NYC Gamer              

Teaching for Dummies

August 1, 2008

Teaching a board game is partly an art and partly a science. It cannot be precisely explained or routinized, but it can be analyzed and discussed to some extent. While your method of teaching always needs to remain adaptable to the circumstances, the game, and the pupils, there is a basic framework that can be (and should be, in my humble opinion) applied across the board. I don't consider myself good at very many things, but teaching board games is something I seem to have a knack for. It comes with a lot of practice and even more patience. What follows is a list of ten steps that I recommend trying next time you set out to teach a board game. These may not work for every teacher or every game group, but I've tried them out with all sorts of games and all sorts of people, and they work for me. In developing this skill, you should keep in mind that it's one of those things that will go unnoticed if done well, but will quickly call attention to itself if done poorly. A well taught game is a smooth experience that integrates the new players into the game as seamlessly and painlessly as possible without them giving a second thought to the fact that they're having to learn and memorize a plethora of new rules. Here are the steps that I consider essential to teaching board games well, and some words of warning about potential pitfalls that I've seen others fall into on occasion.

Step One: Read the rules. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people try to teach a game without having previously read the rules, instead just reading them for the first time as they go. So I'll say it again, read the rules slowly and carefully. Better yet, read the rules with all of the components on the table in front of you. Set out the board, set out all of the pieces, and get familiar with everything that comes in that box. When you get to a section in the rules that is in bold, underlined, or italics, re-read that section a few times and try to internalize it. Do the same thing for exceptions from the rules. You should also do this for both setup instructions and ending conditions to make sure you fully understand the endpoints of the game. Having a good grasp for the beginning and end of the game and its scope will be important later in the process, so it's good to get a handle on it early on.

Step Two: Play a practice game by yourself (or at the very least a few turns). While most people do at least bother to read the rules before trying to teach a game, very few actually take the time to see how those rules work together in practice. Simulating at least a few turns, if not an entire game, will go a long way towards helping you internalize the rules and more importantly understand the flow of the game. It will also help you understand exactly what all of the components are used for. Most eurogames are broken up into a number of turns or rounds, which are further subdivided into a number of phases, and it is very difficult to grasp how all of those layers fit together without going through the motions. So do yourself and your game group a favor and set out the board, set out the pieces of a few imaginary players, and play through at least the first few turns. Have each of the imaginary players try out different approaches in order to test your understanding of the game, the rules, and the options available. This step obviously works much better with some games than with others. It's not as useful with auction or blind bidding games, but you'd be surprised how many games it actually does work for. It's an exceedingly useful and frequently overlooked step in the process.

Step Three: Skim back over the rules. The first reading is a close and slow reading to gain all of the necessary information, whereas this second reading is a quick skim to make sure you didn't play anything incorrectly in your practice game. You should focus on the setup, the breakdown of the rounds/phases, the actions available on a turn, and the ending conditions to make sure that you didn't miss anything important. You'll frequently find at least one or two things that you had slightly off or had forgotten altogether. A great game can easily be ruined by getting a single rule wrong, which often makes the game end far too quickly or drag on for far too long or make one strategy overpowered, so this step plays an important role in preventing that from happening. You may still miss a thing or two, but you'll greatly reduce your error rate by giving the rules one more quick skim.

Step Four: Know your audience (and try to continuously gauge their reactions and understanding over the course of teaching the game). Don't teach the rules with your eyes and ears closed, but rather make sure to pay attention to the clues that your pupils give you as to their understanding or confusion while you are teaching, whether those clues be facial expressions or verbal remarks. You should know whether your pupils are nodding their heads in agreement as you wind your way through the rules or giving you confused and perplexed stares. You need to tailor your approach to your audience, which is why this cannot be entirely boiled down to a science, but rather requires an artistic touch here and there to adapt to the circumstances at hand.

Step Five: Use the Funnel Approach. Start with the general and gradually move to the specific. Don't dive right in to the nitty-gritty. I've seen far too many eager people begin their explanations by diving right in to the actions that the players will be performing on their turn and the exceptions to the rules if particular circumstances arise during the game. These explainers need to take a step back and see for the forest for the trees. Don't get lost in the details before providing an overview. I try to begin my explanations with a brief sentence or two about the theme, no matter how pasted on the theme might be. You should then move to explaining the role that the players will be taking on during the game so that they have at least some understanding of their supposed motivation for why they're collecting tiles, playing cards, or whatever abstracted actions they might be doing. After you've briefly explained the theme and the role or motivation of the players, then you should explain the scope and structure of the game. Explaining the scope and structure is something that many people skip, but is particularly important before getting into the specifics. This varies from game to game, but generally means that you should explain the ark of the game, the timeline, and definitely the ending condition. Tell the players how many turns the game will last if it is a set number of turns (like 7 turns in Princes of Florence or 3 rounds in Ra), or tell them that you will keep playing until the bag of tiles is empty (like in Carcassonne, Tigris & Euphrates, New England, or Qwirkle), or whatever it is that will trigger the end of the game. This may seem slightly counterintuitive since they don't know how to play yet, but I guarantee that people sitting down to a new game will appreciate knowing the general timeline of the experience from the get-go. This will also help to put the turns and actions into context. Helping your pupils understand the context of the turns/rounds and their actions/decisions will go a long way towards making the rules easier to understand. People learning a new game need to be clearly told how the discrete pieces of the game fit together to make up the whole. Only after beginning with the theme, roles, scope, and overall structure, can you then move into the breakdown of the specific rounds, phases, and actions of the game.

Step Six: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. Say important rules multiple times. Don't go through your entire explanation with a monotone voice. Emphasize the key portions of your explanation. You can use your voice to provide emphasis, but in addition, the easiest and most effective way to emphasize something is simply to repeat it. In particular, I have found that it is very worthwhile to repeat the key points of a particular phase before moving on to explaining the next phase of the game. You want to get through your explanation relatively quickly, but you still need to take enough time to make sure the rules sink in and your pupils understand the fundamental building blocks that make up the structure of the game.

Step Seven: Don't answer their questions. Your pupils will likely have a tendency to interrupt your explanation with questions along the way. You should not feel compelled to answer their questions at the time that they are asked. I've seen too many explainers fall into the trap of allowing themselves to be sidetracked by a seemingly harmless question that is asked at an inopportune time. Usually the answer actually just leads to more questions because you haven't reached the appropriate point in the explanation to discuss that particular issue yet. You need to learn to politely tell the person asking the question that you will get to that point in a moment. You should listen to the questions that arise and make sure to answer them in your explanation, but you should definitely not let the questions disrupt your flow. If the question happens to ask about something that you realize you should have already covered or if it is simply looking for clarification then you may want to answer it when it is asked, but you should decide that for yourself and you should dictate the order in which the rules are explained. More often than not, the question is simply jumping the gun on a point that you were planning to get to at the appropriate time, and while it may seem tempting to answer it right away, it is frequently counter-productive.

Step Eight: Recap. Don't finish by slogging through all six phases and ending your explanation with a detailed discussion of the actions performed in phase six. Go back over the overall ark of the game. Remind the players what their role and motivation is, what the scope or timeline of the game is, and give them a quick rundown of how many rounds or phases there are and the name of each round/phase. You should start general with Step Five, then move to the specifics, but then move back to the general. You want your pupils to understand the context for their actions and not just the minutia of the actions themselves. If they understand why they're doing something and how their actions and decisions fit into the greater scheme of the game then it will be easier for them to remember the rules. You should also make sure to recap the various ways that the players score points or how the results will be calculated at the end of the game. There are usually a few different ways to gain victory points, or prestige, or fame, or money, or whatever it is you're competing for, and it is very helpful to end your recap by giving the players an oral bullet point list of the different ways to increase their score.

Step Nine: Finally time for the player aids. Contrary to many people's preferences, this is actually the point in the explanation where I like to hand out any player aids that may have come with the game. I know that most players want to get their paws on that player aid first thing, but I've found that they'll then be distracted from listening to the beginning of your explanation because they'll be reading the player aid. While people can read and listen at the same time, doing both simultaneously will make the words they’re reading and the words they’re hearing sink in less, so by the end, they’ll be getting less out of both your explanation and the player aid. I think it works much better to go through the oral explanation first and then distribute the player aids (such as the placards in Imperial or Tikal), pointing out how the player aid nicely summarizes everything you’ve just told them. For this to work, it's generally best to keep the player aids in the box (and not on the table) until you're ready to hand them out.

Step Ten: Your job doesn't end when the game begins. You don't have the luxury of playing the game just like everyone else. You need to remain watchful and attentive to what the other players are doing in order to make sure that they fully understand the rules. This doesn't necessarily entail giving strategy advice since the group you're playing with may not want that (or you may not have enough experience with the game to actually give substantive strategy advice), but rather this means reminding players what their options are on their turn. If an action that another player takes doesn't make sense to you, then you should ask them why they chose to do that in order to make sure that they're not doing something that seems strange to you because they are misunderstanding the rules. You should also make sure to remind your pupils when the end of the game is approaching because they don't want to be surprised. If you've just finished round 5 out of 7 or if the tile bag is approximately two-thirds empty, then point this out to your fellow players. Remind them at various points throughout the game how much of the game is left.

These ten simple steps will go a long way towards making the process of teaching a board game go much more smoothly. I've managed to teach such behemoths as Die Macher and Antiquity using this method, and it works across from the spectrum from the simplest to the most complex board games. There are many pitfalls to avoid and a few somewhat counterintuitive steps to try, but with a lot of practice and even more patience, you are sure to make significant strides toward becoming a better board game teacher.

(See this Forum Thread for this article plus additional comments on it)