Playing a game for the first time is the most daunting aspect of a boardgame. There’s a barrier to entry there that, unless you’re playing with someone who has played it before (and even then!) a lot of the time there is a pretty steep learning curve.
As I am oftentimes preaching about a marvelous new boardgame, or the delights of an old undiscovered gem, I am put in the position of teaching a boardgame to newcomers. Over the years I have developed a process that I think helps a great deal. How do I know this? What is my proof? As I have gotten better and better at teaching a new player a boardgame, I find these new players beating the snot out of me their very first game. A great example of this has become Ticket to Ride. I used to command respect of the players when I played Ticket to Ride (and its many variations) with my ungodly scores in the 100s, but now I am hard pressed to manage second place with newcomers to the table, let alone against those that have played before.
So for your edification I’ll break down how I teach a new player about a boardgame.
#1. How to win. Whether it’s money or victory points (it’s always victory points), or fame, or anything else out there. The first thing out of your mouth should be what the currency of victory is. Then explain all of the pieces that make up that currency. It is important that, if there are caveats to the currency, ie – things that will cause them to lose victory points that you DON’T mention them now. That part is REALLY important and should be saved towards the end so that it is not forgotten amidst all of the other needed rules explanations.
Example: Ticket to Ride. You are hot after victory points. Victory points come in two separate ways. You can earn them by completing train routes on the board and you can earn them through the completion of specific destination tickets (which is an amalgamation of completed routes leading from one city to another along your trains alone).
#2. What do you do. When it is time for your turn explain the process by which the player takes their turn from a high level. Don’t explain all of the varied choices that they have or any of the other options within their turn. Just give them the very basic portion. Nothing else!
Example: Shadows over Camelot. You do something good. Then you do something bad.
Example: Ticket to Ride. You take tickets or you lay track.
#3. Explain the terminology of the game: rounds, turns, phases. When you break the overall game down into little pieces the players will begin to see the process of the game. If there are a lot of choices that a player can make during their turn, and there are multiple phases of the game’s turn, it is at this point that I will give them the game’s provided “player process sheet” if there is one. If the game doesn’t have one then it is likely you can move from here directly to step #5.
Example: Arkham Horror. A game is made up of turns. Each turn has 5 phases. The phases go in order of Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Other World Encounters, and finally Mythos. Each player will go in order during each phase before moving on to the next phase.
#4. Explain the choices that a player has on their turn. Explain in detail the different things that the player can do at each stage of their turn on their turn.
I’d give an example here but there is such variety in games that I think it rather moot.
#5. Explain the things a player can do when it is not their turn. Explain things that they should look for and look out for on the game board or in the game. A lot of time this is “nothing” which is rather unfortunate.
#6. It is important to now get the player to repeat a bit back and go over the atmosphere of the game. Because now is the time to explain the errata. Lots of games have little niggling details or sub-set rules that need to be explained because strange things will happen. Some games are so simple that they don’t have much to this step, but if you think about it, every game has one or two. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have much variety game to game.
Lastly, and after great length, it is now time to talk to the new players about the strategies that can be employed towards winning. Some games lay these right out as a tool to help, you can point them to that on the sheet and while you can sort of feel “done” at that, you shouldn’t. You should talk to them about different strategies that they can employ and how to combine the pieces above into a cogent methodology towards winning. If you don’t, then you haven’t really explained the game to them and you’re just invoking your strategy against random luck.
As I said above, when playing with new players your explanation only wins if they do. Consider that the challenge next time you introduce someone new to a game. As an added bonus, if they beat you fair and square you’ll feel great about yourself and in every instance where I’ve seen it happen – that player is hooked on that boardgame for life and will probably go out and buy their own copy.