Thursday, September 5, 2013

In Games of Boards, You Teach or You Die

Edit: Many readers have voiced concerns over my portrayal of Sansa Stark and the kind of gamer she would be in real life. After taking a step back and looking at the article, I think those concerns are justified. I don’t stand by misogyny in any form, and most certainly wasn’t trying to make it an issue with this article. In my fervor to link my article’s main idea to Game of Thrones , I didn’t realize the problems I could cause. Please know that they weren’t intended. Our podcast has been known to decry the sexist attitudes prevalent in the gaming community and it is certainly not my intent to contradict that. I’m sincerely grateful for everyone’s honest feedback – it helps me get better at this. I apologize for the mistake. -Vince LoadedDice

Teaching a board game to a group is not easy. Different people learn in different ways, and to successfully communicate the rules of a new game, it is critical to accommodate the various learning styles present at your table. If you don’t, you’ll end up with bored, cranky, and upset players who will end up hating your game (and possibly you). In this article, I will present a hypothetical scenario and walk you through it. It’s like one of those “choose your own adventure” books you loved so much back in the days before you discovered masturbation.


You’re sitting down to play Dominion with three friends. They have never played the game before and are depending on you to teach them. Before we do anything else, let’s take a look at our players.

The Kinesthetic Learner - this person learns best by doing things. He will get bored if you try to lecture him on how to complete a task or require him to read directions. He would much rather get his hands dirty. In fact, he excels at on-the-job training. Let’s call him...Jon.

The Auditory Learner - this person learns best by listening. He would be perfectly happy if you told him everything he needed to know about a task before he attempted it. This player is very good at remembering things people say. Let’s call him...Tyrion.

The Board Game Newbie - this person is a bit of a wild card. Her learning style is not as important as her previous experience, or lack thereof. All she has to go on is her knowledge of simple games like checkers, Sorry!, Candyland, Monsters and Maidens, Come-into-my-castle, etc. She is famously bad at games with complex rules. Let’s call her...Sansa.

Quite the assortment. Well guess what-you need to teach them the rules of Dominion, get them playing AND having fun in a very short period of time. Let’s go over the Do’s and Don’t’s of teaching this game.
(Note: knowledge of the rules of Dominion is not necessary to understand the rest of this article. In fact, if you pay attention, you might end up learn a few rules along the way.)

DON’T start by reading the rules out loud. This will appeal to only one player at this table. Can you guess which one? I’ll give you a hint. He’s short and loves to fuck. While Tyrion might learn a lot from listening to you babble on about Action phases and Buy phases, the rest of the table may actually get dumber. Imagine watching a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter reads every slide word for motherfucking word. Not only is this boring, but it's an insult to player's intelligence. Do the same thing to your playgroup, and Jon will quickly get bored of your jargon, while Sansa will be intimidated by all the big words you’re using. Nice job. Now half the table is angry and frustrated.

DON’T ask your group if they have ever played similar games. When teaching Dominion, I’d bet my balls that 9 out of 10 gamers would say something like “It’s a lot like Ascension. Have you guys ever played Ascension?” FOR FUCKS SAKE DON’T DO THIS. All it does is alienate the people who haven’t played any of the games you’re mentioning. It’s a lazy shotgun method that just wastes time. And let us not forget the doomsday scenario - your new players have played Ascension, and fucking hated it. Now they hate the Dominion too, all because you’re a snobby asshole. Obviously, if you know your playgroup well enough, this approach miiiiiiiight work. But, self-indulgently name-dropping a bunch of loosely related board games is a bad idea with a group of strangers. By the time you’re done with your bullshit, Tyrion will have paid someone to choke you in your sleep, Jon will be brandishing Longclaw, and Sansa will be crying in a corner because, well, she’s a dumbass.
DO try to engage everyone at once. Pass out the cards while explaining some of the general rules. Put together a starting deck, and literally walk the players through the opening turns. Hands-On Jon will get a huge kick out of this, while Tyrion will appreciate the opportunity to read the cards word-for-word. In fact, the little shit just might figure out the rules faster than you can explain them. That’s fine - these types of players are generally the easiest to please. They will usually ignore you while reading any material they can get their hands on. Sansa will reap the biggest reward here. You’ll probably have to spend the most of your time walking her through the phases of a turn, while fielding her questions, but in the meantime, Jon and Tyrion are figuring out the game in their own respective ways. So you’re ‘coaching-up’ the lowest level player, but at the same time you’re giving everyone else a chance to get their feet wet. This kind of multitasking saves you precious time and gets your group playing the game the fastest.
The “learn by doing” approach is too often overlooked by experienced gamers when they teach games. I hate to say it, but it's usually because said gamers are egotistical twats that love the sounds of their own neckbeardey, halitosisey voices. We all love to flex our intellectual muscles from time to time, and just spout out rules, but we have to think about the effect that has on the people around us.
Dominion’s rules are not very complex (except for Alchemy, that shit is CLINICALLY FUCKING INSANE), so applying the above teaching method will be a breeze. When it comes to more complicated games like Dominant Species, Seven Wonders, or Game of Thrones, you may have to bite the bullet and do a little reading for your group. But don’t give up on engaging the table. While explaining the rules, put people to work. Have people shuffle cards, arrange tokens, or sort out those little wooden people thingies. This is as functional as it is educationally necessary. I mean, Christ, it usually takes eight hours and a team of day-laborers to sort the tokens for Seven Wonders anyway. So you might as well make it an enlightening experience.

If you picked up on my references to educational psychology, don’t get your tightey-whiteys in a musky bundle. I left a lot of stuff out on purpose. This isn’t going out for publication in an education journal. It’s meant to help you have more fun teaching your friends beautiful nerd-hobbies.

So the next time you teach a game, I urge you to try out the approach I outlined above. Engage the table, think about your play group, and have some fun. With a little moxy, you’ll convert your newbie friends into a gaggle of die-rolling, top-decking, sheep-trading mavens in no time.
What is your go to method for teaching people new games?


What games have been so complicated to learn you just said "Fuck It," and ran for the hill?

Leave us a comment below.


  1. Good article. Helps me remember that I need to make an effort to keep people engaged during rules explanations.

    (Didn't mean to delete my previous comment stating the same thing)

  2. I am not a good writer, so I have trouble conveying my method of explaining a game.

    However I explain new games to all types of people at least 2 times a week at the FLGS. older people, young people, D&D people, newbies, classic gamers, veteran gamers, and so on.

    The biggest problem I have is when I have to 'repeat' my performance of explaining a game to someone who has already heard me before. I consider it like a standup routine or a ted talk. I have done my "first dominion" game with people at least 50-100 times, so I don't want to bore someone who wanted to sit in a Basic Game and hear me repeat the same stuff over and over (I try to change things up for said people).

  3. I thinks its awesome that you get to teach games to people on such a regular basis. It ridiculously good for the gaming community.

    I understand where you're coming from re: repeating yourself. The way I see it, if your routine works, don't change it at the expense of the new guys. The experienced players sitting in should understand what its like to learn a game for the first time.