Modern board games can be wonderfully complex and intricate, weaving a web of intersecting 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 need to learn how to play. And after that, you’ll have to take on an even more intimidating task: being the brave soul trying to teach your friends how to play a new board game.
I’m bound to be that brave soul in my circle of friends, which is probably not surprising given my current job writing board games for Wirecutter. After teaching family, friends and co-workers dozens of games for various Wirecutter board game guides (and just for fun too), I’ve learned how to make the prospect of being a living board game tutorial a little less intimidating. I also gathered tips from experts like Donald Shults of Plaid Hat Games, who taught games to hundreds of attendees at the GenCon tabletop gaming convention, and Rodney Smith of the Watch It Played YouTube channel. And to get other perspectives on how to make rules learning and teaching a little easier, I looked online for advice from sources like the fantastic match coverage channel Shut Up & Sit Down.
Before your game night
Choose the right game for the group
I’m a firm believer that tabletop games are for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that all players will appreciate every game. Although complicated and difficult games can be exciting and deeply rewarding, not everyone will want to invest the time and energy it takes to learn how to play these beasts.
For players new to modern board games, it may be better to start with simpler fare. Games like Splendor and Ticket to Ride are wonderful introductory board games for newer players. This is partly because they are great games that are fun to play. But it’s also because they serve as useful lessons, each highlighting common gameplay mechanics that come together to form more complex games like Terraforming Mars and Root.
For example, Splendor is all about using resources to buy cards – from a common market – which then produce more resources that 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 (possibly foiling) the routes and plans of the other players. Add in Skull, a wonderful little bluffing game that also features a bid/auction mechanic, and you have all the skills you need to play the delightfully complicated and mind-bending game of Power Grid.
Smith also pointed out that theme is another thing to consider when choosing a game. “The subject will bring you a lot of grace from your audience. If someone is interested in the subject, if they think the game looks cool, suddenly they’re willing to agonize through a little more complicated rules theory.” When you know that all the people in your group were big fans of the Redwall books (novels about woodland animals engaging in Arthurian-like combat and adventures) when they were younger they will probably be on board trying to learn Root (where woodland animals fight for control of a scenic wooded area), even if they have shied away from intimidating war games in the past.
Learn the rules before attempting to teach the game
This may seem obvious, but it is important that you get a good grasp of the rules of the game before attempting to teach them to others. If you clear this hurdle before introducing the game to your friends, you’ll be in a much better position to help them have an easier and more enjoyable gaming 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 the player characters yourself (I’ve spent a good chunk of the day learning how to Brass plays: Birmingham). But at the very least you should break down the rule book and make sure you get the intricacies pretty good. As Rodney Smith said during our conversation, “Ultimately someone has to read these rules. Someone in your playgroup probably has to do it.
As you study, try to focus on figuring out and absorbing how the game plays and progresses. “A lot of board games are like rhythm,” Shults told me, adding, “It’s this weird give and take, and once you get the rhythm it’s easier [to play the game].” When you find that rhythm, it becomes easier to play the game and teach others to play.
When you first unbox a new game to learn the rules, you can enjoy the simple joy of punching out all the little cardboard pieces alone as a reward for your efforts.
Practice teaching the game
Once you’ve picked the game and learned the rules, it’s a good idea to give it a dry run. “It might seem a bit goofy, but I recommend doing a practice class out loud,” Smith told me. It’s a great way to make sure you really understand how the game works and to find the easiest way to do it when teaching it, by marking parts where your group may have questions.
teach the game
The rulebook is a reference book for you, not a script
One of the easiest mistakes to make when teaching friends a game is to read the rulebook to them (or, in my experience, read it to them). “Rulebooks aren’t written like a thrilling adventure novel,” Smith said. “So reading them out loud is super boring. Any interest people might have had in joining you for a gaming session will evaporate very quickly. Probably after the second set.”
Smith and Shults had slightly different approaches and starting points, but both emphasized providing a group with relevant information when and how they need it.
Smith begins with the subject as a hook. “I don’t tend to tell people what the goal is first because I don’t think it’s going to mean anything to you,” he told me. “So first I want to give you a feel for the place. ‘We’re armies trying to conquer the world’ if it’s a risk or something.” He recommends explaining the objective and moves after players get more comfortable with the world they’re going to play in, condition. Smith also tries to be as inclusive as possible before playing, but how inclusive varies by group. “Not everyone has the attention span to take in the entire rules info dump at once. But the problem is that some players want it. They don’t feel comfortable starting to play unless they know all the options. So I have to get a feel for what the table wants that way.”
Shults, on the other hand, begins with the objective of the game. “I want to tell you how we’re trying to win, what the goal is, what we’re doing, what the ending looks like.” From there, he goes into how the players will reach that end goal, moving through the rhythm of actions, moves and rounds of games goes. He tries to get players involved quickly so that less time is spent on the rulebook and more time interacting in the playspace of the game. This method works well for players who like to learn by doing and for those who don’t mind making decisions without having complete information about their possible implications.
Each of these methods works well with different groups, and it’s helpful to get a sense of how your playgroup is learning and processing information in order to find the balance between them. One way to help players is to focus on the broader, more universal concepts and rules in the initial explanation, while also keeping more edge case or situational information just in case it pops up in the game. For example, instead of explaining the inner workings of Terraforming Mars’ specially reserved areas before the game begins, wait until that comes up in-game or until a player specifically asks for it. This helps players process the information in context, rather than trying to keep everything in their heads until it later emerges. “It often happens that someone will say to you, ‘You never told me that,’ and you told them that,” Smith told me. “But it was so abstract and meant so little to them at the moment that it didn’t click, it meant nothing to them.”
Still, don’t worry too much about making sure everyone understands the rules perfectly before you start playing. Try to be consistent and fair throughout the game, but if you don’t follow the rule book to the letter, that’s fine. As Smith put it: “There are no rule police, no one will break down your door if you misplay. Be comfortable making mistakes.”
When in doubt, google it
The tabletop gaming community has created a number of resources for cataloging, comparing, and sharing information about games. BoardGameGeek is one of the most famous of these, and you can find a ton of info on rules here. In general, if you come across a question about a specific situation or rule in a game you’re playing, there’s a very good chance there’s a discussion about the exact same thing on the BoardGameGeek forums. Googling the game name and the specific rules question is usually an easy and quick way to get an answer.
Agree to lose
Objectively, winning may be the goal of a game, but (in my experience) it’s rarely the point. Games provide a structure where you can have fun with your friends. They allow us as players to adopt new and unfamiliar temporary goals, limitations and abilities to inscribe and communicate an experience of different agencies.1 To do this we must try to win the game, but winning is only a means to an end, not the end itself.
When introducing others to a game, teaching them the rules, and making sure you’re available to answer their questions when they come up, you’re often more focused on making sure everyone is having fun than on your optimal game strategy. And that means you’re probably less likely to win. That’s okay, because if your friends like the game, hopefully they’ll be playing it again soon.
This article was edited by Erica Ogg.
1. At least this is the case that philosophy professor C. Thi Nguyen makes in his book Games: agency as art.