the game’s full context. I’ll tell people, for example, how to generally score points in 7 Wonders, but they don’t need to know exactly how science or guild cards work right away.

Like I said above, I probably put more work into the “intro” part of the teach than some other game teachers might do. Most don’t demonstrate game flow like this. Some skip theme entirely and are able to communicate mechanisms in a more direct way that I could.

When I teach, I go through this whole song and dance for two reasons. First, I want to make sure I reach every player at the table. Some players might not need to see game flow, or to hear theme, or whatever. However, some players really do need that stuff. I’ve adopted this more comprehensive method of teaching a game in order to minimize having to reinforce rules, or teach the whole thing again, for people who didn’t get it the first time.

Second, I know me. I learn a game’s mechanisms best when I grasp a theme first. I also learn better when I see a game in action, as opposed to having it explained to me. As a teacher, you can also feel free to mix up/ edit/ rearrange any of the elements I talked about above in ways that work for you.

My best advice here is for you to figure out how you like to learn in general, then teach in that same way. Your teach will feel more authentic, which will help players respond to you better.

That’s it for Part Two! You’ve read Part One, and you’re probably waiting with baited breath for Part Three. As always, comments are welcome.

I. Learn the Game 

          1) Learn the Game

II. Draw them in

          2) Set up the Board on the Table

          3) Give the ‘Elevator Pitch’

          4) Finalize the Table: Game Length, Weight, Theme, and Interaction Style

III. Introduce the Game Properly

          5) Describe the Theme: “In this game, you are a _____ trying to do ____.”

          6) Demonstrate Game Flow: Show First, Then Tell

          7) Relate Game Flow to Victory Conditions

IV. Teach People How to Play

          8) Explain Player Abilities, Resources, and Actions (a.k.a., how they can win)

          9) Describe Obstacles and Resistance (a.k.a., how they can lose)

          10) Flesh Out the Endgame

          11) (Selectively) Talk about Character Powers, Special Cards and Basic Strategies

V. Teaching During the Game

          12) Explain Actions As You Play

          13) Continue to Learn the Game (and learn how to teach it)


About Author

I am a psychotherapist in real life, so I find board games a welcome and energizing activity to help me achieve balance. My favorite games are co-operative and thematic games, though I will give most games at least one try.