Teaching is an art. There’s a reason people go to school to learn how to teach, it’s not the easiest thing to master. You might think it really doesn’t matter how well you teach a game. As you get into it, the new players will catch on, right? Maybe you don’t want to waste your time teaching, you just want to get playing. Here’s the thing, first impressions do matter. I don’t know how many times I have heard a person say, “I played that game once, I didn’t really get it, so I didn’t really like it.” First impressions go a long way. Doing a poor job teaching may give you one less person to play that game with in the future, so it’s worth taking some time to teach it well.
I’m not an expert at teaching, but I am pretty good at misunderstanding things if they are presented to me in the wrong way. My struggles in my own ability to understand the convoluted rules of many games actually helped me figure out the ways I wanted to teach others. Some of the worst teachers I have ever had were only bad because of their extremely high understanding of the topic. They were so advanced that they didn’t have the ability to empathize with a person who struggled with the basics. When you are teaching, you don’t just throw a rope down to where they are and ask them to climb up to your level. You go down that rope to their level and help them get up to yours.
Through my years of playing games, I have both been taught how to play new games, and taught others how to play games. It’s not an easy task when you have to do it on the fly, but there are a few things that I have realized help facilitate the process of teaching new things. Let’s take a look at these strategies.
Give An Overview
I teach people how to play games through tutorials, but even I struggle to explain the rules to new players on the spot. One thing that I think helps to explain the game is to first give a broad overview of the goal of the game. People need to know why they should take time out of their day to play this game. For example, if I were explaining how to play Pandemic to someone, I wouldn’t start by breaking down the rules in detail. First I would tell them what the game is all about. I would tell them that we are all working together as a team to find cures for 4 diseases. To find cures we have to collect matching colored cards, but we simultaneously have to work to cure the disease from spreading on the game board. The overview is just the watered down version of the game, it doesn’t have to be anything special. At a minimum it should tell them what it takes to win the game and whether players are playing together on teams, or if everyone is playing against each other. .
Explain, Show, Ask
Explaining the rules to people is a complicated process. If you go into too little detail, you will leave the new players confused. If you go into too much wordy detail, you may also leave them confused. I find the sweet spot is to follow these steps: explain, show, ask. First you explain a rule, pointing out things as needed, then you show an example of the rule you just explained, finally you ask if they have questions about the rule. So let’s say I was explaining how to play the game of Settlers of Catan, and I was trying to show the rules of building a new road on the game board. I might do it in the following way.
Explain - I would explain that to build a new road on the game board, you must connect it to one of your settlements. A road costs 1 brick and 1 wood, so you would discard these resources from your hand, back to the supply. You can build as many roads as you are able to during your turn by discarding 1 wood and 1 brick per road.
Show - After explaining how roads work, I would grab a sample hand, put a settlement piece on the game board and show how I would build the road on the game board. You don’t actually have to do the explain and show steps separately.
Ask - After explaining that, I would ask if that made sense. It might even be helpful to ask the player to show what you just showed them to make sure they got it.
These steps don’t have to go in order. Maybe someone is not necessarily new to the game but they only played once several years ago. Maybe you start the rules by asking what they remember about a certain rule before explaining. Maybe it’s just more natural to show and explain at the same time. Great! Do what works!
Do a Walk-Through
Some games are best shown with a walk-through of how to play. This is especially helpful if more than one player knows how to play the game. The walk-through will put everything you explained together. If you were playing a card game, you could deal out mock hands to players and show how a round of the game will actually play out. The value of a walkthrough is that you can show your hand and explain exactly what you are doing. The new players can ask questions as they come up.
Have the Newest Player Take the Last Turn
I find a helpful strategy for actually starting a new game is to make the newest player go last in the turn order. This way the newest player will get to see other players take their turns before they have to take their turn.
Don’t Be Too Competitive
There is nothing worse than a person who briefly explains a game to new players, tells them they’ll get the hang of it when they start playing, and then spends the game taking advantage of the other player’s lack of experience. First, that makes you a jerk. Second, there are nuances of games that players can’t just get by seeing you do it, especially if they never see your hand. Play the first game to the needs of the newest players. Some new players will want you to play hard on them so they can learn and develop a strategy. Others will need you to play so easy on them that it will be painful. It should be noted that if you have to play a full game in easy mode and the player never seems to grasp it, maybe this game is not the right one for that person, and you might be forcing it.
New games with beginners don’t have to be boring. You can play the game at your full strength of skill and strategy with new players, sometimes it can actually help them learn quicker. If you do this, however, it is important to talk them through your strategy as you go. What are your possible moves on your turn? What move are you choosing to take and why? It is also helpful if you help explain their moves. If they play a move that doesn’t make sense, walk them through why it doesn’t work and help them find a better move. Again, it’s about getting the new players to like the game you are playing, so help them find what you like about it.
New players are going to make mistakes. They very well may make the same mistake several times during the game. They will ask questions. They may ask you questions about things you thought you did an excellent job explaining in the beginning. Don’t get frustrated with the new players. If they make a mistake, stop the game and re-visit that rule. Even the most basic rule to you may not be basic to them, so don’t treat it like it is. If you aren’t willing to be patient with the new players, don’t make them play a new game with you, it won’t be fun for anyone.
Make the Game Fun So They Want to Play Again
Yes, it is possible that you will start a game with a new player, skip explaining the rules, start playing, and the new player will just get it. More likely, that player will spend the game going through the motions, and just awaiting the end of the game. If you are teaching the game to another player, it is most likely because you like the game and want to share it with them. Best case scenario, they start to like it as well. The better you explain the game, the more likely they will be to see what you like so much about the game, and learn to love it as well.