Board Gaming Etiquette - Learning how to Teach a Game

Teaching, in general, is a talent that most people aren’t exactly born with, and teaching board games comes with its own set of challenges. Teaching board games to a player that’s new to the hobby and is still skeptical as to whether or not they’ll like it is the most difficult challenge of all, and thus the focus of this article. I have no professional training in education, and I don’t want to offend any educators by pretending I do. I do have a lot of experience teaching as a tutor for several years in college, and for the past decade or more teaching board games.

Everyone learns differently, but in this scenario I’m going to be addressing how to teach multiple non-gamers that you don’t know a gateway game in such a way that they’ll enjoy the experience. This means whether someone is a visual learner vs. being hands on doesn’t really matter because you won’t have time to find out – you need to have a teaching strategy that moves everyone along simultaneous. That said, it is critically important to do what you can to not let game play make anyone feel dumb, or stupid – it is the quickest way to make the game less enjoyable for that person, the rest of the table, and you. Here’s the only ground rule

#1) Be Mindful of Others.

The first things to watch for are Dyslexia and Dyscalculia - both of these hurdles to gaming show up in folks of all IQ levels, so it won’t be until you’re gaming that you’ll see signs, and together they affect up to 13% of the population so you will encounter both of them if you teach enough games. You don’t need to be a learning specialist to tackle these hurdles in the course of teaching a gateway - just be mindful of others. Dyslexia affects a person’s ability to read, so, if someone has the task of reading more than a sentence or two make sure to make yourself available. I’m looking at you, Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal is a popular gateway at game night, but when people sit down for their first game it might not be clear to them that there’s a possibility that they might need to got off into the corner and read between a paragraph and a page of narrative from which they are expected to decipher game mechanics that they alone will be responsible for enforcing. I recommend avoiding Betrayal AND Dead of Winter for groups you’re unfamiliar with. If it’s a must, make sure you say “there’s a decent amount of in-game reading required for this game.” so that at least people can be ready for it, or if you’re teaching and not playing, (yay, gurus!) let the table know to get your attention when the haunt happens, and talk with the solo player to make sure they understand, and read through it with them if they don’t. Dyscalculia is something I’m more familiar with as I was a math tutor for several years. This affects a persons ability to do simple calculations, and in gaming often affects a persons ability to instantly recognize how many items are in small piles. In these instances the best thing a teacher can do is anticipate even the most simple of arithmetic calculations that might come up and perform them out loud themselves, and no matter what you should be keeping score for everyone yourself. The best way all of this is of course just to pick a game like Dixit or Mysterium which requires no reading or calculation, but the bottom line is to always be aware that not everyone out there is the same as you, and that’s ok.

Other signs to look for from someone who doesn’t want to appear dumb include changing the rules to something they can understand. In Splendor for example “I’m just going to get as many blue gems as I can.” If someone goes rogue it will often affect the way other players feel about the game - so if a player starts making moves that don’t make sense feel free to step in and take their turns for them.

If no one at your table suddenly feels like a dummy, you’re doing a great job. The next thing to worry about is time. People are eager to verify their memories of board games being BORING, and it’s your responsibility to prove otherwise. Here are a couple keys to keeping things moving:

#1) Explain the game first in terms of its theme, then start game play as quickly as possible - people don’t need to know all the rules before you start playing. I think I can best show some strategies here by example.

In Splendor “you are , there are technically 4 things you can do: take 3 different color chips, 2 of the same, buy a card, or reserve a card and take 1 gold. That’s way too much to tell a group of people before they know what any of that means. I prefer to setup up the game with the nobles and gold still in the box. Explain that players want to buy as many cards as possible, and tell the first player to take either 2 chips of 1 color, or 3 chips different, and immediately remind them to not overthink it. Boom, you’re off playing. Add in rules like - you can’t take 2 of the same color if there are fewer than 4 in the supply after about 2 rounds of play. Then on the first players 3rd turn or so, explain how reserving a card for a gold works, and a turn after that bring out the nobles.

For King of Tokyo, leave the cards in the box until after the first round. Instead of explaining each die side, have the first player roll and explain the sides that are face up. Tell them what to keep and what to re-roll as an example. The whole first round dictate (or lead suggestively) what each player does making sure to show various strategies - Only keep 3s, only keep paws, save a die then reroll it for higher chance at a 3, etc. Reiterate “don’t overthink it” as much as possible at times when it’s directed at the table so if feels less person specific when you say it when someone is taking too long.

#2) Play fast. When there are a lot of new folks playing a new game, it runs a dangerously high risk of taking a long long time. This is NOT what you want when you’re trying to introduce people into the hobby, people what to have fun NOW! “Don’t overthink it” seems to be the easiest way to let people know to go with their instinct and finish their turn. Say it early and say it often or that 5 player game of Ticket to Ride might get up into 2 hour+ territory. There will inevitably be a few casualties associated with this strategy, people who can’t stand not having the time to really think out every play. Unfortunately at my learning table that’s just too bad for them. I don’t feel any need for 4 other people to need to spend and extra hour at the table because one player feels like they were so close to a breakthrough.

#3) CONTROL - You MUST LEARN CONTROL! While going over the rules to a game, the floor is your. Period. No matter who you’re with, you always have the right to shut them up until you’re done with the rules. Paying attention while rules are being disseminated is part of board gaming etiquette, and along with funerals and the security booth on the Ambassador Bridge, not a good time to make jokes. Derailing the train of thought of the rules explainer or other players can set the game back several minutes, and is super annoying. If the blue gems in Splendor remind someone of the time they were at a pawn shop in Tampa you need to cut them off ASAP and get the game explained. If it happens more than once then remind people it’s a matter of etiquette, and that they need to stfu.

#4) Other Etiquette Explanations. When you’re teaching a game to new players it becomes your responsibility to teach as much etiquette as you can:

  • Pay attention for when it’s your turn
  • Remind the player to your left when your turn is over (knock on the table between you)
  • If something affects all players - verbally acknowledge you’ve taken the action. (like attacking from Tokyo and certain cards in King of Tokyo, gatling gun and indians in Bang and Bang Dice for which I usually just say “OW!” to let the active player know I complied.

The bottom line is to keep in mind that your job is to teach, and not just to explain. Too often I see people remembering rules in random order and regurgitating them out of context, and spending 10-15 minutes making sure they’ve done all this only to have the first question be - “OK, so what do I do?” Be mindful of others, and keep the game moving and everyone will catch on with enough time to play out that learning game, and a second more fulfilling game in the time it would have taken to play one regular learner.

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