It’s that time of the week again – game night. You’ve just spent a solid portion of your paycheck on a shiny new game (or five) and are looking forward to showing it to all your friends. Only one problem – before everyone can start having fun, you’ll have to explain how the game works first.
Modern board games have gotten rather complicated over the years and teaching a complex game such as Nemesis, Gloomhaven, or Dead of Winter can be a challenging experience, especially if the other players are new to the hobby.
So, how to teach board games without losing their attention and your nerves in the process? Here are a few tips and tricks we here at Boargamer gathered over the years which should help get you started.
Learn Before You Teach
I can already hear the collective groan, but hear me out. Statistics show that there are over 140,000 board games around, and that includes many different genres to wrap your head around. Learning game mechanics for complex games goes beyond just getting familiar with the basic strategy and beginner rules: to teach games properly, you need a true understanding of all of their key mechanics.
Before you can make teaching board games an enjoyable experience, you must put in the hours to master it, and not everyone has the patience. First, read the rules and make sure you completely understand the rule book. Online videos can help with this, as can game guides and reviews.
Here’s the thing, though: a good portion of would-be teachers stop here, but experienced players know better: teaching the game properly requires the final and most important step – experience with the game itself. Play the game numerous times, setting up different scenarios and trying out different things, until you feel comfortable with not just the basic concepts but the entire process of playing the game.
Learn How To Teach
Teaching a board game is an art, and like any art, it requires practice to master. Through playing the game over and over, you’ll figure out how the different mechanics are connected in ways that may not be apparent by just reading a guide.
You’ll also need to formulate a plan for presenting everything and make sure that even the inexperienced players do not feel completely lost two minutes into your explanation.
Remember: you want to get people excited when teaching a game, and if you cannot explain a board game in simple enough terms that even beginners can understand it, chances are you don’t know it well enough yet. Don’t be afraid of rehearsing “the teach” by yourself – as with all types of public speaking, it works best when you know what you’re going to say well in advance.
Hacking the Teaching Process
Alright, so, you’ve read up on the rules, talked people’s heads off about the game in your local board game cafe and on online forums like BoardGameGeek, combed over the strategy tips, and by now ace even heavy hitters like Europa Universalis.
It’s finally time to teach your first game, so where do you start? Beginner-friendly games like Dixit or Sushi Go are great, but don’t feel pressured to start with the easy stuff if all you have is a complex game like Arkham Horror or Pandemic – it will just require more practice on your behalf. While it may seem intimidating at first, teaching games becomes much easier with a system in place, so here are some basic building blocks to think of.
Introduce the Main Theme and Goals
The key is to explain board games while not overwhelming new players by going into too much detail. Start with the basics: what is the game about, how do we as players win, and what makes this game special?
I can’t stress this enough: “selling” the game’s theme, explaining why you’ve chosen it and why it will be fun for everyone is crucial to getting your players invested and attentive, which will make the teaching process almost as much fun as playing the game.
Remember, engage with the other players here, but do stress that this is just an intro, and don’t allow overly inquisitive folks to derail things by asking a million questions about the game mechanics. After all, a more thorough rules explanation will be forthcoming, but as anyone who’s taught games previously can tell you – all in good time.
Pro tip: Keep the explanations here brief, as you are yet to get into the nitty-gritty of the game’s rules. The same goes when you need to answer questions from a new player – keep it fun and brief and don’t let yourself get derailed too much.
Set Up the Game Properly
When deciding how to teach a board game you have two options here: setting everything up before your players arrive, or using this part as an opportunity to get everyone engaged in the game. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so it’s really up to you to decide depending on what makes more sense for the game you’re teaching. For games such as Azul, that visual component is really important.
For example, if you already have the game set when you start introducing its main theme and goals, the explanations will be easier, and you can show the things you’re talking about right away. On the other hand, having players shuffle the card deck, get familiar with each game piece, or set up the various components can get them feeling engaged in the process.
During this phase, you also want to ensure that you’ve handed out all of the reference sheets, player boards, cards, and other relevant information and materials the players will be needing during the game.
Pro tip: Think about the nature of the game you’re demonstrating and how complex it is to set up, learn, and play. Know your gaming circle. Decide on whether you’ll set up everything in advance or get the players in on the action on a case-to-case basis, rather than having a blanket rule you apply each time.
Explain the Rules and Objectives
As I’ve already mentioned, explaining board games is a bit of a fine art. On the one hand, you want everyone to be clear on the rules. You’ll also make it a bit easier on new players if you share a few tips but don’t start getting into advanced strategic advice – you’re only here to show them the basics, not teach them how to munchkin their way through the game.
The key here is establishing the game’s overall objective, player objectives, and all of the major game mechanics. Don’t worry if you skim over some advanced rules, and, again, don’t get trapped by overly inquisitive players asking a million sub-questions – the important thing is keeping on track and having an easy-to-follow and logical narrative through the game’s rules and systems.
While you shouldn’t be too focused on getting players to read guidebooks in detail, do make sure that people understand all of the basics and have all of the reference materials they’ll need on hand. Always ensure that everyone is on the same page with the basics before going into more detailed explanations or fringe rules.
Pro tip: Many strategy games come with complex manuals, while other games might have very barebones rules that aren’t of much help or are better explained than read from the paper. Use them as a reference on how to explain a board game but don’t rely on them too much – nothing breaks the flow and immersion of a game night like you or the other players spending dozens of minutes poring through the rules mid-game.
Give Concrete Examples
As with most things in life, the best way to teach board games and keep your audience engaged is by giving fun and practical examples of situations the players may find themselves in.
Recall a situation from your own game, set up imaginary scenarios (keep it brief, though), or demonstrate some sound strategy advice for playing faster with a concrete situation in-game and an example of how best to handle it.
Just don’t overdo it here – the idea is some quick tips and practical examples of how some complicated or dry-sounding rules that confuse players actually work in practice.
Pro tip: Remember, you’re the storyteller here, and all eyes are on you. You’re not just explaining the rules but are “selling the game” to your player circle. Refer to your players by name when giving examples, make a funny anecdote if you have one, and get the player in question involved directly. I guarantee that your players will pay much more attention to what you are saying and remember any personalized advice or tips far better.
Play Practice Turns or Rounds
Whenever someone asks me how to teach board games I always stress the importance of practice. Now, we’ve already established that good teachers need a lot of practice themselves, but it’s no different for the players trying to learn a game.
Reading the manual is a good start, but having the game explained by a friend is better. In a similar vein, giving practical examples is great, but actually going through the process of playing the game to demonstrate its rules and mechanics is even better.
Show your players how to play a complete turn and explain why you took the actions that you did. If a game has mechanics such as face-down cards, play them face-up just this once, so players get a better understanding of what’s going on.
Don’t stop there, though: even the best board game teaching tips cannot immerse players into a game or show its inner mechanics as well as simply playing a mock round or two – hell, a complete game if you have the time. Many great games like 7 Wonders and Mysterium have somewhat poorly explained rules but once you’ve played a few turns everything will start making sense.
Pro tip: Consider your gaming circle and chosen board game. Some titles are simple and quick enough that it’s best to get into an example game right away. With some others, it may make more sense to do a deep dive into the mechanics first or play a mock turn or round at most, as you’d otherwise be wasting way too much time.
Keep It Fun and Don’t Be a Tryhard
This one may seem like a no-brainer but bear with me. Some inexperienced players get so hung up on showing a board game to their friends in the best possible light, they forget a key point: board games are meant to be fun and relaxing, not something that will induce anxiety or anger.
Be gentle, be patient, and most importantly, be engaging. Two people can explain the exact same thing in very different ways, with very different results in the end. Keep the tone light even if you’re playing a serious game like Gloomhaven, and always remember that how well you present the game will have a huge impact on how well it will be received by your friends.
Even if you’re the most competitive player in your circle of friends, try to keep those tendencies in check while showing a new game to them. Nobody likes a show-off who glosses over the rules and then proceeds to completely crush all the newbies at the table. I’m not saying you should throw all strategy to the wind and play badly on purpose, but keep in mind that, at least for your first game or two, your focus should be more on helping your fellow players than racking up victories.
Pro tip: Take a break between explaining the board game mechanics and actually playing the game, especially if you’re about to play something more complex. Let players soak in the information for a bit, ask questions and get answers, play a mock round or two, and feel free to have a bit of a breather before jumping straight into the real game.
Wrapping it All Up
Picking the right game for your friend group and explaining it in fun and engaging ways can make the difference between a fiasco and a fantastic game night (and even bringing new people into the hobby). Remember: some of us may have a more innate talent for teaching than others, but nothing makes up for experience and lots of practice. Teaching board games is an art, and like every art, the more you put into it, the better you’ll become at it. Good luck!
With a lot of patience and energy. Before you can become a good teacher, you must first learn the game you want to teach well, and ideally, be very familiar with its genre. Then it’s just a matter of making an engaging and logical presentation, which you’ll learn how to do with time.
Remember the basics: you want to answer what the game’s theme is, how the players can win, and why this particular game will be fun for everyone at the table.
Fun is a very subjective category, and if someone hates a particular genre, there won’t be much you can do to keep them engaged.
That said, you want to create a light-hearted and casual atmosphere, give practical examples, have funny stories or anecdotes, and just generally be a fun host to your players. For more than that, you’ll want to pick the right game for your gaming circle, as that will do most of the job for you.