Teaching New Gamers vs. Experienced Gamers – Ask The Bellhop

Today on Ask The Bellhop I’m answering a question from a fellow Windsor gamer about teaching games to different types of gamers.

This is a direct follow up to a previous question we answered back in August. In How Do You Approach Teaching Board Games I talked about the way people learn, how you can use that to help teach games.

Sean Michael David Hamilton asks,

Teaching gamers a new game vs teaching mundanes a new game. That’s always one people have some struggle with.

Along with reading the blog post below you can also listen to us discuss this topic on Tabletop Bellhop Live Episode 23: Second Semester.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. As an associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. There is no cost to you, I just get a small kickback if you buy something through one of these links.

A short PSA:

First off I have to start with an admonishment. I know the Sean who asked this question and I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but please do not call people who don’t share your hobby mundanes, muggles, norms, or whatever. It can be seen as derogatory and can create division. You are not a better person than someone else because you play a certain game or don’t play a certain game.

The Short Answer:

The rules. A pile of books, manuals, and instructions for various games.This is probably pretty self evident but the biggest difference between a gamer and a non gamer is their amount of gaming experience. That level of experience determines the prospective game player’s frame of reference. It’s this frame of reference you want to pay attention to when teaching games.

If a new player knows nothing about games their frame of reference is very narrow and you will need to explain every little bit of the game. On the opposite end is someone with a lot of experience, they probably have a wide frame of reference when it comes to games and mechanics and you may be able to explain a game in seconds by referencing common terms from other games.

Really, that’s about it, but I think I can get into some more detail and give some examples to help clarify what I mean. If you are interested in that read on.

The Long Answer:

So the main thing you need to consider when teaching anyone a new game is how much gaming experience they have. You need to determine their frame of reference from this experience. What games do they know? What mechanics are they familiar with? What terms do they already understand and what will you need to explain?

This is going to help you determine two things. The first is what game you should be teaching and second is how you go about teaching that game when you pick it.

Now the first part, picking what game to teach seems like an entirely different topic to me. Something that deserves it’s own blog post and podcast discussion. I will just say here that you should stick to simpler gateway games for new gamers and when picking a game for anyone always try to find one that only introduces one new concept at a time.

So now that we know what game we are teaching how do we adapt our teaching style based on who we are teaching it to?

Watch Your Terminology:

Phil Vecchione teaching his PbtA RPG Hydro Hacker Operatives or H2OOne of the main things to watch for is terminology and jargon. There are a ton of terms we use when talking about the games we love. Just take a peek at our Giant List of Tabletop Game Mechanics. It’s got 56 different terms just for game mechanics. Mechanics aren’t the only terms we use. We’ve got special names for game components like Chit, or Meeple. We use terms like Kingmaking, Quarterbacking and A.P. or Analysis Paralysis.

For someone new to the hobby, all of these words and terms can be incredibly confusing. So one of the first things you should do when you learn that someone doesn’t know a lot of games or game terms is adjust your vocabulary appropriately. It’s not just about avoiding these terms but rather defining them when you use them.

We all had to learn these terms at some point, just realize that getting a bunch of them tossed at you all at once can be disorientating and discouraging.

Find a Common Base:

One of the first things I do when meeting a new gamer is try to figure out where they are on the game experience scale. I do this with leading questions. What’s your favourite game? What did you play growing up? What’s the last game you played and enjoyed?

The board game Dragon Castle being demoed at Origins Game Fair 2018Once I have a bit of a base to start on I will begin asking about specific games. If the player notes they have only played mass market games, ask about a variety of games with different mechanics. Have they played Clue and thus know deduction, point to point movement, roll and move, etc? Monopoly players will be familiar with trading and hopefully auctions assuming they actually played Monopoly properly (don’t count on it).

This doesn’t just apply to people new to hobby games. I do the same thing meeting someone at a regular game night. If they note they have played Star Realms then I know they are familiar with deck building, managing resources, a health pool, etc.

What I’m trying to figure out here is what mechanics and terms the new player already knows as well as determine what comparisons I can draw between the games they have played and what I am teaching.

Comparison is Key:

When teaching anyone a new game it becomes much easier if you can use the information they already know. I can teach Ascension in minutes if a player is already familiar with Star Realms. It might take me a few minutes more if they have only played Dominion. With a player who’s only card game experience is Poker, it’s going to take a lot longer.

Playing Hardback the deck building word game.Knowing what games a player already knows gives me a shortcut when I’m teaching. It tells me what I can skip over because they already know that mechanic or term. It also tells me what I can explain quickly and simply. For example for many experienced gamers I can say: “It uses the Power Grid auction system.”, and that’s enough for everyone at the table to know exactly how auctions work in this new game. This also leads me to knowing where I need to fill in the gaps.

It’s extremely common for me to say “It’s like X, but…” when teaching a game to experienced gamers. How often I say that is mostly dependent on how much gaming experience they have. People learn by building on their existing experiences and the more you can call on those the easier the player is going to learn whatever new game you are teaching.

Check for Understanding:

I talked about this quite a bit at the end of my original teaching article but it’s worth mentioning here again.

While you are teaching you should be checking in with your new players and making sure they are grasping what you are teaching. It’s the same reason you had tests in school and why after any important workplace training you often have a short quiz. It’s not to punish you but rather to tell the teacher if they have gotten their point across.

BWBY being taught at OriginsWhat matters now is how often you should be doing this. With someone without much gaming experience you will probably have to do this more often. For example, once you explain that in deck building when you go to draw a card and all your cards are in the discard pile that’s when you shuffle, you probably want to come back to that rule again later after explaining something else, like how some cards let you draw more cards during your turn. At that point you can ask the player, “And if there are no cards in your deck, what do you do?”

With players new to hobby gaming you really do have to make sure they get the basics before expecting them to grasp more complex rules and even more importantly more complex strategies.

Don’t be Afraid of Mistakes:

Learning a new game can be hard. There’s usually a ton of knowledge dumped on you all at once. There may be unfamiliar terms, funky new pieces, dice like you’ve never seen before and mechanics you’ve never dreamed of. Expect people to make mistakes and roll with it when they do. Politely correct any mistakes made and be willing to back up a turn or two. Allow for more time to play than normal. No one likes to be rushed and learning something new takes time.

The Mind from Pandasaurus being played at Origins Game Fair.

You want to make the game experience as welcoming and inviting as possible. No teaching game should feel like a competition. Sure people are playing to win, but no one is going to walk away with a trophy for winning a game their first play.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to start over. This is one that I find people don’t do often enough.

Gamers seem obsessed with finishing a game if they start it, but there’s nothing wrong with playing a few turns, confirming that everyone gets what’s going on, answering a few final questions and then starting the game over. I find this extremely useful for new players and for games that take a couple of turns to grok for new players of any experience level.

People learn best by doing and learn from their mistakes. So let everyone play and make mistakes and then restart with the knowledge they gained from that experience.

It All Takes Practice:

Teaching games is a skill. A skill that has to be learned and one that improves with practice. The more you teach the better you will get at teaching. The more you teach gamers of various levels of skill and experience the better you will get at teaching a wide variety of gamers.

Terraforming Mars the best game I own being taught and played at The CG Realm.The only real difference between teaching someone new to games and someone with a lot of gaming familiarity is their frame of reference. For new players you are going to have to explain more things and those things will probably need to be explained in more detail. Find a common ground and build upon that. Build upon the players existing experience no matter how big or small that experience is.

Now get out there and share you love of gaming with the world!

Do you have any tips or tricks for teaching games? Is there a secret to getting a new gamer to grasp that mechanic that all of us have been using for years?

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2 Responses

  1. The “trick” I do when explaining games to “new to gaming” players is to describe things in a manner that incorporates the inherent theme (if any) in the game. The relation of a mechanic and a thematic aspect of the game tends to reinforce WHY the player needs to do it. I’ll use Agricola as an example, as there is a lot of aspects to teach to new people and I recently did it.
    In the game, players need to allocate a worker to a location in order to take an action. Actions can do a lot of different things, but one of the primary actions is to gain food that will be required in the harvest phase at a 2 food per worker ratio. But explaining that way might be a bit dry and cause confusion to absolutely new people.
    So I show them the Food tokens. I just call it “food”. I show them their workers, but I call them “Ma and Pa”. Ma and Pa go out to work on their farm, plowing fields and gathering grain or herding animals. Now you might have a plowed field, and you might have grain, but in order to get MORE grain, you need to PLANT the grain and let it grow. And in order to gain benefit from the Sheep you herded, which you need to keep in a fenced pasture otherwise the sheep will run away, is to have some way to cook that sheep up. You can’t eat it raw! So you need to build a fire place or an oven. THEN you can cook your sheep up for food. Or you can turn some of that grain into bread! Sure, you can eat the grain without cooking it, but it takes a lot of it to feed a person. When you make bread, you can feed MORE people with just a little grain!

    That really helps people envision and understand WHY they need to do things, and why they need to take certain steps before they take other steps. You need to gather wood to build a fence and make a pasture before you can herd animals into your pasture. You herd animals first, all of those animals will run away (except one that you can keep in your house). It is logical, it makes sense, and it fits in the theme of the game which reinforces their understanding of the game in a more logical manner than referring to “action spaces” and “harvest phases” and “major improvement cards” and such.

    1. Phil,

      Awesome comment. Just wish WordPress notified me that you made it!

      Saw it now though. This is very true though only works with games with a solid tie between theme and mechanics. It definitely helps people to understand WHY they want to take different actions and that’s so much easier to explain when you can tie it to real life themes or experiences.

      Thanks again for the great comment,

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