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How To Teach a Board Game

A few years ago I wrote a post about how to teach board games, I want to revisit that today, and take a little bit of a different tact with it. I think that teaching a board game is one of the often overlooked things by people who are really excited or passionate about their board games and playing board games. They want to get games to the table but that only works if you have people who are willing to play with you and if you can teach the rules well, that helps people want to play with you.

So I today we’re breaking down the whole process of teaching a board game.

1 – The Prep

Step one is before people even show up at at your game night or to play the game, you need to know the game. The most important part in this is to know and have read the rules. I don’t mean having skimmed over them but really dived into them recently so that you’re ready to go. If you want to take it one step further, play a few practice turns for the number of people you’ll have as that’ll help you get a real idea of how the game works. Now, I rarely do that last step unless it’s a game that I can play solo, then I will play through it solo. But reading the rules before you play is important. This also doesn’t happen all the time, so have read the rules at some point in time prior. Pretty often I’ll get a game, bust it open and read the rules right away just so that I have a base for it, but ideally I refresh myself on the rules later.

2 – Start with the Theme

Even if the game doesn’t have a ton of theme, start with that the theme is and use that to sell the game. When I talk about Welcome To, I say that it’s a roll and write game about building your perfect Stepford neighborhood. Now, obviously the Stepford part is added, but it gives the game more flair. Overall, people will get into a game if they can get into the theme, even games without theme try to act like they have theme, so sell the theme. Even Euro games that have you trading in the Mediterranean technically have some theme that the designer is trying to claim is there. Sell that theme. This won’t be a large part of your teach, but it’s the hook, that sales pitch that you start with to get people into the game and get their attention. To go back to to my Welcome To example, I put Stepford in my pitch because that catches people’s attention. Talk about theme and hook the players.

Image Source: Board Game Geek

3 – Talk About How You Win or Lose

Really another quick part of the teach, talk about how you win the game, generally. I wouldn’t, at this point in time go into details of how you get the victory points or how you defeat the bad guy, this is building up to really teaching the game. In a cooperative game, I would point out how you win the game or how you lose the game and try and keep it as thematic as possible while you’re doing this. For example: In Pandemic we’re members of the CDC who are fighting diseases (that’s the hook). Our goal is to cure all four diseases before time runs out, there are too many outbreaks, or a disease has spread too far (that’s the win/lose).

4 – The Game Play

So after that little bit of an intro, we’re now into game play. Ideally you give the pitch before you open anything up, and if people are still interested, you start setting things up. Unless, you know you are for sure going to play the game, then set it up ahead of time. When teaching the game play, show and tell is your friend. Telling a player they can go to the store and spend gold to get a card, that makes sense and is easy, but showing a card and demonstrating the whole process makes it clearer. Especially when you can also go to the Saloon, the Temple, the Fair, and 12 other spots. Another example of this, from an actual game, would be with Gloomhaven, show how you use the top and bottom halves of the cards and how you can and might change what you’re doing off of your cards. Go through everything you need to know to play the game. Now, for Gloomhaven, keeping it as my example, I might not explain what the poison, wound, stun, etc. tokens do at this point in time. They are important to playing the game, but not to starting to play the game. So only teach what needs to be taught to start the game. Also teach only important exceptions to the rules. A lot of games might have a lot of exceptions, but if they are small, don’t dwell on them. Teach the important ones so there aren’t any gotcha’s in the game.

5 – Reinforce How to Win

Get into how you win the game now. While teaching the core mechanics you should talk about how they impact how you win the game. But this is going to be the third time you talk about how to win and the time where you just focus on the mechanical aspect of the game. In Pandemic: “As a group, we need to get sets of five cards of each color and turn them in at a research station. We have to do that before we have too many outbreaks from the epidemics in the player pile, before the player pile runs out, or we can lose if there are ever all of the disease cubes for a disease out on the board and we need to play one more.” Then go into more detail on those lose conditions again. Again, show and tell is your friend here. Demonstrate what an outbreak looks like again. Point out the cubes and the player deck again. This is really about reinforcing how to win or lose the game. Obviously this is a cooperative example, and it’s even more important to point it out in a competitive game. With a competitive game if you don’t reinforce how to win (or lose) people will sometimes get upset because they feel like they could have or would have won had they remembered how to score points or what the victory conditions were.

Image Source: Across the Board Cafe

6 – Play One Round

Some people might say to play this open so that everyone can see what everyone is doing and then restart the game. I don’t personally love playing open handed for two reasons. The first being that it can allow someone to quarterback everything. Players need to make their own decisions, so let them. The other being that at the end of round one, you can see if people want to reset. If you play with everything out in the open, you need to reset everything, because as the person who knows the game you’ll know what players might be planning. If you play it normally, and you can still give advice, players can choose if they want to continue or restart now that they know the rules better or have a better feel for the game. If the first round of the game takes a little bit, or if the game doesn’t have that many rounds, I think a lot of players will want to continue, but give the option or reinforce the win conditions or rules again if you decide to continue. This step isn’t always needed, sometimes you can just continue with the game, especially in a cooperative game where you might be already sharing information openly.

7 – Play the Game

Simple as that, play the game. Now, teaching doesn’t stop when you start playing the game. Especially if you know how to play the game and have played it before. Talk about what you do on your turn. Point out when an exception happens, why exceptions happen. Teach what conditions are in Gloomhaven when they come up, for example, or things along those lines. People wouldn’t have remembered them from the start, but once they show up and are put into practice immediately people will remember. And try to win but maybe hold back from destroying. Some games allow you to completely crush a new player, Ascension is kind of an example of that with the Construct strategy, so either try a new strategy to see if you can win that way, or point out the really good strategy in the teach, to avoid the gotcha moment.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully that helps you know how to teach a board game. One important rule that I don’t mention is don’t read straight from the rulebook, because I wanted to focus more on the teaching process. There are some exceptions to that, TIME Stories has a great hook at the start of the rule book, so use that hook. Some games will bullet point out all the actions you can do on your turn, you can use that and demonstrate them at the same time. But if you’re explaining beyond the bullet point, you are explaining it, not reading from the book. Rule books tend to be very dry and boring, so try and keep it more interesting with how you describe and demonstrate things. But I talk about a lot of those things in the article linked at the top of the post.

What are some tips or tricks you have for teaching a game?

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