You’ve just bought a shiny new board game and want to sit down and play it right away. What are the best ways to sit down and learn that new game right from the box?
In this article, I share a number of tips and tricks for you to use when opening up a new game and trying to play right away. Here are some ideas on how to get your games played as soon as possible.
A question about learning board games right out of the box:
This topic comes from Tabletop Bellhop Patreon Patron Jeff Szusz who writes:
It’s common advice that you should learn a game yourself before you get it to the table and bore two or three other people trying to learn it – but some folks may find it hard to sit with a game, alone, and really figure it out.
Also, sometimes you’re at a public play event and want to try something nobody at your table owns. Have you any tips for a group trying to unbox and learn a game together for the first time?
I want to start by highlighting the first part of Jeff’s question, the part about common advice. This is something I feel very strongly about. You should do everything you can to try to learn a game BEFORE sitting down to play it. You should also do any prep work, like punching things out, sorting the components into baggies, and assembling any miniatures, before any game hits the table for play.
Being organized, knowledgeable, and prepared leads to all of the players having a better experience. This is even more important when playing with new players and/or introducing a new game for the first time. You want the player’s impressions to be of the gameplay itself, and your game night overall, and not how long it took to read the rules and get a game set up to play.
In a perfect world, when people come to your table to play a game it should be set up and ready to go and you (or someone else) should be well prepared to teach everyone to play. However, we don’t live in a perfect world.
There are a number of reasons that you may not be able to prepare to play a game ahead of time. This could be because of time constraints or other commitments. Getting a game ready to play and learning how to play it takes time. If you don’t have a lot of spare time, your time for gaming may need to overlap with your time for game learning.
Or, it could be that you and the other players are just really hyped to play a game that you just got. I have to admit, even I get this feeling when I pick up a new game from the FLGS and bring it home. I want to get it to the table as soon as possible.
Maybe you are at a convention or a game store and trying out a new game for the first time. When you are trying a demo copy or a game that you borrowed from a public game library, you may have no choice but to sit down and try to figure the game out on the fly.
I’m sure there are many other reasons you might end up at a table with a brand new game and players excited to play it. In this article, I’m going to give you some suggestions for making the most out of this circumstance.
For more discussion on this topic check out The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast Episode 141, Out of the Box where Sean and I discuss Jeff’s question.
Tips and suggestions for learning a new game out of the box:
My first tip is that the person who owns the game doesn’t have to be the one that does all of the work.
Yes, I realize that having the person who bought or owns the board game be the one who is responsible for opening it up, punching it, reading the rules, learning how to play and teaching others how to play, is the default standard in most game groups. However, while it is common practice it doesn’t have to be. To me, this standard places undue value, or pressure, on being the game owner.
A game is something that a group of people are going to enjoy together and to that end, those people should work together to enjoy that game. There should be no pressure or requirement for the game owner to open, unpackage, re-box and learn a game.
While it is physically easier for the original owner to do this since they are the ones who physically have access to the game, there’s no reason why they can’t pass off that game to someone else in their group who’s more interested in learning and teaching games.
Now I do realize that this will vary from person to person and group to group. I know a number of gamers who totally baulk at the idea of letting someone else open up and punch one of their games. They want that experience for themselves and that’s fair. I also know groups where no one really wants to learn or teach games, so it ends up having to be the game owner by default. Even with these groups I do suggest at least trying to share the work even if just a little bit.
Maybe the game owner gets to punch everything and organize it all and they just lend the rules to someone who’s better at teaching games. Or perhaps the group with no game teacher calls the FLGS to see if anyone there is willing to teach the game, perhaps turning it into a demo night which could be a win/win for both parties.
As a follow up to this, my next suggestion to help share the burden is to divvy out new games at the end of a regular game night. After you are done gaming, but before everyone goes home, put all of the new hotness on the table and have players split up the games. You can either share the responsibility evenly or split games up between players who are interested in learning and teaching.
There are also digital options for those who don’t like to learn games from rulebooks. If you know which games you plan on playing have everyone go watch a how to play video online beforehand. Today practically every board game has someone out there with a video walkthrough. My favourite options include Watch It Played, Rahdo Runs Through and Gaming Rules, but there are plenty more. Having everyone show up at least familiar with the game will greatly speed up the time it takes to get playing.
All of these tips so far are great if you’ve got some time to prep and are also great for learning to play before sitting down at the table together, but that’s not really what Jeff is looking for.
So, finally, here are some suggestions to get that new game hot out of the shrink played right away:
Tip 1: Share the responsibility. As I already mentioned it shouldn’t be up to one person to do all the work. This is even more true when you are all trying to learn a game together.
Crack open the shrinkwrap, open ‘er up and dive in, splitting up the components between the players. Have some people punching, while other people are sorting, and have someone else quickly flip to the game set up section of the rulebook (it’s usually the first thing in there after a component list) and work together to quickly get the game organized and ready to play.
This has the added advantage of getting everyone used to the look and feel of the components in the game while discovering the pieces together as a group.
Tip 2: An alternative to this, for when you are at a public play event or a larger at home event, would be to have the person most interested in playing the new game do this prep-work off to the side while everyone else plays a different game.
This is what I a, most likely to do when I decide to buy a new game the night of an event. This has the bonus of letting the game owner be the only one punching things, without the worry of someone else ripping or tearing something, and also letting them organize the bits however they prefer. The bad part is that the owner is also the only one getting familiar with the pieces for the game. On the plus side, it also means the entire group doesn’t have to wait to start playing, and just leaves one person out of the gaming until they are ready to play with the new game.
The next set of tips focuses on learning the game. Here’s what to do once you have everything open, set up, and ready to go.
Tip 3: See if anyone around already knows how to play and is willing to teach it. This could be someone already at the table who has prior experience with the game or it could be someone else at a public play event. Some game stores and many game cafes have game teachers on staff and it’s worth using their expertise if it’s available. Similarly, you can tap into your local pool of gamer knowledge if you’re at a public event. There are lots of gamers out there very happy to teach you the games they know and love.
Tip 4: Find the best rule learner. As we’ve talked about in the past, different people learn in different ways and some people are better at learning game rules than others. Source your game group and see if anyone is particularly good at absorbing rules or if there’s someone who just loves learning to play new games. Give this person the rules and let them learn the game. If possible do this early, while everyone else is sorting the components or setting up.
In general, I recommend this person do this as a solo experience and avoid reading the rules out loud to the other players. They should finish reading whatever needs to be read (not every game needs you to read the full rules in order to get playing) then summarize for the other players. The only time I would actually have someone read the rules verbatim is if everyone else at the table agrees to it. There are some people who can actually learn games this way but I find that it’s a rare skill.
Tip 5: What do you do when you can’t find someone to teach and you don’t have a rule learner in the group? In this unfortunate situation, your best bet is to just dig in and work through it. I suggest that you try to tackle the rules one section at a time while acting things out on the actual game table.
Have someone read out a section of the rules then have everyone go through the motions. Play out an example, draw cards when instructed, shuffle decks, place workers. The focus here is on touching things and learning the game actions. Most people are going to learn best by doing, so often the best way to learn a game is by playing. Go through section by section until you are actually playing the game.
Learning the game as you play leads me to a side note: remind everyone it is a learning game, no one has played before, the points don’t matter, who cares who wins, the point is to figure the game out not to dominate the other players. This should be true for your first play of any game but more so for a game where you are all trying to learn at the same time.
Tip 6: Remember how to play videos are a thing. Earlier I suggested using online how to play videos as a tool for your group to learn a game before game night, but there’s nothing stopping you from using these resources at the table. The internet has become so ubiquitous that people often forget that it’s there.
I don’t know how many times I see gamers sitting there using their cell phones to take pictures of the games they are playing, look online at FAQs, or log their plays on BGG, who never think to bring up a how to play video when trying to learn a game. For most modern gaming groups there’s probably someone who has a phone or tablet on hand. Set that up in the middle of the table and load up your favourite content creator.
Alternatively, you could have one person watch an appropriate video and then have them teach the players. You could also have everyone watch their own favourite content creator which could be useful as the quality of how to play videos can vary and even the best channels sometimes make mistakes.
Tip 7: Use Board Game Geek and other online tools. Things like turn summaries, player aids, resolution flowcharts, FAQs and more can really improve any gameplay experience and that goes for learning a brand new game as well. While it’s great if you can find and print these things off ahead of time, there’s nothing wrong with having a player aid up on your phone while learning a new game.
Tip 8: You don’t have to finish your learning game. This is the tip that no one actually follows but that everyone agrees is a great idea in theory.
Don’t finish your first game. Get playing as quickly as possible, as noted earlier, and play to find out what happens. Play to learn the game, not to win it. This shouldn’t take an entire game to figure out. Once everyone is comfortable with the rules, stop the game.
Before restarting, give the rulebook a once over to make sure you were playing correctly and didn’t mess anything up. Then restart the game from the beginning. Now that everyone knows what’s going on this should be a much more enjoyable gaming experience overall. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy, there’s no reason you need to finish that first learning game. The goal of that play was to learn the game, once you’ve hit that goal it’s time to start over and “play for real”.
Finally one bonus tip: Have patience. I know gamers get all excited about their new games and just NEED to get it to the table right away, as quickly as possible. They want to experience the new hotness and get to try out a hyped game for themselves. That thrill of getting a new thing is fresh and they can’t wait to tear into it. I totally get it. I’ve been there myself.
Anyone in this situation should take a step back and think for a moment. You have a new game, a game you are looking forward to playing and getting to experience for the first time. You want that game to be as much fun as possible. You want it to be every bit as much fun as you expected and to live up to the hype. The best way to get the most out of this new game is to take your time with it.
So instead of playing right now and trying to figure things out right away, maybe hold off a bit. Put this new game aside and play something you already know and love. Then later you can dedicate the time your new game deserves, learning how to play ahead of time and setting up a future game night where you can properly dive in and do the most to set up a positive rewarding game experience instead of rushing things to the table. Overall you are probably going to enjoy that game much more when everyone is prepped and ready to play it.
Remember though, you can still share the wealth. Maybe part of that prep means handing the game off to someone else to learn.
There you have my tips for getting that hot new game to the table and getting everyone playing it as quickly as possible. Do you have any tips for playing games right out of the box? I would love to hear them in the comments below!
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