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How do you approach teaching board games? – Ask The Bellhop

How to approach teaching board games. A discussion on teaching tips and techniques specifically geard towards teaching boardgames. #TeachingBoardGames #BoardGameTips #TabletopBellhop #boardgames #tabletop

Andrew D, over on the Misdirected Mark #Slackroom4Life asks,


How do you approach getting heavier games to the table in terms of teaching people how to play? Get them to watch a how to play video before they come, do the first playthrough as a teaching session, do a big info dump at the start, or something else?.


This is a great question Andrew,


Teaching is a skill, one that can be learned and one that has to be practiced. Game teaching is the same thing. It’s something that takes practice and that you get better at over time. It’s also something you can study and learn. I’ve had a lot of practice myself due to running public events and through that I’ve learned a few tricks which I hope I can pass on. I really don’t think the skills for teaching a heavier game are all that different than those required for teaching a simple game, you just need to use more of them.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


Listen to us discuss this topic on the podcast: Tabletop Bellhop Live Podcast Episode 5 – Back To School

The short answer:

Fallout The Board game all set up and ready to play.Teaching a game is something you should prepare for. This preparation is something you do on your own before the players show up ready to play. Have the game set up and ready to go when the players get there if possible. When you teach try to be sure to do three things: Tell, show, and have them do. Tell them the rules, show them how those rules work with the components, and get the players actually doing things sooner rather than later.

Learning to teach has never been easier. Nowadays, you can find how to play videos out there for almost every game. Watch those and see how others teach games, make notes and then go out and use what you have learned. The best way to learn is by actually doing, so go out there and teach people new games. The more you do it the better you will get.


The long answer:

One of the biggest things that will improve your ability to teach, is knowing a bit about how people learn and then using that to your advantage when passing on information. People learn things in four main ways, and every person is different in how much they favour each one. People learn by reading, hearing, watching and doing.

Some people may retain information better when they read it. Others have to see it to really grok it, and so on. The most important of these learning methods is doing. Doing leads to better retention in almost all cases. Because of this, one of the most important tips is to get players actually doing things themselves as quickly as possible.


Learning by Reading

If you have a player that prefers to learn by reading in your group, often the best bet is to send them a PDF of the rules ahead of time or lend them a physical copy of the rules. If they like to read and retain rules better by reading them, let them read. Sometimes these players actually make the best teachers, and there’s nothing wrong with finding out if someone else in your group is willing to read and learn the rules. Just because you own the game or you are the host of the game night doesn’t mean you have to be the one teaching the rules.

Big Trouble In Little China The Board Game Rulebook

So what do you do if you have to teach a reader? For these players, you want things like player handouts, reference cards, and summary sheets. Something they can look over as you verbally explain the rules and something they can reference as you show them how to play.

Many games come with reference cards but there are some that don’t. One great resource I’ve found is The Esoteric Order of Gamers. They produce some of the best reference sheets I’ve ever seen. I like to print off a copy of their sheets and put it right there in the game box. When running tournaments where I may have to teach a large variety of games in the shortest time period possible, these have been invaluable. Besides being great for me to reference as a teacher, they are perfect to hand over to any readers in the group to review both before and during play.


Learning by Hearing

To me verbally explaining mechanics and rules is the hardest part of game teaching. It’s the skill you will suck at when you are first starting out and the one that will improve the most with practice. Here is where watching other people teach rules helps the most and where doing things like actually talking to yourself in a mirror can help. You have to make sure you can be heard and what you are saying can be understood. Then you have to worry about retention, the players need to remember what they heard and understood. There are some techniques to improve your odds at that.

Repeat the important stuff. What’s important? Well, that depends on the game, but one of the key things to make sure everyone understands is how to win. What is the goal of the game? Sure you have these Settlements and these Roads and I can trade Wood for Sheep, but why do I want to do that? This is more important than the little mechanics.

The mechanics are the “how”, for people to remember the “how’ it really helps if they know why. For each part of the game you teach you should provide three things: what, how and why. What is the mechanic? How does it work? And, why would you use that mechanic?

Let’s look at an example:

Settlers of Catan the original printing of the classic board game.What: Building a road in Catan.

How: You trade a wood and a brick to the market and get a road marker. Place your road marker on the board with the following restrictions (must connect to an existing route, off of one of your roads or settlements).

Why: You want to build roads to build new Settlements which are worth victory points and that you can turn into cities that are worth even more points. You can also try to earn The Longest Road bonus for having the longest chain and it’s worth 2 points. Remember that it’s a race to 10 points. In this case, I noted what, how and why. I’ve also mentioned the goal, 10 points, that’s something I would repeat many times during that teaching session.

Something else to watch out for is visual cues from your players. Nodding is good. Leaning in is good. Picking up and looking at components, cards, reference sheets, etc. That’s good. Leaning back, yawning, furrowed brows of confusions. Those are not good. If you see those indicators,  mix things up. Try other teaching techniques, or try to reword things. Make sure you are explaining why and not just how. Ask questions and re-engage the players.


Learning by Watching

I’m sure everyone has heard this before: don’t just tell, show!

While you are talking about and explaining the rules, show the players. Draw cards. Move pieces. Flip tiles. Roll Dice. Sort commodities. Put money in the bank. Whatever action you are describing from the game, physically do it using the actual game components.

Going back to the Catan road example from before. I should have the map out and I should have a few settlements and roads out there. I should show the players a wood and a brick card and put them back into the market. I should take my road piece and I should show a variety of placement options, some legal and some not, and explain why for each of them. Very few people are going to learn just hearing you talk, they need to see it. Even the people who read by learning are going to make better sense of those words when they see them put to use.

The players look over their Patent cards in Terraforming Mars as I teach the rules.To take this to the next level one of the best things you can do is seed the game before play. Set up the game in such a way as to facilitate teaching. Stack the deck. Set dice to the proper sides. Place the trap tile into a specific square so you know where it is. Only put black cubes in the dragon bag. Whatever fits best for the game you are teaching.

You want to set up examples that show the most complicated rules and you want to do that without having to search around for components. If possible you may even be able to set up and play through a sample game round. By pre-setting up all the components you know what all of the random outcomes will be which will help facilitate your teaching.

Going back to Catan. I could show setting up the game, and make sure my last settlement is on a spot where I get wood and sheep but no brick, then set up a second player so they have brick and two other resources. Then I can show of a turn by pre-setting the dice to 7, explaining the robber rules, stealing a card from that second player and showing that I did not get the brick I wanted. Then describe the trading rules and physically move a sheep card from my hand and trade it for that much-needed brick. I would then return the played wood and brick card to the market and place the road. Now if I’m really good, I have another part of the board set up where I can show how you can use a road to cut off another player or steal the longest road card. With this one example, I’m showing off three to four different important game mechanics.

The key thing here is to not just talk. Don’t sit there and read the rules. Have examples, have the board set up, have components set out and use them to show how the rules interact with the components as you explain them.


Learning by Doing

Actually having a player do something is the best way to get them to remember the game mechanics you are trying to teach. Have the players actually interact with the mechanics themselves. The earlier you do this the better.

Almost everything I talked about under Learning by Seeing can be improved by having one of the players actually do the action. Have them draw the cards. Have them move the miniature across the board. Let them roll the dice. Try to involve all the player at the table too. So maybe one player draws the movement card, but then the next player determines where the piece moves and then a third player actually moves the miniature.

Wasteland Express Delivery Service a great post apocalyptic pick up and deliver game.The second part of this is getting into the actual game as soon as possible. You don’t have to teach every single rule before you start playing. If there are things that only come up when a certain number is rolled or when a certain card is played or some other triggering event, wait to explain that until that trigger happens.

I also find that any game with a large amount of endgame scoring is often better taught by explaining that once you start playing. Stefan Feld games are famous for this. You can comment at the start of the game that there are lots of ways to get points, but wait until the players get the basic mechanics before tossing a huge list at them. Maybe you wait until the third round to explain the actual points you get for the sets the players have started collecting. The hard part about this technique is knowing what you can save for later. What you want to do is teach as much as possible while you are actually playing the game. In this way, everyone is doing as they are learning.

One final note, there is a certain type of gamer out there that will want to know everything up front and will resent rules being added later. I’ve met more than a few over the years. Due to this I always ask before using this technique. Just something as simple as: So there are event cards we flip up one per turn, if you don’t mind, I’m going to skip past that and I will explain what each does as they come up, is that cool?


Check for Understanding

There’s a reason that teachers ask questions to the class and have tests. They are trying to confirm that you’ve actually learned what they have tried to teach you. The adult HR term for this is the check for understanding or verifying competency.

What a check for understanding means when teaching games is to make sure that the players are groking what you put out there. And, no I don’t mean you should write out a multiple choice quiz for your players. I just mean that while teaching you should be asking directed questions. Questions that will confirm that they understand what you have tried to teach. You want to use this for the hardest, most difficult to grasp, parts of the rules. So I’ve now built two roads from that settlement, what do you think I may want to build next?

Bioshock Infinite the Board Game a rather interesting take on the video gameAlong with this continually pause and ask if anyone has any questions of their own. People asking questions is a good thing. It means they are trying to figure things out and have hit a snag and are looking for you to unhook them. It’s also common for players to interrupt with a question. In most cases pause and answer but, don’t be afraid to put the answer on hold, especially if their question will be answered later in your teaching. “Don’t worry, I will get to that in a minute.” is something I find myself saying often. I’ve found if you don’t do this the entire teaching session turns into a disorganized Q&A and it’s very easy to get off track. Just be sure that you assure the player you will get to their question and when you are done teaching go back to them and confirm that you did indeed address their concern.


Putting it All Together

So you’ve got this shiny new game you really want to play but you know it’s a big heavy game, that it’s not going just take 10 minutes to teach and there’s a lot to learn. Well now you have the knowledge, some tools for your teaching toolbox, it’s time to put them to use.

The first step is learning the game. That’s pretty much the flip side of this blog post and an entirely different topic altogether (and potentially a future blog post). The important point, for now, is that in order to teach the game you have to know it yourself. Do whatever you need to do to get there. Trying to teach a game, especially a heavy game, that you don’t know doesn’t usually go well.

Next up: be prepared. Print off any reference sheets, extra copies of the rules, an FAQ, etc. You may even want to go so far as to laminate this stuff. At the same time send out copies to any of your players who you know will actually read them and put them to use. If it all possible, set up the game ahead of time. Have it ready to play when the players get there. Or, even better, have it ready to teach by having the board set up so that you can show off the core mechanics and any hard to understand rules.

Keplar 3042 a somewhat hard science sci-fi board game.

The Preface. Before you even start teaching the game, explain to your players your familiarity with the game. Let the players know if this is your first time teaching the game or is it something you have played many times before. Let them know that this is a teaching game and that no one should worry too much about score or points or winning. At this point what is important is getting the rules down and learning the ins and outs of the game. Note to the players that this is also a good time to try things out, things that may not be the “best moves.” I never take the first play of a game seriously. The reason for this preface is so that everyone knows what to expect and to put everyone at ease. If you set up the expectation that this is a fun learning experience and not a competition it should change how players approach the game.

Teach the game. Follow the suggestions above. Don’t just tell the players how to play, show them. Where possible get the players interacting with the components. Try to get people doing things as quickly as possible and start playing the actual game while you are still teaching when you can.

Get to know your game group and adapt based on who you are teaching. I’ve noticed that many people don’t actually know how they learn best. They may tell you they prefer to read the rules but you may notice that they are actually way more engaged when you are showing them how to do things. Every player is different and learning these differences can help you adapt your teaching method to suit that player or group.

Learn from your mistakes. You are going to make them. You are going to forget a rule, then remember it in the second to last turn and then you are going to use that rule and win the game and it’s going to piss some alpha gamer off. It happens to all of us. We mess up the rules so often around here that we have a term for it: The Extreme Version.

Remember that teaching is a skill, one that you can learn and one that gets better with practice. Don’t be intimidated, just get out there and do it. The more you do the better you will get.


Do you have any tips and tricks for teaching games?

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