Seven Principles for Teaching Games

We’re in the doldrums of the year.  Not a lot coming out, and lots of stuff being announced that doesn’t have rules online yet.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to present seven things I like to keep in mind when teaching a game.  Hope these are helpful.

  1. image from anyandallauctions.com
    image from anyandallauctions.com

    Know the rules before you teach.  DO NOT read from the rulebook.  It’s OK if you keep the rulebook nearby as reference.  It’s OK to refer to it occasionally to make sure you are getting the rules correct.  But it is NOT OK to just read from the rulebook.  With very few exceptions, those are not written to learn the game.  They are written so you know what the rules are, and can look them up if needed.  And rulebooks in our hobby are generally long, so you’re not going to want to read all of it.  Odds are good that you’ll skip around, trying to find the pertinent passages, and you’ll miss stuff.  Plus, it’s boring to have someone read to you.  Don’t do it.  Know the rules.  If it’s a new-to-you game, set up the game beforehand and play a few turns so you get a feel for how it plays.  Utilize the reference guides, if there are any, as a cheat sheet to help you remember the order of play.  Watch a video if you need to.  Just don’t read from the rulebook.

    • It is weird to hear some people talk about the ability to teach a game they’ve never played.  I’ve heard several people say “Just give me five minutes with the rulebook, then I’ll teach the game.”  Five minutes might be enough time to get a feel for the game, but you’re going to lose a lot of the specifics.  If you can do that, great.  I can’t, and can’t even fathom being able to.
    • I’m also to the point in my gaming career that I won’t play a game that just came out of shrink.  If I’m at a gaming event, and someone says, “Let’s play Game X!  I just got it in the mail!”, I want to make sure it’s been opened and studied first.  If they’re just punching the bits, I think I’ll pass.
  2. image by BGG user DropDeadCriminal
    image by BGG user DropDeadCriminal

    Have the other players help you with set up.  This will help familiarize them with the pieces, and give them some sense of where everything goes.  Also, it will make set up a LOT quicker.

    • This brings up another point…setting up is absolutely critical to learning the game.  Imagine sitting down to a table, and having to visualize everything the teacher is telling you.  It’s not going to work.  You’re going to need to see the pieces, and the teacher should demonstrate what’s going on to make learning more effective.
  3. image by mindstepsinc.com
    image by mindstepsinc.com

    Be sure that you state the objective up front.  This is the WHY of the game.  Is the objective to have the most points?  Is the objective to cooperatively make sure the world isn’t destroyed by disease?  Is the objective to be the first person with a banana up their nose?  The WHY is probably more important than the HOW.  Without the WHY, players don’t know the reason they’re trying to do all the stuff you’re telling them to do.  So, when teaching, make this the first thing you talk about.  Well, maybe just one of the first things (see the next point).

  4. image from contextfm.com
    image from contextfm.com

    Give the rules thematic context.  I personally happen to be a mechanics guy.  I like to know how a game works, and having clever, unique, and FUNCTIONAL mechanics is a lot more important to me than theme.  That’s not to say that theme isn’t important (it is), but the theme is really only the window dressing for how the game works.  I’d much rather play a themeless abstract than a highly-thematic adventure game where the only choice is to go left or right before drawing cards and rolling dice to see what terrible things happened to you (cough cough Talisman cough cough).  But a lot of modern games do a lot of work making sure the theme is pretty well tied to gameplay, and there’s a good reason for that.  Theme gives the game a framing device that makes it EASIER to remember rules.  It also makes it more fun and engaging for the players.  So give the rules some thematic context.

    • Speaking of abstract games, I’d say it might even be fun to just make up a reason why the blue pieces and red pieces can’t get along.  Just a thought.
  5. image from bobcat-football.com
    image from bobcat-football.com

    Know which rules are vital, and which can wait.  What the players really need to know is the flow of play.  You should tell them generally what a turn looks like, what a round looks like, what an age looks like…whatever the game is broken up into, you need to show the players how that works.  The players don’t really need to know what every single card does, or an obscure rule that may or may not occur between the fifth and sixth rounds.  When learning the game, an outline will usually suffice, and you can get into specifics as you play when they make more sense in context.

  6. image from memecrunch.com
    image from memecrunch.com

    If you screw up a rule, own up to it immediately.  Our kind of games have a lot of rules, and you’re going to mess up one or two (or more) as you teach.  We’re all human, and most people will be forgiving if you forget to tell them something.  Generally, if you remember a rule later, just tell everyone.  If that rule affects how the game has been playing out, you can take a poll to see if people want to keep playing the same way or make the change midstream.  As the teacher, you kind of need to see yourself as a kind of gamemaster, and you want to make sure people are having fun.  Above all, be fair – if the new rule would give you an advantage, maybe let it slide for now.

  7. image from angelfire.com
    image from angelfire.com

    Be patient.  Even if you’ve explained a rule ten times already, explain it again, and maybe rephrase it this time.  Games are complicated, and people need time to process.  It can get super annoying when people keep asking the same questions over and over, but people learn at different speeds, and you need to be sensitive to that.

    • There’s a situation you’ll come across where someone will insist that “You never told me that!” or that “I would have played COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY had you told me that!” when you distinctly remember looking at them WHILE you told them that, and they were playing on their phone or talking to someone, or otherwise not paying attention.  In this case, be humble, apologize, and move on.  It’s just a learning game after all.

One final thing I wanted to mention, and I don’t want to call this a principle because I don’t think it’s a black-and-white issue.  It’s the eternal debate about teaching games – to win or not to win?  There are two opinions when it comes to teaching games – those that want to maximize the other player’s fun by not playing optimally and allowing the other player to win, and those that want the player to really understand the game by playing optimally and trying to get the victory.  I tend to fall into the latter camp.  I am a firm believer that people will understand the game better if they see how more experienced people play the game and learn from their strategies.  Now, I wouldn’t say to use the killer strategies to absolutely DESTROY your student, but do try to win.  Maybe even explore new strategies that you haven’t tried before.  But don’t insult their intelligence by letting them win.  Play the game.  But again, that’s my opinion, and you may have your own.

So, there’s my thoughts about teaching games.  What do you think?  Please let me know if you have any additional tips, or if you have any thoughts about what I’ve said.  Thanks for reading!

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5 comments

    • The most important thing is that they can see the game all laid out before the game begins. If you don’t have it set up before players arrive at the table, then you should definitely have everyone help instead of just sitting there.

  1. Sometimes it helps to demonstrate what happens in a particular situation. For example, Red7 is pretty simple, but can be confusing the first time. Giving an example of the possible plays one can make helps a lot.

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