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Tips for Maintaining Focus while Teaching Board Games – Ask The Bellhop

We return to the topic of teaching games with a question regarding how to maintain focus when acting as a board game teacher.


S Darkwell writes:


“A few months ago, I began a bi-weekly(ish) gaming night. My friends provide the location, and my girlfriend and I provide the games and teach them to play.


I’ve come to realize that I’m atrocious at describing how to play board games. I’m relatively new to these games myself, but if I were to simply sit down and play, I could do so without issue. The moment it comes time to teach others, however, my mind becomes scattered and I begin forgetting even fundamental rules. I regularly spend hours watching board game review/how-to-play videos, but they don’t seem to have improved my teaching skills in any meaningful way.


I suspect the issue is that in any given situation, my focus snaps to the social aspects of the environment. When I should be describing the board game, I’m instead noticing whenever anyone shifts their weight, glances elsewhere, or moves a component.


The irony is that in the past, I’ve been hired to give informative presentations on stage in front of hundreds of people and never had an issue. Something about the smaller more-personal environment makes teaching board games a far greater challenge.


Firstly, do you have any recommendations on how to better teach board games in general?


Secondly, do you have any suggestions on how to maintain focus on teaching the game instead of the people in the room?

Thank you in advance for the advice, and be well!”

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Players learn rules through different methods, reading, listening, watching and doing.

We have talked about teaching games in the past and all of that general advice still stands and is worth taking a look at. Our previous articles basically address S’s first questions of “do you have any recommendation on how to better teach board games in general?”

In the first article: How do you approach teaching board games?, I talk about the various ways that people learn and how to apply that knowledge to teaching games. I will summarise it quickly here, with a focus on S’s question, but really do recommend you check out the full article for a much more in-depth look at these learning methods and what you can do to take advantage of them.

The worst way to learn a board game: have someone read you the rules.Reading – Some people learn best by just reading the rulebook. Take advantage of this if you have readers in your group. Pass around a copy of the rulebook while you are setting the game up. If you know you are going to have three players who don’t know the rules print off three PDF copies of the rulebook or better yet email out those PDFs before game night so that players can read them before showing up.

If you don’t necessarily know what you are playing ahead of time, you can bring up the rules on mobile devices, laptops or tablets. Doing this may save you from having to teach at all, or at least let you just give a brief overview, as all of the players will already be familiar with the main concepts of the game.

Listening – This is the most common method by which players learn games, they sit and listen to a teacher go through the rules. This sounds like what is happening in S’s case here. The biggest tip I can offer to a board game teacher using the listening method is to try not to just read the rulebook out loud. Have as much of the rules internalized as you can, before getting to the table. Referencing the rulebook isn’t bad, use it to make sure you didn’t miss anything, but don’t read through it page by page.

Watching – One option for teaching board games is to let an expert do the work for you. You can do this by bringing a tablet or, if you are at home or another player’s house, having everyone gather around a PC or TV, and bring up Youtube and together watch a video tutorial. It’s rare to find a game these days that doesn’t have some form of video tutorial out there. Again this could really help S out by basically removing the burden of teaching by passing it on to someone else.

Learning by watching doesn’t only apply to watching a video though. It also applies to when you are teaching a game in person. Don’t just talk when explaining a game. Go through the motions. Actually show the players what they need to do. Roll dice, draw cards, place mepple, build routes, whatever it is the players will be doing in the game, actually do it while teaching the game.

Doing – The best way for anyone to learn anything is by doing it. This follows directly from my last suggestion. Instead of you showing the players what to do, have them actually do it. Have the players draw a hand of cards, hand them the resources they need, have one of them re-set the goods market, etc.

Teaching Azul Stained Glass of Sintra.

The other aspect of doing is getting to the game as quickly as possible. Spend as little time as necessary front loading people with rules and instructions. Explain things as they need to be known and get the entire table playing the game. Make sure everyone knows that this is a teaching game and not to worry too much about the points or who wins. Play to explore the rules. Once everyone knows the game, then play for real.

This I think could greatly help out S. I have a feeling that once S is sitting down actually playing the game, anxiety will be replaced by a focus on trying to play and making sure that all of the rules have been covered.

Remember you don’t have to finish that first teaching game. Start playing right away, explain various rules as they come up, and make sure you cover all the rules, but you don’t have to finish that first game. It’s okay to play a couple of rounds and then jump right to end game scoring to make sure everyone understands how that works. It’s okay to play through one year in a multi-year game just to make sure everyone is on the same page, and then start over.

Another article worth checking out is: Teaching new gamers vs. experienced gamers. In that article, I talk about the tweaks you can make to your teaching techniques based on your audience. Your experience as a teacher can be very different when teaching a new gamer vs. teaching an experienced gamer.


Tips on how to keep focus on teaching and not on the players

On to the second part of S’s question, “suggestions on how to maintain focus on teaching the game instead of the people in the room.” Here are some things that my podcast co-host Sean and I think could help reduce your teaching anxiety.

Jeff teaching a couple guys how to play Funko Pop Funkoverse Harry Potter. First off determine if you really need to be teaching the game at all. If you are that uncomfortable teaching, perhaps the best answer is to let someone else do the work. Above I suggested two ways of doing this that don’t involve having to have someone else at the table know the game. You could give all of the players homework and sending them a PDF copy of the rulebook for the game you plan to play or you could have them all watch a how to play video. Both of these are probably best to have happen before the game but it’s also possible to do either right at the table with today’s technology.

There is also a chance that there is someone else present at your game night that would be willing to teach. If you are at a public play event you can always ask if anyone else present is willing to take a bit of time to teach a game. That might be someone who is about to play or even someone at another table. We’ve got an entire article on finding game teachers that might help you out.

Always good to have someone else on hand that knows the rules.Another thing you can do is look for backup. Find another player that knows the game and ask them to support you while you teach the game. Have them point out anything you may get wrong or rules you miss. Even knowing the fact you have some backup can greatly reduce the nervousness of teaching. You may not even actually need the help but it’s there in case you need it.

Let’s go forward assuming that there is no other teacher available, there’s no video to watch and/or the players aren’t interested in reading through the rules themselves. It’s up to S to teach the game, so what can they do?

It sounds like the problem is the fact that S has a bunch of expectant faces looking up at them eager to learn. That’s a very different situation than standing in a room full of people who are waiting for a speech or presentation. It’s much more intense and personal and can cause a lot of anxiety. One tip would be to try to forget that those other people are there.

Sean, suggests finding something else to focus on in the room. He works in stage lighting and on stage focusing on a bright light often helps performers. While there may not be a bright light at your game table you should be able to find something to focus on. For example, a clock, the game box, or the board in the centre of the table.

My personal suggestion is to just focus on the game you are teaching. Focus on the physical components. Keep your eye on the board, on the cards, on the dice. Adjust your focus as you are teaching. When talking about the market, turn your body to face the market, keep concentration on the market, motion towards it. It’s going to be natural that your players are going to follow that focus and look at what you are focusing on. Try to only think about the game itself and the flow of the game and forget that there are other people at the table there as well.

Everyone looking at me expectantly. Perhaps the problem is the intensity of the players staring at you? In this case, find something for the players to look at other than you. This goes back to the learning styles above. Specifically the watching and doing part of learning. Give the players something to do other than watch you. Have them shuffle cards, set out the tiles, sort the resource cubes. Combine this with teaching the actual mechanics. By diverting their eyes off you, you can focus on teaching the rules and not their reactions to your words.

Teaching games is a skill and like any skill, it gets better with practice. In order to feel more comfortable teaching games take some time to practice teaching. I personally like to sit down with a game by myself after punching it and go through the motions as I read through the rules. Have the board set up and all the pieces out. Talk to yourself while doing this. Practice saying what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Learning Sorcerer the board game. The next step is to do this in front of an audience. Here is where close friends and family can help. If they are gamers great, you can actually play the game with them. Before I teach any game in public I like to play through a two-player game with just Deanna and I. I’m comfortable around her and I’m not worried about making mistakes. I know I’m going to make them and she knows it too. It’s learning from those mistakes that is going to make any teaching to other players I do go smoother.

It’s amazing how much better I can teach a game after even just one play of it. Having actually seen the mechanics being used and having a better understanding of the why of things as well as the how really helps when it comes time to share that info with others. In S’s case, it sounds like their girlfriend would be the perfect person to do this kind of one on one practice teaching with.

One final thing to keep in mind is the fact that you are doing something awesome for these players. You are taking time and effort to teach them something new. Players are going to be thankful for this. You are doing them a service and people are going to appreciate that. People are very forgiving of people doing something nice for them and most players learning a game are no different. They are going to forgive your foibles and mistakes. And you are going to make mistakes. I’ve been teaching games for many years now and I still make mistakes.

The more you teach games the more comfortable you will get doing it and the better you will get at it. You are gathered together with a group of other people to sit down and have fun. By taking the step to teach games you are bringing that fun to more people, and that’s a great thing.


Do you have any other suggestions to help S. keep their focus while teaching? What do you do to focus while teaching games?

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