Cardboard Onboarding: How to Teach a Tabletop Board or Card Game

In my social circles, board and card games are the go-to gathering activity. They don’t require the kind of intense creativity that role-playing games often do, nor do they require the manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination that are prerequisites for video games. (We’re not as young as we used to be!) And yet they push the same pleasant neurological buttons, fulfilling our desires to learn and play–and sometimes win–in a group setting. We have a number of favorites, but to keep things fresh, people frequently buy new games to try out with the rest of us. These are not your childhood Snakes and Ladders deals, either; some of what hits the table can rival a military battle simulation in complexity. So there’s always a bit of teaching that needs to happen before we get playing.

And hoo boy, not everyone knows how to teach a new game clearly and effectively.

I present to you, then, my step-by-step for teaching a group a new game. I don’t claim it’ll work for every learning style or experience level, but it’s the way I prefer people to teach games to me, and it should steer you clear of a few pitfalls regardless!

0. Read the rules.

It’s possible, and can be quite fun, to crack open a fresh boxed game and have everybody flail around figuring it out together. But if you’re going to teach a game, you have to know it first. At a minimum, take the rulebook aside for a few minutes, somewhere quiet away from the main hubbub of the meetup, and give it a read through. Preferably, though, look at it before you come to the table! That also gives you the chance to hit up BoardGameGeek or a game’s official Web site to read frequently asked questions and clear up your own confusions before game time.

1. Describe the concept or theme.

The biggest mistake I see people make when teaching a game is to launch into the particulars before they’ve even introduced what the game is about. Start by giving your group the one- to two-sentence elevator pitch. If it’s a themed game, say who the players represent in the world of the game, and what event or struggle play represents. If it’s abstract, briefly outline its strategic emphasis. This gives players-to-be a context into which to plug everything else you’ll tell them. If you have players with a decent range of experience, here’s where you can clue them in to the mechanical genre (“territory control,” “worker placement” etc.) or mention another game they’ve played that’s similar.

“This is an abstract strategy game about planning ahead and anticipating your opponent’s reactions to your moves.”
“In this worker-placement game, you’re a powerful political figure in a fantasy city, hiring underlings and sending them on missions to advance your agenda.”
“We’re playing druids whose efforts to lift the curse on their land are represented by decks of cards. It’s similar to _Dominion_, but uses special card sleeves so you can modify and upgrade individual cards within your deck.”

2. Mention how to win and how the game ends.

Context, context, context! For your players to understand the significance of specific game mechanics, they need to know what their goal is. Is the game cooperative or competitive? How do you tell who’s ahead or behind? Again, only a sentence or two is necessary, but it’s crucial to get it out there before you make it to the specifics.

“Fighting monsters and playing certain cards scores you Honor points, and cards in your deck are worth Honor points as well. We play until the pile of Honor chips on the table runs out, and the winner is the person with the most Honor after that round of play wraps up.”

3. Explain what a player does on their turn.

Now it’s time to get into some specifics. Walk through the steps a player must take, and the options available to them, when their turn comes up. You may need to explain other core structural elements of the game, like “phases” or “rounds”, to alert people to how those turns are apportioned, as well. You don’t need to get into every possible exception or wrinkle, but if there are many different spaces on the board that have different functions, or different flavors of cards to play, it’s best to take the time to visit each one at least briefly. Players will not retain everything they hear at this point! But making sure to describe the main moving parts at least once will establish a baseline familiarity. Many games come with reference cards for exactly this sort of thing; have players pick them up and follow along as you explain.

“First there’s an action phase, where we go around the table doing things with our Investigators. Then we go around again ‘encountering’ what’s on our spaces. And after that, we draw a Mythos card and see what terrible things happen to the world during the time that passes. When it’s your turn in the action phase, you get two actions. You can rest, travel, prepare for travel…”

4. Lay out broad strokes of strategy.

This is optional (you may not know good strategy from bad yourself), but it can help to further prime players’ thoughts if you mention a couple major strategies they might pursue or common mistakes to avoid. Avoid the temptation to get very specific–“If you see this one card come up, it’s a total bomb, grab it!”–but throwing out a couple macro-level options can help forward-thinking players find their groove.

“You can win focusing on building or adventuring. You’ll need enough buildings to house and feed your adventurers, and going on the odd adventure while you’re laying out your cavern can give you a boost, but if you try to balance the two, you’re likely to suck at both.”

5. Allow some time for questions.

Here’s a pedagogical trick I learned at my old office job: solicit questions with a turn of phrase like “What questions do you have?” or “What did I miss that you need to know to get started?” Phrasing it that way assumes that people have questions, which they no doubt do. That greases the mental wheels, making it less intimidating to be the one to step up and admit they didn’t understand something.

6. Take the first turn.

Humans, like most animals, learn by imitation. If the game allows it, volunteer to go first, and step through what you’re doing aloud. That reinforces the walkthrough you did in Step 3, and provides a model for the other players to follow in subsequent turns.

“OK, I start by rolling the resource dice. I got an 8, which means these hexes produce. I have a town on that hex, so I get a Lumber resource, and Alice over there has a town on the other one, so she gets an Ore card. Now I can build things. I have a Lumber and a Brick now, so I can lay a road…”

And that’s it!

From there, simply play the game, answering questions as they arise, with reference to the rulebook if needed! What tips do you all have for facilitating a smooth first experience of a game?


This post first appeared on the experimental blockchain-based blogging platform Steemit on December 23, 2017. If you’d like to support me in writing more posts like these, consider creating a Steemit account and upvoting me there, or installing Flattr and running it while you read!

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