5 Board Game Teaching Tips

Nelly Steiner Blog

Learning how to teach a game is something that requires a little bit of practice. Working in a game store, I get my fair share of new and shiny board games that I like to spring on my playgroup. As a trade-off for subjecting my friends to an ever-revolving barrage of wooden bits, pawns, and baubles, I am also often the one tasked with teaching the games to my friends. The more I do it, the better I get at it, and I would like to share some of the key elements of my teaching method. There are others, and each has pros and cons. The key is to find which method works for you and your group. That said, here are my pointers:

1) Know the game you are teaching before you teach it

When you sit down to play a new game you’ve just picked up, odds are you’re really excited about it. However, your friends may not be as enthused! Because of this, you want to do everything in your power to maintain their engagement throughout the teaching process. Nothing gets people to look at their cellphones and check their social media faster than being read to.

In addition, if you don’t know the game you are teaching then it opens you up to being derailed very easily. Instead of answering (or at least acknowledging) questions they may have, you may be inclined to look up a rule that deals with something you’ve yet to explain. If you know the game, you can say “That is a great question, but we’ll deal with what happens when you’ve collected 8 marsupials when I explain the combat step.” You knew all week you were going to play your new copy of Kangarulers of the Badlands, you can at least do your friends the courtesy of learning it before game night!

2) Start by pitching the theme of the game, and explaining the objective

The theme of the game can go a very long way in helping to create mental links between the components of a game and the mechanics of the game. Perhaps more importantly, explaining the theme is your first real chance at capturing the attention of the people you are playing with. That is the key to the first 60 seconds of your game lesson, you want people to feel compelled to pay attention to you.

Also, very soon after you explain the game theme you’re going to want to explain the objective of the game. Without an idea of the objective, the people who are learning are going to be wondering “Why?” Over and over again that question will pop into their head and distract them from the things you’re teaching. It doesn’t have to be complex, here are two pitches for games I’ve taught recently:

Codenames: We are two competing teams of spies trying to figure out the codenames of all of our agents in the field. The spymaster of each team is going to communicate their names via code, and the winner is the first team to correctly identify all of their field agents.
Ponzi Scheme: We are illegitimate business owners trying to trick investors into funding fraudulent investments. We’re going to take out terrible loans and make trades while we try to keep our business afloat for as long as we can. Once one of us goes bankrupt, whoever has created the biggest shell corporation among the remaining players will win the game!

3) Let the players play with pieces and assist with the set-up as soon as possible

Some methods of teaching games will suggest you have the board set-up before people get there, and that is certainly true for many games. I have found, however, that the sooner people start touching pieces, the quicker they will get what you are trying to teach them and the more interested they will be in what you’re saying. They will be curious about what the game pieces do, and most folks can absorb what you’re saying while still fiddling with bits.

Being asked to help set the board up is also a great opportunity to teach what the areas of the board do as well as reinforce the names and uses of the component. “Crystal, can you please separate all of the goods into distinct piles, we’ll be harvesting them during the game. While Crystal is doing that, can you shuffle the building tiles into a single stack and deal five of them face up please Steve?

4) Explain mechanics and game phases from large to small

When you get into the meat and potatoes of the game explanation, I believe it works best to start with the large concepts and drill into the smaller ones. For example, I might explain that a game plays for 7 rounds, and during each round players will take a number of turns. I will then name the phases of the turn, in order, and then go in and explain what happens during each phase.

Working from the larger concepts to the smaller ones can especially help teach complicated games, as it allows you to trace backwards and show how things affect one another. Here is what you have to do to win, here is what you have to do each round, here is what you do on a turn, and here is how you perform a single action. Putting the decisions that players will be asked to make in context can be very powerful.

5) Identify basic beginning moves and any potential traps

One of the best things about learning a new game is that you get to discover it as it is being played and try out new and interesting strategies. While you don’t want to frontload too much strategic information before the game actually begins, I find it does help to give players a couple of pointers about potential opening moves in the games I am teaching. The genre of game may dictate how detailed you need to be. If you are playing a simple game, it may be beneficial to just jump in and let them learn strategies themselves, but if the game is a bit more complex, narrowing it down to a handful of traditional opening moves is usually a good thing.

Some games also have a few different “traps” that may trip up newer players. If for instance, expanding to new territories in the early game is a bad idea because you won’t have enough supply to feed your armies, it is generally good form to point that out to a new player. These aren’t common in many games, but you’re bound to find them from time to time. Just remember to let players know in advance what to watch out for, without trying to take their game over. If they know the risks and make a suboptimal play, that is quite alright. It’s all a part of the learning process!

Hopefully, these tips will help you out the next time you’re tasked with teaching your group something new!