Episode A – How to Teach Games

Here is my original article on teaching games that I wrote on March 9th, 2008 with which the methods I used to eventually develop the How to Play Podcast.

Feel free to read the article or listen to the audio version, Episode A, by playing the episode at the top of this page.

How To Teach Games: A General Primer

Class is in session! Listen up kids, today’s topic is how to teach games. Pay attention there will be homework.

When playing a game with players new to a game, how well the game is taught is the most important element to whether the game is an enjoyable experience or a painful one. Most of us here on this site are the ones constantly trying to spread our hobby by introducing these games of ours to friends and family who may not be familiar with such games. If you introduce a game poorly, it is unlikely you will have earned yourself future games. If you do a great job teaching the game, not only will they wish to play that game again, but they may start to ask about other games in your closet, and you may have created some budding new gamers, who may even call you and say, “Hey do you want to come over and bring some of those games of yours?” And that is a wonderful thing.

As teaching is my profession, I thought maybe it could be useful to give general pointers for how to teach a game. I hope that the advice here can be useful to people who have never attempted to teach a game and to those who have taught hundreds. I would not be surprised if someone has posted something similar to this before but regardless this is my take on teaching games.

In general this post is directed at teaching medium to heavy weight euro games and does not apply toward party games, card games, lighter filler games or wargames. Examples of games that could be taught using this method include; Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Alhambra, Railroad Tycoon, Puerto Rico, Caylus, Power Grid, Agricola, El Grande La Citta, etc. etc.

Teaching a game is about more than just going over the rules. Your job as the teacher is to get the players to be excited about playing the game, understand the object of the game, understand how to play a turn, know a few possible strategies, and know the most important rules ALL in fifteen minutes or less before their eyes start to glaze over.

“Pre-Game Show”: Prepare by Understanding the Game Yourself

In order to introduce a game well, you need to have a thorough understanding of the game. Reading the rules multiple times is a must; also it helps to refresh yourself of the rules the day you plan on teaching the game. Ideally, you will have played the game twice or more, so that not only do you understand the basic rules of the game, you are aware of the technicalities that occur and have a general understanding of the various strategies a player may employ and the pitfalls that a new player may fall into not quite understanding basic strategies of the game.

Sometimes it may not be possible to play a game with others, with lighter weight games such as Ticket to Ride or Settlers, this may not be a problem. However if you are playing a more complex game than that, (such as a Puerto Rico, Caylus or Power Grid) you should find some way to deepen your understanding of the game. Three options to try would be playing some of the game solo, reading articles about the game online or playing the game online. Having a general understanding of the game will make your teaching of the game and the overall game experience more enjoyable.

Why do you have to know the strategy of the game, isn’t just knowing the rules enough?? More on this later.

And now, How to Teach Games in 3 easy steps…..
1. “The Hook”
2. “The Meat”
3. “The Hamster”

Hook, Meat, Hamster???

Catchy isn’t it?

What the *%$@ is this guy talking about? Are you intrigued… perhaps I have “hooked” you? Which happens to be our first step, keep reading……

Step One: What is this Game About?: “The Hook” (30 sec. – 1 minute)

Here we get to our introduction, we have our players, we have the board all set up and we are ready to give our intro. Let me stress this, your job is NOT to summarize the rules as written in the rule book. Rulebooks are boring to most people, although probably not to you and I, and that’s what makes us gamers.

But for your general average Joe who is about to play a game, here is what they want to know in fifteen minutes or less;
1. What is this game about?
2. How do I play?
3. How can I win?

Just like in teaching a lesson in the classroom, in teaching a game your first job as a teacher is to grab your “students” attention with a “hook” within the first thirty seconds of teaching.

Your hook should explain the basic idea of the game in terms of the theme, including what they will be doing throughout the game and how to win the game.

Example Hook (Caylus); “ In this game you are a master builder in the medieval France employed by King Phillip to develop the lowly village of Caylus into a mighty city! In each turn we will take turns placing our workers into the different buildings in order to get resources, money and to build various buildings. The games take place over three stages of building the dungeon, the walls and the towers of the castle. We will score victory points for building buildings in the city and for helping to build sections of the castle. When the tower stage is complete, whoever has the most points will be the victor!

The hook is a very general summary. It is important you get into NO specifics yet, just one minute or less on the general idea of the game to serve as a backdrop for the rest of the explanation. When you teach a game, show enthusiasm for the game, because if you do not seem interested in the game why should your players be?

It is very important to refer to the theme when describing the idea of the game and the basic mechanisms in terms of theme. Some people first introduce the game abstractly and then bring up the theme as an afterthought, near the end of the entire introduction, (Oh yeah this game is supposed to be about ________ ) In the best games, the theme of the game helps the players understand and remember the rules and mechanics of the game. There ARE a few games that the theme is so irrelevant to the game that it can be ignored. (Example: Uptown) But even in games where the theme is irrelevant to game mechanics, such as Through the Desert, at the very least the theme is important in adding to the FUN of playing the game especially in the first few plays. I know I’d much rather be putting cute plastic camels on the board to connect palm trees then say, connecting cubes to sticks. So use the theme frequently as you explain the game.

Step Two: How do I Play? : “The Meat” (5-30 minutes depending on game complexity)

This will be the main part of your instruction, thus “The Meat.” Most of the meat should be explaining how a player plays his turn. This is how I would start this part of the explanation after the hook; “Here is what you are going to do on your turn,” I would first quickly go through with the phases of a turn are and then go into more details about each phase.

If I was explaining the game Settlers of Catan, in the first thirty seconds of the “meat” I would explain how in a turn you roll the dice, you get resource cards, you trade resources with the other players or with the bank, make purchases and then pass the dice until someone gets 10 points. THEN I would go back over it again and get into the details of each phase such as explaining how a roll gives resources, how one can trade with the bank or other players, what you can buy and what happens when a seven is rolled.

I try to keep “The Meat” the meat and leave the vegetables on the side until necessary to keep my instruction time down. Huh? There are certain rules and details I will skip as they are not essential to the general play and strategy of the game until they happen. For example in Ticket to Ride I might not talk about how the locomotives sweep until it happens. I may not explain the cards in Railroad Tycoon until they are flipped face up etc. This not only keeps instruction time down but it also is more meaningful to players to have these things explained when they become important in the game, instead of getting everything all at once. If not knowing a particular rule could severely damage someone’s game (Example: the 7 card discard rule in Settlers of Catan), I make sure that it is mentioned at the beginning of the game.

You will be amazed how you can cover almost all of the rules of playing the game discussing it within the context of a players turn. However you may also have to explain functions of cards, tiles, buildings or alternate ways to acquire victory points that are essential to the general play of the game. I end this section of the introduction with talking about how the game is ended and reminding the players of how the game is won.

You may want to warn the players that, you have not explained all of the rules, but you have explained the most important ones in order to get started with the game. Tell them you have only skipped ones rules that will make more sense as we get to them in the game, and should not have any affect on overall strategy.

Warning: Despite all of your best efforts, you will very likely be faced in a situation with “The Blamer.” No matter how thorough you try to be, someone will at some point claim that there is a rule you never explained to them, regardless whether or not you actually did. All we can do is claim the Good Samaritan law, that we have done our best, and take their criticism with a grain of salt. Such are the hazards of teaching games. Grin and bear it. Apologize and say “I’m sorry if I did not explain that rule to you, but that is the rule.” Let’s move on.

Step Three: How Can I Win?: “The Hamster” (2-5 minutes)

This is the part of the game introduction that is usually not found in rulebooks, and the part that if you forget or skip will severely impact your game experience.

Your players now know HOW the game works and HOW they do things in the game, but generally don’t have any concept of WHY they would do any of these things.

It is at this time that you will have to get the hamster running in the heads of your players, by sharing some of the different strategic paths one might try to follow for victory. Players, especially non-gamers, need a few basic frameworks to try to follow to succeed in the game.

Games are most fun when all players are working their hardest to win the game, the competition makes it fun. We have all played games where one or more people stop trying to win and the game rapidly disintegrates into stupidity. The same situation can occur if someone has no idea of how to win the game, they will make seemingly random moves out of frustration. This will make the game no fun for them and much less fun for everyone else.

This is where a basic understanding of the strategy of the game is essential. Before you start the game “the hamster” portion is when you give general strategy tips, common beginner pitfalls, and typical long term strategies.

• In Ticket to Ride, I might talk about how players generally accumulate lots of cards in the beginning of the game
• In Settlers, I might talk about how you want to get more cities and settlements on the board as quickly as possible, rather than purchasing development cards
• In Caylus, I might talk about how people follow two general strategies of getting the mason and lawyer on the board and climbing the point track, or trying to get up the building track quickly and building the first stone farm and the importance of money and turn order
• In Puerto Rico, I would make sure players know they need to make some money early in the game, and how to do that and I might talk about two strategy paths of scoring points by getting lots of corn and trying to get the wharf or getting many different kinds of goods early and acquiring the factory

Now during this step, I am not going to explain everything I know about the strategy of a game for two reasons. First, I want to get to the game as soon as possible. Second, part of the fun of games is figuring out the strategy for yourself. But it is very helpful to give the players a starting point, to start to figure out the strategy of the game.

If you are playing with regular gamers, this “hamster” discussion may not be necessary or even desired, in fact there is a percentage of people out there who will not want any strategy advice at all as they would prefer to figure out the strategy themselves. There are also those particular untrusting sorts who will think you are trying to trick them by suggesting bad strategies. However, in general, most players, especially those new to “these games of ours,” are happy to have some direction in strategy, they may or may not follow your advice, but it is helpful to know what a person might try to do, it gets their “hamster” running.

“The Color Commentary”: Your Role during the game.

It’s time to get to the game! Your intro length will depend upon the complexity of the game. A Settlers intro could take five minutes, A Caylus intro probably closer to twenty. But in either case try not to babble or point out every minute detail of the game, it’s more important to get started. You’ll know you’ve talked too long when you see the spaced out expression on their faces, they’re at verbal information overload, its time to learn through doing.

Which Rules Set, Expansions or Variations should I use?

In choosing how to play the game, if there is any beginner rules or first time rules, USE THEM. Unless you are playing with regular experienced gamers, who you are confident will pick things up quickly, use the beginner rules. This does not necessarily apply to rule variations that shorten the game. Shortening the game is not necessarily what you want, but anything that takes one or two elements of complexity away from the game, will ( for most people) make the game a more enjoyable experience and they will be more willing to play the game again with the full rules.

Here is a very important idea most people teaching a game miss, reject or intentionally or unintentionally forget…..

The Teaching Games Golden Rule: When you are teaching a game, it is more important that the other players enjoy the game than if you enjoy a game.

This means for the first game….
• In Settlers play with no expansions and with the board preset
• In Carcassonne play without farmers
• In Agricola play the “Family Version”
• In Caylus play without favors
• In Power Grid play the short game (I know this contradicts what I said above, but the complexity of Power Grid warrants the play of the short game. I wouldn’t necessarily shorten other games with short rules. i.e. El Grande, Keythedral, Ys)

And please, please, please, don’t add expansions or variants to a new player’s first game that make the game more complex, except in a very few cases where the variant adds little to no complexity and enhances the fun of the game. (One example variant of this type of case is in the game Evo of playing with one less tile in the Auction)

I know, I know you’ve played basic Settlers, a million times but you’re friends haven’t. You make think that playing with these beginner rules, dumbs down the game. Yes it does, that’s the idea. Remember the golden rule. You may not feel the same thrills during that first game as your friends. But try to enjoy the experience vicariously through your friends. And think about those first games as an investment you are making in future great gaming experiences.

What if a situation comes up that I don’t know the answer to?

Don’t be a hero, grab the rulebook. Its okay to admit you don’t know the answer, its far better than pretending you know the rules. If the players feel like you are uncertain of the rules and you are making things up as you go along, it takes away from the whole validity of the game. And worse yet you could play the game wrong. The rules are there for a reason, if you play with too many rules wrong, the game will be a flop. Take the two minutes and get it right. If you can’t find the answer in the rule book, agree on how to play the situation as a group, and find out the answer later online or through another means.

However, grabbing for that rulebook more than a few times during the game, shame on you, you did not do your job prior to the game of developing an understanding of the game. Waiting for your “Teacher” to read through the rulebook is the opposite of fun. If you are completely lost in your explanation or in trying to play the game, don’t be afraid to abandon the game for another day until you can study up or get a chance to learn the game from someone else. Go back to an old stand-by

How much should I “help” the players during the game?

DO make sure players understand the rules and the basic strategies of the game.

You do want to give reminders of important rules during the game, especially if you see they are in peril of disaster during the game. A key example is a person in a game of Settlers of Catan with 11 cards in their hand about to pass the turn. Other things you will want to remind players of is, when scoring phases happen, what triggers the end of the game, various methods of scoring victory points etc.

DO NOT play other people’s game for them.

If you too often suggest particular moves, you will create a situation of learned helplessness, where whenever the player has a decision to make they will look to you to tell them what to do. Also worse, if you point a player towards a decision that benefits you, you will be seen as manipulating people new to the game in order to win, a true recipe for disaster. Have you ever played that game of Puerto Rico where there was one new player and all the experienced players including the game “teacher” were playing a meta-game of how to manipulate the new player in order to benefit them? Needless to say, that is not good teaching.

If a player asks for advice, explain the situation and point out various options. Include all options including bad options and options that may hurt you in the game. Suggest at least two possibilities, and if one of their best options is to negatively impact you in the game, include that, don’t just slyly forget to point it out. If you do something like that you move from being a game teacher to a manipulative sleazy dirtbag. Now in the second game, that’s where you stop pointing out moves that wreck you.

Should I let players make mistakes?

Yes! This is how they will learn. The important thing to consider when you see one of your “students” making a bad move is to think about are they making this move because they are forgetting or do not understand one of the basic rules or important concepts of the game, or is said move about to completely crush their game? In one of these cases I would probably advise them against making said move.

Now say they are making a move and there is a better strategic move on the board, and they make a worse play? Usually in cases like this I will let them make the mistake, and through the course of the game they will see how that move, negatively impacted their ability to win and they will make a better choice next game.

One last point about during the game is to involve your “students” in the mechanics of the game. Give them jobs in handing out money or resources, scoring points, dealing out cards etc. This will help them to understand those parts of the game, and increase their knowledge of the game. For example in the game, Settlers of Catan, have all players collect their own resources or at least request which cards they should get. If you just hand out resource cards, they may not figure out or ignore why they are receiving such cards.

To Win or not to Win?

Ahhhh, Game Ethics. As a teacher of the game, and at the same time as a participant you will be put in some interesting ethical choices. The most difficult being: should you try your hardest to win the game?

This is an eternal question. With many of these games, especially the more complex games with a higher learning curve, an experienced player will probably be able to crush a set of beginners to the game. Should you sandbag a game to make it closer or even to let someone else win?

Here is what I believe, you are free to agree or disagree with this opinion. You will have to make this decision for yourself for each game depending upon the situation, but I urge you to remember the Golden Rule, whatever you do, you need to make sure that the people playing the game have a good time. It would be nice for one of the other players to win; it will certainly increase their enjoyment of the game. But I also believe in the game having a sense of honesty and integrity. I do not believe a player should win the game if they played poorly. You can show the players that skill is important in playing the game, so winning the game yourself is not necessarily a bad thing, you just have to be careful how you win the game so that the other players still have a positive experience.

Here is what I do when introducing games but as I said, you will have to make your own ethical decisions for each different situation.

• If a game has a high luck factor, I will play the game all out. In a game like Settlers, even if you are playing your best, you can lose the game due to awful dice rolls.

• If I am playing a game with a steep learning curve and little luck that I have a lot of experience with, I will play the game well, but maybe not quite all out. There is certainly no need to run up the score.

• If an opportunity arises to seriously wreck one of my opponents, even if it greatly enhances my position. I might seek an alternative move even if it may be not completely optimal. Once again, the second game is where you crush them mercilessly.

Now, I have heard of players, who are willing to sit out of a game and just act as teacher, without participating in the game, especially when introducing one of the more complex games. As much as I think this is a noble idea and would certainly encourage people to try this, I personally like to play in the games and maybe I am just too selfish to do this sort of thing. But I think there is also something to be said for having an experienced player in the game and letting the others players see how an experienced player plays the game.

“Post-Game Show”: After the Game

When the game is finished and a winner is declared, don’t immediately go and start putting the game in the box right away, leave the game set up for a minute. Reflection is a very important part of learning. Usually without any prompting, players will start to analyze their play. They will say things like, I should have done this or I shouldn’t have done that. Listen and comment. If they give no reaction, you can prompt them a little, maybe commenting about different choices they could have made during the game, or explaining why someone did really well.
This would be a great time to point out those strategic mistakes you saw them make during the game and what else they might have done. Ideally, it’s better for them to think it out and for you to be a listener. Be humble during this post-game reflection of the game but honest. Try not to sound like a bragger of things you did correctly and things they did wrong and again don’t say too much. You don’t want to explain the whole strategy of the game to them and sound like a big know-it-all. It’s more fun for them to figure out for themselves.

You know you did a good job if they say things like, “I really like that game” “I know what I’d do differently next time” or the best yet, “Can we play again?”

The last step, of being a game teacher which you can do later that day or the next day, is to reflect on your teaching. First of all, if you are relatively new to the game reread the rulebook and make sure that you played the game completely correctly. It is not unusual to have at least one or two rules that were played incorrectly. Good teachers admit when they taught something wrong. In your next playing of the game, talk about your mistake.

Then ask yourself;
• Did I follow the Golden Rule; Did my players have a positive Experience?
• If Not, Why Not?
• Was my explanation too long, too short or just right?
• Did I miss anything in my explanation or did I include things I didn’t need to?
• Did I assist the players during the game without playing for them?
• Did I play the game ethically as the teacher of the game?
• If I were to introduce this same game again what might I do differently?

As in any teaching, teaching games gets better with practice. But practice without reflection will not make you any better. Take the time to really think about these questions. Many of us geeks have a hundred games or more in our closet and have not played hardly a fraction of them. New players are reluctant to learn new games, because learning games is hard work. It’s even harder work when you get a completely awful explanation. But with a great teacher, learning a game will be a much more enjoyable experience and maybe instead of hearing, “Can’t we just play settlers again?” you’ll start hearing, “Let’s try something new.” And that’s music to a geek’s ears, we can’t get to that game closet fast enough.

A Conclusion: Or Aren’t you done yet?

We all want more players to play games with and we all want to play more of the games in our closet. Teaching your games well is the key to achieving both of these things.

As all good teachers would do, here’s a quick review on tips for teaching a game;

• Before introducing the game have a solid understanding of the game; both the rules and the general strategy
• When introducing the game Hook the other players with a 30 second intro of the object the theme and the general play
• Then give the Meat, the basic idea of how players play during their turn
• Before starting the game get their Hamster running, by giving them a few bits of strategic advice and paths they might follow
• Play with a rule set that is most suitable to new players
• Remind players of integral rules during the game
• Give the players strategy advice cautiously and in a non-biased way
• Let the players make mistakes and play their own game
• As the teacher, play the game in an ethical, rather than a manipulative way, that is forgiving to players that are new to the game
• Let the players reflect on their play
• Reflect on your teaching

And most importantly don’t forget…….

The Teaching Games Golden Rule: When you are teaching a game, it is more important that the other players enjoy the game than if you enjoy a game.

I hope you read carefully, as I said there will be homework. Your assignment is to teach at least one game in the next week. Good luck and best wishes in spreading our wonderful hobby to the ignorant masses.

Phew that’s it! When I started this post I had no idea I had 4000+ words to say about the topic but there it is. I look forward to your comments on this method and these ideas. Please share if your technique differs or if you try this technique and it works for you or does not work for you.

If this post is well-received I would like to perhaps do a series on how to teach specific games. Please let me know if you would be interested in seeing instructions using this method (the hook, the meat and the hamster) for specific games.

Now get out there and teach some games!

Ryan Sturm