FallCon 28

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How to Teach Games Part I

Tim O’Connor – Fallcon.com

One of the things I love about this hobby is the passion people have to introduce others to the world of

non-electronic gaming. At every game conference or Meetup I attend, people are generally happy to

welcome new players to the table and teach them a new game. Maybe it’s the fact that non-electronic

games need other players (usually opponents, but sometimes cooperators), and so we all recognize the

requirement to attract and engage others. In this way we are all ambassadors for the hobby.

In this article I want to explore the role of teaching games. If you’ve been playing games for any period

of time, I’m sure you have experienced how NOT to teach games. One situation that comes to mind for

me is when someone tried to teach me a game by reading me the rulebook. Or when the game teacher

launches into an unstructured, meandering description of a game that jumps from components, to

actions, to victory conditions, to strategy, and then back to components, with seemingly little rhyme nor


Let me state my opinion on this topic directly – if you are in this hobby, please, please, double-please

learn how to teach games! Invest some time in understanding how people learn, use some structure,

and invest a little preparation time before attempting to teach. This is always important, but even more

so for those of us who may be teaching to people who are new to the hobby. It could be that one

“moment of truth” where we engage that new person, or scare them away forever.

Let me also state that I am not the only resource for this topic. There are many great resources online

including Ryan Sturm’s “How to Play” Podcast, Mario Lanza’s “The Finer Points of Teaching Rules”, and

various other online resources including forums on www.boardgamegeek.com like this one. I have

however been involved in adult learning for a significant part of my career, and hope I can use that

experience to provide some useful insights.


Here’s the scenario: You plan to attend the next board game meetup, and you’ve been asked by one of

the organizers to teach a game to a group of new people. Of course you’re excited, but what are some

of the things you should think about:

1. Know the Game

Maybe this is stating the obvious, but it’s important to know the game well

before you teach it. If it’s been a while since you’ve played, reread the rules and/or read an

online review before teaching. More and more online reviews, including great video reviews,

are becoming available on the web.

One special circumstance that may make this more challenging is where a game is brand new

and you haven’t played it before. In this situation, reading through the rules a few times

combined with some mock solo play and a review of online resources is probably your best


2. Time is the Enemy

This is an area that many gamers don’t seem to appreciate. You have at

most 10 minutes of one-way explanation before you start losing people (less time with children).

After that your audience will start to become impatient and antsy. You need to get them ‘doing’

something within that timeframe. The doing can include Q & A, having a look at some of the

components to test for understanding, or getting started on the first round of play. I’m also a

big fan of the “let’s plan to play a few learning rounds and then restart” approach for more

complex games.

3. The Learning Game

Here’s another scenario I see all too often. Right after the explanation,

the teacher switches hats and becomes a fierce competitor. Get over it! Resign yourself to the

fact that if you are teaching a game to people who are new to it, you will remain the teacher

through the whole game. Throughout the game you should be making recommendations,

providing advice, and even talking through the logic of your own moves and decisions openly.

So put away the competitor hat until your fellow players have one or two plays under their


4. Know your Audience

There’s no point in saying “this is a worker placement game” or “it’s a bit

like Puerto Rico” if your audience doesn’t have that context. Teach to the lowest level of

background. And the only way to know what that is to ask what types of games your fellow

players know or like. Be prepared to flex your delivery depending on the audience; there’s a big

difference between teaching to the “I’ve only played Trivial Pursuit” person versus the “I own

563 games, have hand-painted all my components and my bumper sticker reads ‘Free the

Meeple’ “ … (not mentioning any names 😉

5. Be Enthusiastic AND Patient

I was helping out at the Calgary Entertainment Expo a few weeks

ago, and overheard one of my colleagues teaching a fantasy miniature game to a group of young

teens. He was jumping up and down, speaking loudly, and animating every laser blast and

explosion. And the teens were eating it up, sharing in the contagious emotional energy.

At the same time we need to be patient. People learn at different rates and in different ways.

Take your time, pause for questions and feedback, and be prepared to repeat. The goal is not to

deliver the lecture, but rather to transfer the understanding of the game.

6. Have a Plan

Recognize that the process for teaching a game can be different in structure to

playing it or to the way the rules are laid out. I’ve seen many game explanations that start with,

“so here’s what you do…” and launching into player actions. This is the wrong approach, and in

Part 2 of this article I’ll share a teaching structure that has worked well for me in the past.

So if you are passionate about non-electronic games, recognize that you will be wearing the teaching hat

from time to time. It’s an important role, don’t take it too lightly, and consider investing a bit of time in

honing your skills to become a better teacher of games.

Stay young – keep playing games!

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