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I am a game enthusiast. I mostly enjoy board games, card games and things like party games that require no preparations. My friends know that about me, and they seem to treat me as an official Rules Explainer; if there are some new people willing to play with us, or some players that need to refresh their memory and hear the rules one more time, I'm going to be the person asked to explain the rules. Even if someone else suggested playing that particular game.

So, I often have to teach other players game rules. Each time I do it, I try to do it better and learn from previous experiences. I'm constantly trying to improve my skills.

What are the best practices in teaching other people game rules?

Off the top of my head some of the many things to talk about include:

  • When should I mention the goal of the game?
  • How much of the rules should I expect my fellow players to understand before playing a complex game for the first time?
  • How can I avoid introducing new rules in the middle of the game (it's frustrating for other players, they can feel tricked, and accuse you of not mentioning it before to your advantage, and so on...)?

What about answering questions? Usually my answer would be "I'm going to talk about that in a moment", but I don't want to discourage players from asking questions if they don't quite get something. And I don't want to seem rude, saying "not now" again and again. On the other hand, answering such questions might be confusing for other players. What if most of the players understood the rules, but not the whole group? How should I deal with the short attention span?

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    You may end up with long, vague answers here, because you're asking a lot of questions at once, and a lot of it really depends on the people and the games. If you can be more specific, it might help get you better answers. There's a big difference between explaining a party game to family members and explaining a complex game to hardcore, competitive gamers.
    – Cascabel
    Oct 27, 2012 at 3:40
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    You're right, however I feel we may just as well end up with some great, valueable and useful answers. I'm willing to take that chance, I know there are many people here, who I could learn a lot from. I'm looking for general suggestions, practices that are good and applicable in all cases. But if that makes it easier, I'm mostly interested in tips for explaining rules to no-gamers, lite gamers, friends and family members. Somehow, explaining rules to hardcore gamers seems a little easier to me.
    – beam022
    Oct 29, 2012 at 9:27

5 Answers 5

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Here are some things you can do. Keep in mind for the first game I'm usually more interested in teaching people how to play than winning, especially if I know the game well. This method might not work as well with a mixture of old hats and newbies.

  1. Play with an open hand (maybe even have the other players do the same). This of course only works in games with secret information (card games especially). Make bad choices and explain why they are bad choices while you make them... especially if you can use those choices to illustrate points. So something like "Now I'm going to play Card X ... in a real game I wouldn't know (though I might guess) that you've got Card Y in your hand which is a perfect counter to my play."

  2. On your turn explain why you are doing things, what benefit you might expect to get and how it would ruin everyone else's day. On their turns point out things they could do to make your life more difficult.

  3. Take backs! Let them have them all they want where possible. Where chance is involved you might do a thing a practice time or two first so people can see how it works, especially if it's complicated.

  4. If the game is complicated explain up front that you're going to parcel the rules out in digestible chunks. In Small world, I usually don't bother explaining going into decline until the second round. It's largely irrelevant to your strategy before then ... largely.

If despite all this you still win, that's okay, hopefully you've done a good job of explaining how you got there, and they'll trash you on the next game ...

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I've come across a great article on the subject, wrote by Mario T. Lanza. It's available to read on The Games Journal.

The Finer Points of Teaching Rules

If you're interested in improving the way you explain rules of the games, I strongly suggest reading the whole article. Author mainly focuses on explaining his method of teaching the rules.

The Incremental Approach

In short, The Incremental Approach has you:

  1. Set up the board and components.
  2. Distill the game down to a few sentences. (Less than a minute.)
  3. Paint an overview for the whole game. (1 to 3 minutes.)
  4. Expand the overview using details—the finer points.
  5. Cover the exceptions, if any.
  6. Teach basic strategies and offer "fair warning." (1 or 2 minutes.)

However, that's not all. The article is really good and also addresses key issues mentioned in the question. Let me give you some more example quotes from the article:

Mentioning the goal of the game

The general objective, the means of attaining it, the scoring, and the game-ending conditions are key aspects of the rules for all games. As such, they are worthy of repetition. Cover them with a progressive layer of depth as you drill down into your explanation. A listener's growing understanding often enables him to grasp a rule that was initially unclear. Repetition is neither wordy nor inefficient; it improves clarity, understanding, and remembrance of the rules. Besides, it's easy for your listeners to miss a detail when they're being bombarded by so many.

Answering questions asked during explanation

You should undoubtedly expect some of your anxious listeners to interrupt you with questions. Knowing which questions to answer immediately and which to postpone is of utmost importance when giving cohesive explanations. If your rules presentation will eventually answer a question, politely say, "We'll get to that in a minute." Questions meant to clarify the rule you most recently explained should be addressed immediately.

Whatever you do, don't detour to answer every misplaced question as this disturbs continuity, decreases clarity and disorganizes an otherwise structured explanation. Although you may eventually cover all the rules despite these many detours, your audience may actually have a harder time remembering them. Through practice you'll develop a knack for effectively handling, even anticipating, questions. More often than not simply saying, "We'll get to that in a minute" will be fine. People just want the comfort of knowing that their unanswered questions will, indeed, be answered. Only when your audience is entirely confused or is having a difficult time following, should you consider revising your methods. Normally, if you use any thoughtfully organized approach, this won't be an issue.

Let me finish with what I see as a motto from the article: Because there will always be new games to play, there will always be new rules to teach.

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When explaining a game, I go through the following:

  1. How do you win? (i.e. What are you trying to do?) For Risk, this is "eliminate all other players". For Catan, this is "first player to 10 points". This is important to have first because it's the context for the rest of the explanation; everything else should be in service of the goal.
  2. What are the main pieces/components? It's important to have an overview of the most important things you're dealing with, but keep this high level and focused on core elements. For Risk, this would involve be: the map, units, ownership of territories (leave risk cards for later). For Catan, this is the board, settlements/cities/roads, and resource cards (leave development cards, longest road, largest army, and the robber for later).
  3. What is the structure of game play? This typically means explaining the structure of a turn, although not all games are turn-based. If there are any particularly complex bits, note that it is complex and it will be addressed in detail later. This is because complex mechanics are often things people will have questions on, and that can cause people to lose track of the context. For Risk, this would mean explaining reinforcements, making attacks, drawing a risk card, and play passing to the left. For Catan, this would mean explaining the die roll and production, trading, buying, and play passes to the left.
  4. Complex mechanics. Here is where you fill in the things you skipped in step 3. For Risk, this would be the full detail of a battle. For Catan, this would be the details of rolling a 7, the robber, ports, bank trading, and development cards.
  5. Extras. Here is where you throw in all of the extraneous details that don't fit in anywhere else. Setup mechanics and end-game mechanics are common, as well as weird cases that might happen occasionally. People aren't always going to pay attention to this step, which is why you save it for the end, but it's important to do it even just from a "liability" standpoint (so that your players have been told all the rules and don't have a leg to stand on if they complain otherwise). For Risk, this would be the mechanics of setup and what happens when a player is eliminated. For Catan, this would be setup, longest road, largest army, and the timing of development cards.

It's helpful to have the game as set up as you can before the explanation (noting that games like Risk and Catan have an extensive setup procedure post game-start). I also try to demonstrate an example on the game board or with game pieces at every relevant opportunity.

It's essential to address questions throughout, but only clarifications. People need to understand the point being covered, and if they don't, that's a problem. My main two tactics for addressing confusion are explaining it a different way and showing an example using the board/pieces. However, if people want more detail about an aspect that I'm not planning to cover until later, I'm very disciplined about telling them to wait. That said, explaining a game is an iterative process, and I try to learn from people's confusion both during the explanation and during their first game and improve my future explanations to cover those issues.

For games with a lot of things that one player needs to run but don't involve decisions by the players (like the management of power plants and the resource market in Power Grid), I'll go pretty light on the up-front explanation with the caveat that I'm going to be the one managing that aspect of the game and am happy to explain what doing in more detail later if anyone is interested.

For particularly complex games (like Twilight Imperium), if there are mechanics that won't come into play until part way through the game, I'll mention that those things exist during the up-front explanation and come back to the explanation in-game closer to when they will be relevant. I try to do it enough in advance that players can still be prepared, although some things truly don't need to be explained until they happen.

For games with high emergent complexity (like Diplomacy), I'll do some sample turns, but for most games I prefer to just give beginners a handicap. The amount of the initial advantage should scale with how disadvantaged they will be in the game due to their lack of experience.

I tend not to teach strategies unless there are clear gotchas because I prefer to let players discover the game for themselves, and I don't want to overly bias players to known approaches to the game. For example, in Dominion, new players often buy too many action cards. I might call out that you don't want to buy too many terminal actions (action cards that don't give "+x actions") because you can only use one a turn, but I wouldn't teach the Big Money strategy (buy almost exclusively money with one or two key action cards). The former is a fact about the mathematics of the game where the later is an actual strategy suggestion. Much better in my opinion to give new players a leg up then tell them what to do. Again, for Dominion, I'd swap out one or two coppers in the new player's starting deck for silvers.

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The first thing you should say is what is needed to win the game, money, points, etc. Which marker, if any, in the board represents the winning score.

Obviously you should be familiar with the game. But if you have doubts, don't be afraid to ask to other people in the table and refresh your memory, that's better than a wrong rule.

About the explanation itself, that is hard, some people like it in history form, like "we are space marines fighting this ....", some people prefer straight out of theme explanations. If you are explaining to a group, better is to set the environment but don't go too deep on that and then get to the rules itself.

About questions, if it's a simple one, and is not going to disturb your rhythm, answer it, and then keep going, if its complicated, tell the to wait and when you get to that point, pay special attention to the person who made the question.

About complex rules and complex games, if a game is too different from the usual ones your group play, take the time to explain the basics, but keep the more complex ones to the in game, be alert and right before the situation happen, explain it. Some people may not like that, so that's a point to clarify with the group before playing. If somebody thinks that mechanic will give advantage to somebody, or is just unhappy with it, you will have to explain everything before, which in the end is not going to work and you will have questions during the game any way.

You have to adapt to the people you play with, but you also have to keep the things interesting, if you spend an hour setting and explaining the game, you will loose the interest of the people.

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Good to hear that there are more people who have the trait of naturally ending up as the game explainer/teacher. I quite often find myself in a similar situation. Or I am the sort of living rulebook that can be queried any time during the game. When explaining a game to new players I tend to:

  1. Explain the goal of the game first. "You need to acquire this or that, and the possible ways to do so are x, y and z."

  2. Then I explain the elementary rules that are necessary to play a round of the game. Without the knowledge of these rules you couldn't even begin your turn. And I leave out any specific rules and subjective aspects, like what is the wisest decision in which situation.

  3. Then I suggest playing a few rounds as a "Game of trail and error", I deliberately make certain errors to explain why it is wrong, and I deliberately make wise choices to show the new players what the strategic and tactical choices could be. The other players play their turns and make errors which I then explain, and make good choice which I then comment on. During my turns I try to create a scenario for all of the specific rules. I usually start the trial and error game saying that we are going to play for example 5 rounds, and see who is closest to the goal after that.
  4. After that we start the real game and players still continue ask me question during their turns. But since they are fairly experienced now, they don't give their positions away when asking questions, and I usually can answer them so that there is no advantage for anyone.

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