If you like to play boardgames, you are almost always going to run into situations where you need to explain the rules of a game to a bunch of people who have never played the game before. This can easily turn into a sitution where you not only confuse your friends and family, but you also turn them off to even playing the game. I found through trial – and much error – some tips that work to explain game rules quickly and get people playing and having fun.
Start with the game setting and the goal. The first thing you should say to new players should follow this format, “we are all [what the players represent in the game setting] and we are trying to [goal that lets us win the game], this is determined by [how the winner is determined, usually points] when [end condition].” So if I were to explain how to play a game like Carcassonne I would say, “We are all noble lords who are trying to control the most land of Carcassonne, this is determined by who has the most points when all the tiles have been played.
Making a statement like this helps players get a concrete understanding what they are about to do and why. Yes we all know that they are all actually going to try and win the game but what you need to do is put that in the context of the game itself.
Show how a typical turn will go. Now that you laid out the setting and the goals, you should play through a demo turn to show them how the game is played and what choices they are going to make each turn. If you are dealing with a deep strategy game like Lords Of Waterdeep, you might want to stack any decks so that you are presented with the most options because you really only want to run through one demo turn. Of course, when you are done, you should reshuffle any decks and reset all of the markers to zero.
This is where you should spend the most of your time explaining things because is actually how to play the game, and you should show them every action they need to know in order to do so.
Don’t talk strategy. This tip might seem counterintuitive because your initial instinct will be to teach people how to win. That’s not what you are supposed to be doing. You should just focus on teaching them how to play, not what to do while they are playing. Talking about strategy can be very confusing to people who are just learning the rules because they might mistake strategy for the rules. Also, a good game will have many different ways to win so there will be multiple different strategies a player can use. Let the players determine how they want to play for themselves.
You can, and should, teach them strategy while you are actually playing.
Only one person should explain the rules. This will be the hardest tip to pull off. Most of the time you won’t be the only player in the group who has played the game and this can lead to people jumping in during your explanation. This can split the new players’ focus on who they should be getting information from and could confuse them because other players could be yelling out rules at random.
When this starts to happen, it’s best to chime in with a “I got this,” or, if the other person does really know the game well, just yield to them. You could grab pieces as the other person talks about how to play the game. It’s totally okay to assist someone else if they really want to take over and they know their stuff. It’s not about you, it’s about the game.
Set up the game ahead of time. A mistake I make all the time is explaining rules while I’m also setting up the game. This cause two problems: one, it can split your focus between two things causing you to do neither really well. And two, if the game has a lot of different kinds of pieces, it can be really intimidating to some players to see you pull piece after piece out of the box.
It’s best if you can get all of the players to separate themselves from the play area while you set everything up. For a game like Elder Sign, it can be a lot less intimidating for people see it all set up as apposed to watching you pull yet another deck of cards out of the box and do something different with it.
Keep the explanation as short as you can. This should go without saying, but you’re not giving a Paton-like speech. You are just giving players a run down on the game. Stick to the basics. You can show more complex moves and mechanics as you are playing, which is where people are really going to start to understand the game anyway.
Don’t just read the rule book out loud. If you do this I will find you and punch you in the face. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone drone on while reading a rule book. If your players are board, they not having fun. So please, make sure you actually know the rules beforehand and can talk about them off the top of your head. It’s okay to reference back and read a passage or two, but don’t read the entire book verbatim.
Resign yourself to losing the first game. Games really are about having fun and not winning. You should understand that as the person who is helping show everyone how to play, you are painting a huge target on your back because you are in a position of power because you know all the rules and have played the game before. The other players are going to team up to take you out. This is fine and you should let them. Also, you should be giving them tips to help them win even if it means that you will lose. Your job in that first game is to make sure everyone understands the rules and is having fun. You’re not trying to win the game, you’re trying to host the game.
You should also let people know that you are there to help everyone. This means looking at a player’s hand and helping play the best cards. Don’t use that knowledge to beat everyone. That’s still cheating. Plus, after you totally lose, you can always play again now that everyone has the hang of it.
And most importantly: you, and all the other experienced players, are going to go first. This helps solidify the rules you just explained and everyone should explain why they are doing what they are doing so the new people can get a hang of things.
These are just a few things that I’ve found that work for me. You can tell I used to be a GM, huh? Just remember that you were once new to whatever game you are playing, so be patient and have fun.