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Making the First Time Count

Some tips for explaining games to new players

by Mike Petty

How many games have been purchased and played only one time (or maybe not even one time!) simply because a family or gaming group didn't properly learn the rules? Many people have trouble learning a game just by reading the rulebook. Others have trouble explaining a game well enough to others so they'll have an enjoyable experience. I realized years ago how important clear instruction of rules is to the gaming hobby as a whole. Years of experience since then has confirmed it in my mind. Now that I've been running demos, leading a high school game club and introducing new games to many friends for some time now, I've picked up some simple, helpful tips that have made the first time through a game more fun for everyone.

First, here are two things to keep in mind as you get ready for the gaming session when you know you'll have to teach a new game.

  • Never read the rulebook to the players! This may seem obvious to many, but I still hear tales from frustrated gamers who have been tormented with the experience of listening to the rules read aloud. Be assured that rulebooks are written to thoroughly explain the game in detail. They quite often contain quite a bit more information than will be necessary to get the game up and running with a group. They also often include the important elements of the game in a different order than you'd use when preparing to play. Bottom line: If you're not willing to wade through that rulebook ahead of time, don't expect the other players to have to sit through it with you!
  • And continuing that thought, know the game thoroughly ahead of time. This has rarely been a problem for me, since reading the rules to a game is one of my favorite aspects of the hobby. If that's not the case for you, for the sake of the others you'll play with, put in the extra time required to learn the game. Don't just read the rulebook. Know the different components of the game. If there are three types of cards, be sure to look up at least one of each so you'll be able to tell the other players the distinguishing features. If there are several varieties of wooden bits, get a good look at them all. Also, if the game is particularly complex, be sure to visit the Boardgame Geek website (www.boardgamegeek.com) to see if extra rule summaries and player aids are available for the game. While these will help the players during the first game, they'll also help you organize the information in your own mind. Remember that every minute you put in before the group arrives is less wasted time during the game session.

Once everyone has arrived and it's time to actually play the game, here are the steps I use to get going.

  • Start with an overview of the game. If there's a background story to the game, tell it to the players. At the very least, explain the setting and the role(s) the players will take on. Most importantly, tell them what the goal of the game is. While this includes explaining how to win the game, it may also require an explanation of short-term goals as well. With some complex games you may need to use the components to briefly explain how resources will be used to accomplish this goal. This is not a time to teach rules and game mechanics, but instead it's meant to give the players a framework to aid in understanding the rules.
  • Tell the players what they will do on a turn. Go through the phases of a player's turn and the choices that will be presented. Explain the consequences of the choices in terms of the goals you outlined above. For example, when teaching Settlers of Catan to a group I show them the sets of resources they can trade in for roads, settlements or cities and I explain the what each one is worth in terms of victory points. Anyone who's played Settlers will recognize this example also emphasizes the importance of player aids when teaching the game. The player aid in Settlers makes teaching the game very simple! Always keep rule summaries or "cheat sheets" available to players as you go through this part of the explanation.
  • Start playing as soon as possible! This is largely an opinion of mine and some groups will balk at the very thought of it. I've had much success using this approach, though, when entertaining non-gamers or introducing casual gamers to more sophisticated games. As soon as the group can start, I like to get rolling. I assure players that the first time through the game is just to learn the rules and I address special cases to the rules as they come up during the game. I should mention that groups of serious gamers will often want to know everything upfront. Just consider the type of group you're working with ahead of time and teach the rules accordingly. Unless they're a very cutthroat group playing for keeps the first time around, though, my experience has been most groups appreciate this "less talk, more play" approach.
  • Watch for lack of understanding during the game. Unless you've explained every rule and the players remember everything you said, your job isn't over until the game ends! As you play that first time through, be sure to carefully observe what the players are doing. Sometimes their actions will be based on incorrect assumptions or misunderstandings of the rules. While it's nearly impossible to catch every one of these misunderstandings, players will appreciate it if you see their mistakes before they've wasted several turns or before they have no chance of doing well for the rest of the game.

In conclusion, teaching a game to new players is serious business. It also takes plenty of practice, so don't be discouraged when you crash and burn with a complex new game or a tough group of players. Keep the above guidelines in mind each time you attempt it, though, and I suspect you'll have many requests to immediately try the game again after everyone learned to play during their first time around.