As the people who most regularly host games nights, it usually falls to me or my boyfriend to teach board games to new players. After doing this countless times, we’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re teaching a board game to people, chances are that you love it and you want to play it with people who enjoy it too. The way you teach is crucial to whether everyone likes the game or not.
If you want new players to enjoy the game and come back to play it over and over again, then you want to give them a great first game. A lot of that great experience comes from how you teach the board game.
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Bore people to tears, don’t explain things clearly or leave them all at a disadvantage while you beat them, and they will have a miserable time and have negative memories of that game. It will be a tough sell trying to get them to play it again. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
Follow the 15 steps to teaching board games to new players!
- Learn the game yourself before you teach it
- Assemble the right group of players
- Turn off all distractions
- Get into your role
- Introduce the game theme
- Set up the game with the group
- Hand out game guides
- Explain the objectives
- Play through example turns
- Play through an example round
- Demonstrate tough moments and challenges
- Play a learning game
- Take a quick comfort break
- Set the stage and the scene
- Play the game!
1. Learn the board game yourself before you teach it
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.Albert Einstein
It is so important to know the rules really well before you try to teach them to other people. Learning a board game and trying to teach it at the same time is painful. It’s hard work for you, and just not very effective.
You spend all your time reading the rules, trying to make sense of them while your group talk amongst themselves. It’s hard to get their focus back onto the game when you are ready to tell them some rules. Then you go back to reading more rules. They chat. You interrupt and teach the next few rules. Repeat. Repeat. Everyone just gets frustrated. And it takes ages.
Save yourself time and pain – learn the rules first.
Read the rules
Although most rules aren’t written very well, they are a good starting point. The things I find most helpful in the rules are the explanations of what the pieces are called, the images of the initial set up, and the in play examples.
The more familiar you are with the rules, the easier it is for you to look up the answer to a particular query during game play. This will make playthroughs go much smoother.
There are some great videos online now for thousands of games. You can find short game overviews right through to playthroughs of an entire game. Watch a few to get the jist of the game.
Play through the game yourself
There is no substitute for this one!
Playing the board game is the best way to learn how it works.
As you do this think about what you needed to check most frequently. How many cards to draw on your turn? Which order to take an action in? What the instructions on a particular card mean? By doing this yourself, you’ll be prepared for when these questions come up.
Remember the things you got confused about. These are likely the things that other new players will get confused about too. Make sure that you emphasise these elements when you’re teaching the board game to them.
By playing through the game yourself, you’ll also become a lot more familiar with the rulebook and know which sections to refer to for different types of questions. This will mean you spend less time reading rules, and more time teaching and playing the board game.
2. Assemble the right group of players
There are some board games which will just not work with some types of players. Think carefully about the group that you choose to assemble.
Everyone has different preferences on the type of board games they like to play. If you’ve been playing with a group of players for a while, you’ll know what type of board games they like and they don’t like.
Try to get people together that will enjoy the type of board game you want to teach. If it’s a horror-themed game but everyone in the group is easily scared it’s not going to go down very well!
There is a huge difference between Sushi Go! and Twilight Imperium. Both are great games, but if someone is the Sushi Go! type of gamer, they are going to get completely lost with Twilight Imperium and just not enjoy it.
In my core board gaming group, we have been levelling up our gaming skills together. We started with the gateway games and went from there.
Think about where your friends are on the board gaming scale. If you’re unsure, go with a slightly less complex game and give it a try with your group. That way, you’ll stand the best chance of everyone having a good time.
Like any social gathering, think about how the people you’re inviting will get along personally. Do they know each other already? Will they like each other? Is there a history between some people which will make things awkward? Are some people very loud and extroverted but others quieter and introverted?
Imagine being the only introvert in a group of extroverts trying to play a co-op game. You’d not be able to voice your opinion, you’d get spoken over all the time, people may even quarterback you (See my post: Quarterbacking in Board Games (and How to Avoid it)).
Having different types of people in the gaming group usually makes for a more balanced group dynamic. Plus, because different types of people think differently, it can lead to unpredictable moves and strategies which make the game interesting.
3. Turn off all distractions
Background music and the TV are fine while people are arriving, but when it’s time to teach them the rules. It’s quiet time.
Turning things off and making the place quiet is a good signal to people that you’re ready to start without having to tell them.
It’s also a good time to mention that you’re turning the noises off so that people can concentrate on the rules so you can get to playing faster.
You don’t need to ask people to put their phones away directly. So something like, ‘When you’re finished doing what you need to on your phones, we’ll start.”
Then if they use their phone during the explanations, pause and wait until they are done and carry on. The pressure from the rest of the group staring at them will help them to put their phone away so you can carry on.
4. Get into your role
You are central to everyone’s engagement with, and enjoyment of, the board game. You are the compere, teacher, and maybe the venue host too.
No-one wants to listen to someone reading the rule book. It’s boring.
Just like the compere in an entertainment show, you are the person who introduces the game (and sometimes the players) and sets the tone for the game. It’s up to you to get people excited about what they’re here to play, keep their energy levels up and make sure they have a good time.
You don’t need to become a superstar master or mistress of ceremonies to do this. Just bring your energy and enthusiasm for the board game. Smile, be encouraging and positive and use your role-playing skills to take on the role of the type of person you’d like to be taught by.
If you’re enjoying yourself, others will too.
Everyone remembers their favourite teachers from school. They were helpful, positive and patient. That’s what you need to be.
New players are going to interrupt when you start explaining the rules and want to ask questions. Just remember how your teachers handled this. If it’s a simple question you can give a simple answer to then do it. If it’s something you’re going to explain later in the rules then say that too.
You’re the one doing the explaining so stay in control like a teacher would a class.
Being venue host as well as teacher and compare is a lot to do. Trust me.
The best thing to do
What I like to do is make it clear to people that they can help themselves to any drinks they want and we leave snacks out on the side. Then people can always help themselves.
I’ve noticed that people are more hesitant to help themselves to snacks than drinks, so at natural game breaks I will fill some bowls up with snacks and bring them through.
What works even better is to ask your partner or a close friend if they can help out with drinks and snacks during the game. People are usually willing to help if you ask them.
5. Introduce the board game theme
Time for role-playing the Compare! This is where you become the best storytelling entertainer you can be to set the scene for everyone about the board game you’re about to play. The aim of this is to get new players engaged and excited about the game and to introduce the theme of the game at the same time.
Would you want to play Small World if someone pitched it to you as, ‘We place tiles on a board until we run out.’? Probably not.
What if they played some epic classical music from their phone? Then they launched into, ‘This world is small and there can only be one ruler. Take your incredible fantasy race of orcs, giants, wizards and more, and use their unique talents to push everyone else off the face of the world.’
Now that’s a game I want to play!
Think about what you can do to get new players engaged with the board game before you start explaining what it is all about.
Of course, after the short description, you can explain more information about what’s happening in the game but I recommend you do that while people are helping to set up.
6. Set up the game with the group
To teach a board game, you need to have it set up so that you can show instead of
Give new players the board to lay out, ask them to shuffle cards, deal a certain number of cards, read through the roles cards and see which one they want to be. If each player in the game would have a hand of cards, lay them face up on the table just for the setup. This is so that everyone on the table can see the types of cards in the game.
As your group are setting up the game components, explain what each of the things are.
You don’t need to go into too much detail about the rule surrounding each piece at this stage. You’re just introducing the components, their names and what they represent. Keep with the theme here. A cube is just a cube unless you call it by what is represents.
7. Hand out game guides
If the board game you’re teaching has a game guide or a quick reference sheet for players, then hand them out now. Coup and Small World for example, have these.
By the time you’re handing out these quick reference guides, players know what all the components are and will be starting to get curious about how the game works.
It’s good to have the reference guides in front of new players before you start explaining the rules. Then they can refer to them if a question pops into their head, or when you’re explaining how the turns and rounds work.
8. Explain the objectives
The number one question people will have when playing a new game is, ‘How do I win?’
If there is more than one way to win, explain all of them. Everyone wants to be in with a fair chance of winning the game. It would be very unfair for new players to find out about an additional way to win part way through the game when they have already spent several turns working towards a different objective.
As you’re teaching the rules, bring everything back to the objectives. New players will be listening and thinking about how the rules relate to how they can win. Experienced players will be thinking about what the rules might mean for their strategy.
9. Play through example turns
With the game set up and all the players familiar with the components it’s time to show them how it all comes together.
Imagine it’s the start of the board game and you are taking your first turn. As you take each step in the turn explain what you are doing.
‘Ok, so the first thing I’m going to do is decide which of the 4 actions I want to take. You can see the action options on your turn reference card.
I’m going to move to Washington which is two spaces away from me, so that takes two actions…’
On the first turn don’t explain why you are taking those actions. That doesn’t matter when teaching how the turn works. You’re just explaining mechanics here.
If you try to teach basic strategy at the same time as mechanics, it can be too much for new players to take in.
Firstteach them the mechanics, then build on that understanding with why you took certain actions.
10. Play through an example round
At the end of a round there may be special things that happen. For example, everyone draws new cards from the deck to replace their used cards, a card is drawn from an event deck which affects what happens in the next round or the units on the board move.
Whatever happens, actually play through it as though it was the real game.
If each player is drawing new cards, do that for each of the players you have taken turns for. Show them the cards in their hand and what the new card you have drawn means.
You don’t need to explain every possible card at this point, it’s just to give people an idea of the kind of things they can expect in the game.
11. Demonstrate tough moments and challenges
There are those moments in every board game where you aren’t sure what to do for the best.
It may be that more monsters have just spawned than you think your character can handle, or it may be that you have the least points and aren’t sure how you can come back from it,
Whatever the tough moments and challenges are, new players need to know what might come up during the game. Tell them so they can make the best decisions every single turn, rather than making a decision that they think is right, only to be surprised by a major challenge in the game later on in the board game.
If you don’t share the tough moments and challenges with your group, then you are at a distinct advantage when it comes to actually playing. Your group may end up resenting you for not sharing this information if things go really badly for them.
For example, in King of Tokyo, it’s pretty common for the player who is in Tokyo City to take a lot of damage and they are unable to heal while they are there.
The most important rule at this stage is that this player can only yield when they are hit and when this happens they must take all the damage before they can leave. This has a huge influence on how the player chooses to play the game.
So heavily emphasise this rule and explain what can happen if a player stays in Tokyo City on 5 hit points and their opponent rolls 5 claws on their turn.
When explaining tough moments and challenges, move the pieces around to demonstrate your point. It is so much easier to understand abstract game concepts when they are shown rather than just told.
While teaching tough moments and challenges, you may be tempted to give advice on strategy. But don’t! You’re just explaining what could happen and what options a player has.
You’re teaching them what can happen in a tough moment and how they could respond, not advising them on how they should play the game.
Some players enjoy figuring out the strategy for themselves, they have as much fun from that as they do playing the game.
Your job is to balance the need to make new players fully aware of what can happen in the board game, while not revealing too many strategic tips.
12. Play a learning game
Now that your group knows what the board game is all about and how to take a turn, it’s time for them to have a go.
Doing is the best way to learn.
On their first go at a game, most people make mistakes. That’s ok. That’s why you don’t dive right into the game properly,
Reset the game as though you’re playing it for real – deal new cards, clear the board and shuffle the decks.
You go first, so that people get one more example of how a turn goes before they take their turn.
As each player takes their go, offer to help them if they get stuck and give them encouraging nods when they do something right. Just like a teacher would. You’re building their confidence in understanding the rules and having a go.
One thing I do in the learning game is to offer to be the trusted adviser. Because you aren’t playing a ‘real’ game at this point, you aren’t competing with everyone else in the group. This means that any player can show you their hand, point at particular cards and places on the board, and explain their ideas to you so they can get advice on what to do.
The trusted adviser role gives your group a safe person to talk to about their ideas. It also encourages people to ask questions which are more specific to what they will actually be doing in the real game.
You can continue to teach and support new players as much or as little as they need. Some new players in the group will take you up on the advice, others won’t. That’s fine. It means that everyone is learning at the speed they feel comfortable at.
Because it’s a practise playthrough, other people don’t get frustrated that some players are taking longer to learn because that’s the point of it.
Play as much of the practise game as you need to for some tough moments and challenges to appear. This gives players experience of what to do in these situations. It also provides opportunities for those players who would like to have some more advice on strategy to ask for advice without compromising their own position.
13. Take a quick comfort break
Learning can be tiring. You don’t want your group to run out of energy part way through the real game!
Take a little break before you play the game for real. Get a drink and snack and give people the chance to visit the bathroom if they need to.
Just by getting people moving around you lift the energy in the room.
A break will do you some good too. Teaching is fun but can be quite tiring because you need to be 100% focused the entire time. So take enjoy this break time and have little rest yourself.
14. Set the stage and the scene
Bring on the show! It’s time for the real thing now. So put that Teacher away and bring out the Compere again.
Set the stage
When it’s time to play the game for
- Change the colour of the LED bulb above the table to green
- Put atmospheric music on. Soundtracks for games like Silent Hill work well.
- Close the curtains to make the room spookier. Even if it’s daytime.
Set the scene
Use the same introduction you used at the start of the session to introduce the board game if you like. It’ll do the job.
But if you have another introduction prepared – even better! Everyone likes novelty so a different introduction will be more engaging.
What if instead of speaking your introduction, you recorded it as an audio clip on your phone? You could place it in the centre of the board and then play it to the group. It will bring a different media into the mix and encourage a subtle change of dynamic.
You’re not the teacher anymore. You’re just as much a part of the game as the new players.
15. Play the game!
The bit you’ve been waiting for! Actually playing the game. Hooray!
Enjoy it. You’ve earned it!
The one board game teaching tip to rule them all
Make sure everyone is listening to you
The most frustrating thing when teaching a board game is people talking over you! It’s just rude.
The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?It’s like that – RUN D.M.C.
There’s a reason why teachers ask for silence when they’re teaching a class. If new players talk over you when you’re teaching how a board game works, then they aren’t listening and they are distracting other people too.
You either end up repeating yourself so explaining takes longer. Or you think, ‘Stuff them – they don’t want to listen.’ But this can lead to problems during the game when they start asking you questions which they would have known the answer to if they’d just listened!
When you start teaching a board game, explain why it’s important that new players listen – they get to the fun part faster! With the nicest friends and the best will in the world, they may not be the perfect group of attentive new players.
The four types of interrupters
There are four types of people that will derail your teaching. There are different ways to handle each one, because usually they are interrupting for different reasons.
- Curious Cats
- Carry ons
These are people who keep talking while you’re teaching. They are being social which is what games are all about. But now isn’t the time for people to talk, it’s time for them to listen.
It is ok to ask them to be quiet when you’re trying to teach something. If you don’t want to do that, you could:
- Stare at them intensely until they shut up. They will realize eventually.
- Interrupt in a loud voice with the next thing you want to say.
- Hold out the rule book to them and ask if they want to teach the board game instead.
- Walk out of the room and say you’ll get a drink while they finish talking.
- Play a ‘Shhhhh!’ sound on your phone from a soundboard.
Use your imagination to come up with other ways to handle Chatter Boxes before the session. It’s difficult coming up with ways to regain control when you’re trying to keep your cool.
2. Curious cats
The curious cats are super keen. They want to learn everything about the board game so they ask lots of questions while you’re trying to explain. This enthusiasm is great! You want to nurture it, not squash it while trying to regain control.
Usually, people ask questions which you’re going to explain later on. In which case, just say, “Great question. I’ll be coming onto that in just a little while.”
Sometimes, they’ll ask something which does make sense to explain now. In which case, explain it quickly and move back onto what you were doing.
Rulers are people who have played the board game before and keep chipping in with extra rules and bits of non-essential information. These people will make you lose your flow and derail what you’re saying. They’ll also make it more difficult for the group to follow what’s happening because the explanation will be skipping all over the place.
Most of the time, Rulers mean well and just want to help. Sometimes they are just trying to prove how much they know to the rest of the group. Whatever their reason, Rulers don’t need any encouragement to keep adding in extra little details. It’s ok to be a little firmer with them, so be direct.
“I’ll be getting to that in a short while.”
“Yes, let’s get back to what I was just saying.”
If someone needs to go to the toilet, or make a phone call, they will likely say “Oh, no don’t wait for me. Carry on. I’ll pick it up.” But don’t! Don’t be lured into their trap!
If you carry on teaching the rules when the Carry-ons aren’t there you will only end up repeating yourself later when they reach a point in the game where they don’t know what to do. It’s tedious and annoying. Just wait.
Less haste, more speed.
Bonus board game teaching tips
Use the beginner rules
Play the base version of the board game without any of the expansions. You can add those in later. Like teaching anything, start with foundation-level knowledge and then build on that.
There’s also no point in adding in expansions if your group don’t like the game. If they do like it, then the expansions are something for them to be excited about for the next time you play.
You’re teaching this board game because you like it and want to play it with your friends and have fun. If you’re having fun during the boring bit (teaching the rules) then your friends will pick up on this.
Happy people have an uplifting effect on those around them. Be a happy person.
Show don’t tell
Always show people what you’re explaining rather than just telling. It’s so much easier for people to understand.
If that means you’re moving pieces around to show what you mean, if you need to shuffle through the deck to find a type of card to demonstrate a point, then go for it.
Use YouTube videos if they are helpful
Some online videos can be helpful if they do a really great job of explaining the mechanics of a board game. If there’s a video which gives a great overview of the gameplay in a few minutes and can help your group to grasp some basic concepts really quickly then use it.
I wouldn’t recommend that you show your group playthrough videos though. They take too long and aren’t focussed on explaining the rules. If anything they result in more questions and confusion for new players.
Refer to other games as examples
If a mechanic is similar to how something is done in another game that your group is familiar with, then make the reference. It’s a lot easier for people to learn something when they have existing knowledge to relate it to.
For example, when teaching Munchkin to new players who I know have played video game RPGs before, that’s how I explain the game concept.
“You are an adventurer. You level up and gain armour, and items as you defeat monsters and open treasure chests. You can help other adventures to defeat monsters for a share of their treasure.”
Not everyone will learn the game at the same pace. So be patient with the slower players. On their first playthrough, they will be trying to remember the rules and what to do.
It’s not the same as analysis paralysis. At that point they know how to play, they just aren’t sure what to do.
Regularly check that everything makes sense
People don’t know what they don’t know. So sometimes asking, ‘Any questions?’ gets no response. Instead, a question like, “Would you like me to repeat anything?” or “Did that just make sense?” can get a better response.
It’s always worth checking in with your players to see if they understand what you have taught them so far.
It reassures them that it’s ok to not understand everything and creates an environment where it’s ok for them to questions when they do come up.
Watch for blank faces
Information overload exists. Too much information in a short amount of time can lead to that spaced out blank face. Everyone has been there.
Beware the blank faces! Especially if you’re teaching a complicated game.
Don’t just power on through when someone in your group is looking blank but everyone else is engaged. That person will just end up asking lots of questions later on. Instead, find a way to engage that person.
Give them something to do while you’re explaining the next point. Ask them to hand you a game piece, move something on the board, shuffle some cards. Anything to keep them engaged.
What if I don’t know the answer to something?
That’s ok. It’s what the rules are for. Even during games that I’ve played loads of times, sometimes a situation comes up and I’m sure what to do.
What do I do? Look at the rules. And if the rules aren’t clear, there’s always Google.
Should I let them win?
This is completely up to you. You’ve just put a lot of effort and time into teaching a board game to new players.
Do you want to risk new players having a poor experience and not want to play the game again?
It can feel rubbish to be taught a board game by someone and then they completely crush you in the first game. It isn’t fun, you feel like it’s not fair because the teacher knows the strategies needed to win and it makes you not want to play the board game with them again.
But, if you have a
Should I give strategic advice?
Some new players really appreciate being given strategy tips, others find it fun figuring out strategies themselves. I think the best thing is to not give strategy advice but instead pay attention to what new players are doing on their turn.
If a new player is taking a long time with their turn and don’t seem sure of what to do perhaps ask them, ‘Would you like me to say what I’d do?’ Then you can explain what you would do and why. So that you are only offering strategic advice when it is truly wanted.
Should I sit out the first game?
I would say no. If you’ve done a practice playthrough then there’s no need to sit out the first game.
However, there was one game in our group which we just didn’t understand even after several playthroughs. It’s not even a difficult one! One Night Ultimate Werewolf. My boyfriend taught this to our group and for some reason we just didn’t get it. Everytime we played it just fell apart.
The last time we played, he acted as the facilitator for the group and didn’t play himself. He marked the start of each round and made it clear what we all had to do and when. It was brilliant. Now, we all get the rules and how it works.
So, if your group is struggling to understand a board game even after playing it several times, you can try sitting out a game and facilitating instead. It worked for us.
That’s all folks! Hopefully, there are some little nuggets in here that will help you to teach board games to new players.
The more you teach, the better you’ll be at teaching board games and the faster you’ll go from teaching to playing!
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