How to Teach Someone a Board Game (and Even Have Fun Doing It) – The New York Times

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James Austin
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Modern board games can be wonderfully complex and intricate, weaving a web of overlapping mechanics, visual design, and narrative to create a fun and memorable experience every time you play. But before you start exploring mysterious ruins, terraforming a planet, or just building a really nice zoo, you have to learn how to play. And after that, you must take on an even more intimidating task: being the brave soul who tries to teach your friends how to play a new board game.

In my friend group, I am inevitably that brave soul, which probably isn’t surprising, given my current job writing about board games for Wirecutter. After teaching dozens of games to family, friends, and coworkers for various Wirecutter board game guides (and also just for fun), I’ve learned how to make the prospect of being a living board game tutorial a little less intimidating. In addition, I collected tips from experts like Plaid Hat Games’ Donald Shults, who has taught games to hundreds of attendees at the tabletop gaming convention GenCon, and Rodney Smith of the YouTube channel Watch It Played. And to get other perspectives on how to make learning and teaching rules a bit easier, I looked for advice online from sources like the fantastic games review channel Shut Up & Sit Down.
I’m a firm believer that tabletop games are for everyone, but that doesn’t mean all players are going to appreciate every game. Although complicated and heavy games can be exciting and deeply rewarding, not everyone is going to want to invest the time and energy needed to learn to play those beasts.
For players who are newer to modern board games, it may be better to start off with simpler fare. Games like Splendor and Ticket to Ride are wonderful introductory board games for newer players. This is partially because they’re great games that are fun to play. But it’s also because they serve as useful lessons, each highlighting common game mechanics that come together to make up more-involved, complex games, like Terraforming Mars and Root.
One of the easiest mistakes to make when you’re teaching a game to friends is reading the rulebook to them.
For instance, Splendor is all about using resources to buy cards—from a shared market—which then produce more resources, which you can use to buy more valuable cards (a game mechanic known as engine building). Ticket to Ride emphasizes claiming territory on a shared board and predicting the routes and plans of the other players (in order to potentially foil them). Add in Skull, a wonderful little bluffing game that also includes a bidding/auction mechanic, and you’ll have all the skills needed to play the delightfully intricate and brain-burny game Power Grid.
Smith also pointed out that theme is another thing to consider when picking a game. “Theme will buy you a lot of grace from your audience. If someone’s invested in the theme, if they think the game looks cool, suddenly they’re willing to suffer through a slightly more complicated rules teach.” If you know that all the people in your group were huge fans of the Redwall books (novels about woodland creatures having Arthurian-esque battles and adventures) when they were younger, they’ll probably be onboard for trying to learn Root (where woodland creatures battle for control of a quaint woodland area), even if they’ve shied away from intimidating war games in the past.
This may seem obvious, but it’s important for you to get a good handle on the rules of the game before trying to teach it to others. If you get over that hurdle before introducing the game to friends, you’ll be in a much better position to help them have an easier and more enjoyable experience.
There are a number of ways to do this, from watching rules tutorials and playthroughs online to running a mock game where you play all of the player characters by yourself (I spent a good portion of a day doing this to learn how to play Brass: Birmingham). But at the very least, you’ll want to crack open the rulebook and make sure you understand the finer points fairly well. As Rodney Smith said during our conversation, “Ultimately, generally speaking, somebody does have to read those rules. In your game group, someone is probably gonna have to do it.”
While you’re learning, try to focus on finding and internalizing how the game flows and progresses. “A lot of board games are like rhythm,” Shults told me, adding that, “it’s this weird give and take, and once you get the rhythm it’s easier [to play the game].” Finding that rhythm will make it simpler both to play the game and to teach others to play.
Also, as a reward for your efforts, the first time you’re unpacking a new game to learn the rules, the simple joy of punching out all the little cardboard pieces is yours alone to savor.
Once you’ve picked out the game and learned the rules, it’s a good idea to do a dry run. “It may seem a little dorky, but I recommend doing a practice teach out loud,” Smith told me. It’s a great way to be sure you really do understand how the game works, as well as to map out the easiest route to take when teaching it, flagging parts where your group might have questions.
One of the easiest mistakes to make when teaching a game to friends is reading the rulebook to them (or, more often in my experience, at them). “Rulebooks are not written like an exciting adventure novel,” Smith said. “So reading them out loud is super boring. The interest that people might have had in joining you for a game session will evaporate very quickly. Probably after the second sentence.”
Smith and Shults had slightly different approaches and starting points, but they both emphasized providing a group relevant information when and how they need it.
Smith starts with the theme as a hook. “I don’t tend to tell people what the objective is initially because I don’t believe it will mean anything to you,” he told me. “So I want to first give you a sense of place. ‘We are armies trying to take over the world,’ if it’s Risk or something like that.” He recommends explaining the objective and turns after the players are more situated in the world in which they’ll be playing. Smith also tries to be as comprehensive as possible before playing, but how comprehensive varies by group. “Not everyone has the attention span to take the entire rules info-dump at once. But the problem is, some players want that. They don’t feel comfortable beginning to play if they don’t know what all of the options are. So I have to get a sense of what the table wants that way.”
Shults, on the other hand, starts with the game’s objective. “I want to tell you how we’re trying to win, what is the goal, what are we doing, what does the end kind of look like.” From there, he moves into how players go about achieving that end goal, walking through the rhythm of the games’ actions, turns, and rounds. He tries to get players involved quickly so less time is spent in the rulebook and more is spent interacting in the playspace of the game. This method works well for players who enjoy learning by doing, and for those who don’t mind making choices without complete information about their possible ramifications.
Either of these methods will work well with different groups, and getting a sense of the way your play group learns and processes information is helpful for finding the balance between them. One way to help players along is to focus on the broader, more universal concepts and rules during the initial explanation, while keeping more edge-case or situational information only for when they come up in play. For instance, instead of explaining the inner workings of Terraforming Mars’ special reserved areas before the game starts, wait until this comes up in the game or until a player specifically asks about it. This helps players process the information in context, instead of trying to hold all of it in their head until it comes up later. “There are many times in a teach where you’ll have someone say to you, ‘You never told me that,’ and you did tell them that,” Smith told me. “But it was so abstract, and meant so little to them in the moment, it didn’t click, it didn’t mean anything to them.”
Regardless, don’t worry too much about making sure everyone has a perfect understanding of the rules before you start playing. Try to remain consistent and fair as the game goes along, but if you don’t follow the rulebook to the letter, that’s okay. As Smith put it, “There are no rules police, no one’s gonna break down your door if you’re playing wrong. Be comfortable making mistakes.”
The tabletop gaming community has built a number of resources to catalog, compare, and share information about games. BoardGameGeek is one of the best known of these, and it’s where a ton of information about rules can be found. In general, if you’ve run into a question about a particular situation or rule in a game you’re playing, there’s a very good chance there’s a discussion about that exact same thing on the BoardGameGeek forums. Googling the game name and the specific rules question is usually a simple and quick way to get an answer.
Objectively, winning may be the goal of playing a game, but (in my experience anyway) it is rarely the point. Games offer a structure in which to have fun with your friends. They allow us as players to adopt new and unfamiliar temporary goals, restrictions, and abilities in an effort to inscribe and communicate an experience of different agencies.1 In order to do this, we have to try to win the game, but winning is just a means to an end, not the end itself.
When you’re introducing others to a game—teaching them the rules, and making sure you’re available to answer their questions as they come up—you’re often more focused on making sure everyone’s having a good time than on your optimal play strategy. And that means you’re probably going to be less likely to win. That’s okay, because if your friends end up liking the game, hopefully you’ll be playing it again soon.
This article was edited by Erica Ogg.

1. At least, this is the case philosophy professor C. Thi Nguyen makes in his book Games: Agency as Art.
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