Theory: Advice for Teaching Games

Little, if anything, has more impact on a new player’s experience of a game than how it is taught. Poor teaching sends the player into the game confused, bored, or flatly annoyed, all but guaranteeing a weak experience. By contrast, good instruction encourages active, interested participation—and ultimately more fun.

Below are some lessons I’ve learned over the years about how to teach games. They’ve consistently been true across different groups; I’m absolutely confident that they’ll work for you as well.

1. You can do it. I’ve occasionally heard people say that they “can’t teach.” That’s not true! Anyone who can read aloud from the rulebook can teach a game. Everything after that is refinement of technique. The thoughts below will help you get started.

2. One voice. Decide who’s going to teach the game, and then let that person speak, beginning to end. “Helpful” comments and suggestions are usually just confusing for the learner; they divide attention and break up the logical flow of the instruction. If at the end the person teaching has missed a rule, mention it to the instructor.

3. No advice. Rules instruction should be entirely about rules, with no tactical tips. New players have enough to do grasping how to play. Adding how to play well on top of that does them no favors.

3a. No advice during play, either, unless it’s requested. The first play of a game—and sometimes the second and third plays, for complex games—are part of the learning process. New players often need to explore what moves are legal in a concrete way before they can grapple with strategy. Refrain from adding the strategic dimension too early.

If the new player does request advice, stick to generalities and legalities. “In this situation you can do X, or Y, or Z. All of those moves have potential, depending on what you want to accomplish.” Letting the new player make decisions is critical; it’s not fun to feel puppeted about.

(3) and (3a) are especially important, in my experience, when men are teaching women. I have noticed that men are much more likely to give very specific, “you should do this” advice to women—and that the women usually resent the being patronized in that fashion. If you don’t give advice unless requested, and stick to generalities when it is, you’ll be fine.

4. Find out whether the new player wants a comprehensive overview, or to learn-as-you-go. Some people get frustrated when they’re partway through a game and are told “actually, you can’t do that;” others are annoyed by having to wait through long rules explanations. Ask specifically what the new player wants, so that you can provide it. If you’re teaching a group, try to get a consensus; failing that, use your best judgment as to which approach is better.

4a. Have a plan for both methods. Teaching in the classroom has shown me that there’s no substitute for preparation. Think through, at the very least, the order in which you’re going to present information. If you’re not sure, following the rulebook is most likely fine.

4b. For “lifestyle” games, default to learn-as-you-go. Warmachine has, I would estimate, about 100 pages of rules. Trying to teach a new player all of them is madness; even someone with a photographic memory would be hard-pressed to grasp everything that was going on. If the game is clearly too complicated to teach all at once, don’t even offer that as an option; just launch into the learn-as-you-go style.

Keep in mind that choosing this option dictates certain things about the game to be played. It’s not OK to tell someone they’re going to learn on the way, and then seed the experience with gotchas that will leave them feeling helpless or like their decisions were unimportant. By committing the other player to go in with incomplete information, you commit yourself to making that information sufficient.

5. Stop after each topic and ask for questions. People often don’t feel comfortable asking about things that have confused them, because they don’t want to interrupt or don’t want to look foolish. Explicitly giving them opportunities for questions makes it clear that (1) this is a good time and (2) having questions is reasonable.

Of those, I would especially emphasize “one voice” and “no advice.” I see those principles violated constantly, and it never works out. Stick to the points above, and your rules teaching will go much more smoothly.


One thought on “Theory: Advice for Teaching Games

  1. All good points! I’ve had some difficult experiences teaching some games, including M:tG which is one of the worst since the rules are so complicated (at least they were back when I tried to teach them quit some time ago).

    I think one more suggestion you could add to this list is to know when to stop. Set a time to begin with, but adjust that if the player(s) seem like they are getting tired or frustrated too much. Stopping mid game isn’t ideal, but it’s better than estranging your players.

    Personally, I’ve only played Axis and Allies once or twice, but the long length of the game was a major turnoff for me. Though I think some that is unavoidable, if the person teaching me started small and gradually moved up to longer games (maybe simplifying the rules at first?) I might have gotten more into it. As it was, at that time I just kept to playing Risk which was much faster (although not short by any measure).

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