Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How to teach people board games / wargames

As a keen board gamer / wargamer this is something close to my heart.  Not only that, but I am soon to start working in the UK's first board games cafe / shop.  In light of this, I recently had a conversation with a friend who expressed the sentiment that 40k is simply too complex to teach to new players.  In answer to this I present the excellent guide below (farmed from Monopolatte on reddit):

My university has a very detailed exam rulebook...

"Hey, folks. I work as a games teacher at a board game café, and I thought I would stop by to cover some basic rules I try to follow when introducing players to a new game.


  • Lead with the objective. As soon as you've set the tone with the game's theme, players should know what they're shooting for. When players know what their goals are, everything else falls into place. This will require some discretion: some games are straightforward enough that you can describe the whole goal in one sentence. Others aren't. If a game has a lot of stratified sources of points (ex. Terra Mystica), show some of the most important, and what the iconography for VP look like in the game. If the sources of points are impossible to describe without first detailing the mechanic (ex. Tigris & Euphrates), a quick explanation of the scoring will suffice (ex. "you win if you have the most points-- these coloured cubes-- at the end. Your final score will be equal to your weakest colour of points"). You can always be more specific later, but it's important to start with a focal point.
  • Talk about their possible actions early in the game. Actions- or moves, or whatever the game calls them- are the main thing a player will actually be doing. The earlier you can describe their moves, the better. If you're teaching Pandemic, going through the action card together is one of the best ways to introduce a new player. If you're teaching a game with complex actions which take a while to resolve, mention all available actions before talking about the specific protocols for each.
  • Describe the phases of a round in the order they happen. If an upkeep phase happens at the beginning of the turn, mention that, even if the actual demonstration can wait until you play it. People are good at grasping things that are presented in a linear way-- first this happens, then this happens, then this happens.
  • Delegate simple set-up tasks to the players. If the cards need to be shuffled, get the players to shuffle them while you talk. If each player needs five bronze cubes, let them take these cubes themselves while you explain what they are. It's important to be engaged, and especially if you're not a very charismatic person, having something to work on is a quick draw-in for your gaming table. It speeds up the set-up, too.
  • Engage with the game board. If the players have to go to the tavern, point to the tavern. If the players are collecting gold coins, hold up a gold coin. Board games are tactile, visual experiences, and you have to teach them in a way that accommodates that.
  • Answer questions-- or at least validate them. Players asking questions is good, because it means they're paying attention. If they ask you something you can naturally segue into, or that would be quick to describe, answer them right away. If it's too big a question to address until you cover some other things, validate their line of thought: "That's a great question! Yes, it happens sometimes in combat. I'm going to talk about that part of the game in a couple of minutes, so hold on and I'll get back to it. Anyway, the third thing you can do..."
  • Your homework. Understand a game fully before you take it to the table. Practice in the mirror if you have to. You want to make this as painless as possible, because if you're not better than the rulebook, there's no point in the players listening to you. Consider checking online video tutorials if you need help figuring out how to present the game-- whether you end up mirroring them, or avoiding mistakes they make.


  • Talk about exceptions before you're done explaining the rule. This is really distracting, and makes the whole process more complicated. If there's a role/race-specific power that changes the rule, don't even mention it until the end. Player-specific exceptions should always wait until the rest of the game is clear.
  • Ignore the theme. You can have the best explanation in the world, but if the game seems boring? Why bother. Unless you're playing a theme-centric game like Betrayal: House on the Hill, theme doesn't usually take much effort to establish-- but it has to be addressed, because it's the spice rub on the meat of the game. Sometimes it helps objectives make sense, too: inLast Will, I can't imagine the disengagement of knowing that you have to be the first to spend all your money without knowing the thematic explanation why.
  • Multi-task. If you want players' full attention, you should be giving them yours. It's hard enough to quarantine cell phones; you should have the television off and look as engaged and interested as you want your players to be.
  • Forget the big picture. When you're talking about actions, you should be drawing parallels back to the objectives of the game. Not every What needs to come with a Why, but it helps when you can work it in.
  • Cover every possible strategy. Not every eventuality has to be accounted for. There are a lot of games that offer many paths to victory, and you should do what you can to chip away at their beginner's handicap. It's helpful, for example, being reminded that in King of Tokyo, it can be dangerous to attack the monster in Tokyo if your health is low. It's less helpful hearing every possible problem you'll face in Arkham Horror, and the best strategies to escape for each role. You want the player to have enough information to be competitive, but not so much that they're overwhelmed with distracting information.
  • Get frustrated with slower players. Not everyone is on their 32nd playthrough of Dominant Species. Playing a board game together means describing the game at the speed of the lowest common denominator. If your "modern Euro worker placement classic" is too much for a newbie, maybe you should have lead them through a couple gateway games first. We all started somewhere!
That's all the general tips I have. Remember: every game is different, and every time you teach a game, you get a little better. I'm going to use this last line to shamelessly plug our café, which I work at as a server. If you're in the Ottawa region, feel free to ask for Kurt. :) Happy gaming.
Tl;dr: Okay, so you can talk about things. Like. You can talk about action points. Oh. The game is- the game is about- it's set in the present, and you're teaching games. You have to talk about games, so you can talk about action points sometimes. Except the cleric, who can't because it's a weekday but you guys aren't playing the cleric.
(This post is an x-post from /r/HelpMeExplainRules, which could use some more love!)"

(Taken from http://www.reddit.com/r/boardgames/comments/2csl51/how_to_explain_games_a_guide_from_a_professional/)

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