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Teaching Board Games in 13 Easy Steps: Part One

I teach a lot of games. When I go to game night, either with friends or at my FLGS, I usually end up teaching at least one game. I think anyone who plays a lot ends up teaching a lot. Over the past few years, I’ve sought out tips and tricks for teaching games from other blogs, podcasts, BGG articles, and anywhere else I could find them – the latest source being this Dice Tower podcast. When I learn something new, I try to incorporate it into an organized system that I rev up any time I teach a game.

Due to length, I’ve broken up my handy-dandy, thirteen step process into three parts. For Part One, I’m only going to describe pitching the game and building a receptive table (steps 1-4). In Part Two, I talk about properly introducing the game once the group is set to go (steps 5-7). Finally, I get into the nuts of bolts of actually teaching a game in Part Three (steps 8-13).


I. Personal Prep 

          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


I. Personal Prep 

1) Learn the Game

I can’t believe I need to state this explicitly as a step. I’ve attended some pretty rough teaches, though, because some people think they can teach a game while only having the gist of it.

If you don’t know a game, please don’t teach it. Get a few plays in (solo if you have to), watch some videos, do whatever you can to learn the game beforehand. Not only will the actual teach go smoother, you’ll be able to handle people’s questions about it a bit better.

Three exceptions: a) your group just got a hot, fresh game and you all eagerly want to plow through the rules together, b) there’s no one else, and all of the other players agree to be patient or c) you have a magic talent for reading a rulebook once and knowing what a game is all about. Some people are really like that! If you are not one of those people, though, please admit that to yourself and put some effort into learning the game first.

Rodney Smith of Watch it Played advises that you practice teaching the game as well. Maybe formulate a loose script in your head, or just talk your way through it by yourself or to a friend. I don’t do any of these things. I’m too lazy. I like the idea, though, and I think some people might have an easier time with it than I do.

II. Draw them in

2) Set up the Board on the Table

Have you ever walked by a fully set up board game and said “Ooooo… what’s that?” More and more in recent years, publishers design board games to sell themselves.

Besides grabbing attention, a fully set-up board game does a lot of teaching before you’ve said anything. Anyone might see a bright, colorful board and immediately prepare themselves for a light, fun affair. For veteran players, if they see piles of cards in the middle of the table, they’ve learned it’s probably a deckbuilding game. Or if they see lots of little wooden bits cut out to look like wool and fur, they’ve learned it’s an economic game of some kind.

I’m going to repeat this bit of wisdom a few times. The basic principle is, wherever possible, show first, then tell. 

Some teachers like to start throwing out bits of rules explanation as they are dealing cards or setting up the board. Personally, I don’t find that successful. I try to avoid saying anything about the game’s rules until I have set up the game to the point where turn one is ready to be played.

As I am setting up, if people want to look at card art, or play with the pieces, they should feel free! I allow it on the principle that when when players start to touch game components, they are already starting to learn. I will gather everything back into place in once I’m ready to start talking.

 

3) Give an ‘Elevator Pitch’

Most of the time, if I introduce a new game to a group, they either don’t know much about it or haven’t heard of it at all. Teaching becomes easier when you grease their mental wheels with a very short sentence of phrase designed to grab their attention from the start.

You might laugh that I put Monopoly in here as an example. However, “fast dealing property trading game” is a pretty good pitch that tells people what they’re in for in a short sentence (except for maybe the fast part…).

Of course, I encourage you to make up your own pitches and don’t just read off of the box. If you’re playing with hardcore gamers, you can use jargon terms like “deckbuilder”, “area control”, etc. If it’s game night at a pub, though, you want to be more direct. A good example in this case would be: “Hey, this is a quick, light, stab-your-friend-in-the-face game! Let’s do it!” Either way, adjust your elevator pitch to your audience.

I also find it helpful to create associations with games people already know. Not too long ago, I wanted to play a small, not-well-known card game called Manasurge at my FLGS. No one seemed interested. However, when I said “imagine wizards playing Uno”, some players were hooked, which led to the rest of the group falling in afterwards.

I usually don’t worry too much about accuracy. Mind you, I don’t advocate bold-faced lying. However, the point here is to hook people and create initial buy-in. I’ve heard Catan pitched as “Like Monopoly, only we’re trading sheep instead of property.” Close enough, I guess? In the realm of TV, I’ve heard the HBO show Game of Thrones described as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth”. No, it is not. However, it’s true enough to turn people’s heads and get their attention. The rest of the explanation can proceed from there.

 

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

Teaching really sucks when the people you are trying to teach don’t want to learn. Wherever possible, you want to give people enough info about a game, up front, so that they figure out for themselves if they are likely to have fun. The people who stay are the people you want at the table, because they will be the most receptive crowd for your teach.

a&b) I think that explaining game length and weight are pretty obvious. Most people ask about that, anyway. If people want to play a long, heavy Euro game, they won’t want to sit there and learn Exploding Kittens.

  • Pro-tip: take the playtime printed on the box and multiply by 1.5. Boxes like to lie. If the box says 30-45 minutes, call it at least an hour, counting the teach, just to be safe. The last thing you want to do is suck someone in to a game when they don’t have time for it. It makes that player unhappy, a player leaving early will disrupt most games… it’s just a bad scene all around.

c) I don’t have too much to say about communicating theme at this point, either. Players can get a basic sense of a game’s theme (or lack thereof) from seeing the board. Use this time to explain any new or unexpected wrinkles in theming, level of family-friendliness, etc. Really, just make sure that players won’t be turned off by it.

d) “Interaction style” probably needs a little bit more of an explanation. I mean the way that players interact with one another, and with the game itself, during play. I think most games (and more importantly, most gamers) fall somewhere within a cluster of four interaction styles:

  • “Brain” gamers = strategy, economic, and other engine-style games with low interaction
  • “Face” gamers = high interaction social and party games
  • “Muscle” gamers = competitive interaction involving direct conflict
  • “Heart” gamers = cooperative interaction

I will probably write more about my little invented categories in another blog. The important point to note here is that each category represents profoundly different mindsets and temperaments. 

It drives me crazy when a game teacher does not talk about interaction style for a game up front. I’ve seen so many cases where, halfway through the teach, someone will say some version of “wait a minute… this game is cooperative???” Yuck! Why didn’t you tell me?” I don’t care how good you think a game is; not every gamer will be in the right mood or headspace for any old game.

On the other hand, you do yourself a huge favor by knowing and communicating what type of game you are about to teach from the start (whether its a pure type or some mix of two). If you state that clearly and form your table with players who have adopted the right mindset, then you are halfway home before you’ve said your first word.


That’s it for now. If you find this interesting and want to know how I move forward with an actual teach, I invite you to check out Part Two and Part Three. In the meantime, I’d love to hear critiques, additions… whatever’s on your mind!


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)

  • Jason

    I'm a psychotherapist by trade, practicing in CT. I play games to restore my life balance. I like thematic games with lots of narrative and story, usually cooperative but I love good thematic strategy games as well. As a game evangelist, I also like card games and anything else I can easily tote with me.

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