The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Making The First Time Count

Mike Petty

July, 2002

Teaching New Players New Games

A friend of mine told me about the time he and his brother-in-law attempted to introduce Bohnanza at a small party. One of them described it as "a game about planting beans". Well, the group was suspicious to begin with, but it just went downhill from there. As it turned out, they never even finished explaining the rules. The game was just too different compared to what most of the group was used to. My friend packed up the cards after he couldn't take anymore of their ridicule toward the game. That was the first and last attempt he made to introduce this type of game to that group. In this case, one bad experience was all it took.

Whenever we get those opportunities to share our games with people who are unfamiliar with them, we should take the task seriously. The first experience with a game has to go smoothly or some will may never give that game, or even that type of game a second try. Over the last four years I've lead several gaming groups, run demos in the local game store and sponsored the game club at the high school where I teach. I've introduced many new games to players, almost always with very positive results. Along the way, I've also seen games explained poorly with awkward and sometimes embarrassing results. From witnessing those mistakes and also remembering some of the things that have worked well, I've developed my own approach for introducing a new game and explaining the rules.

There are some basic things I won't go into here. I'm assuming, for example, the player teaching the game has familiarized himself with the rules and rule booklet so he can find any details that need to be looked up quickly. Also, it's clear you shouldn't be the person introducing new games if you have no people skills. Laughing at players who make mistakes or acting like you're the best gamer on the planet because you're cleaning up against three newbies isn't likely to win anyone over to our side.

A great game for sure, but is it about planting beans or trading? It depends on the group! Donít sell a game short by presenting it the wrong way to first-time players.

It's also a given that everything I describe below depends first and foremost on the type of gamers or non-gamers coming to the table. We all know it's vital to consider the game we choose to introduce. Furthermore, though, it's important up front to present it in a way that they'll find appealing. Bohnanza didn't fly at the party when the group thought it was about planting beans. If they were about to play a "game where get ahead by trading and making deals", though, they might have been more willing to sit through a few rules and bear with the unappealing theme long enough to find a great game. So, as I'm getting out the board or shuffling the deck, the first thing I do is tell the group why I picked that particular game or I highlight one element of the game I think they'll really enjoy.

The First Time is to Learn

After that, it's time to start the actual teaching and my usual approach is two-fold. First, I like to emphasize that the first game isn't about winning or losing, it's about learning the game. It doesn't matter if the new players make some poor moves. It's also ok to ask a question even if it reveals what cards you're holding or what your strategy will be.

This may seem painfully obvious to some, but I've met players who need to be reminded. It took me a few years of introducing new games before I realized that some people think they have to win every game, even if it's the first time they've played. I can remember instances where these types of players completely shut down if they didn't understand the rules. Intimidated or maybe even too prideful to ask more questions, they concluded they had no chance to win. In their minds, the game was a waste of time and those games never came to the table again with those players. I've since learned the importance of keeping a non-competitive, open feel at the start of the games.

Sometimes I'll deal a sample hand of cards and we'll play face up. In other games, I'll suggest we play half of a round then start over. These are simple ways that make the new players comfortable and emphasize learning over competition the first time around.

Shut Up and Play!

My second (and most important) rule of thumb when introducing a new game is to start playing as soon as possible. Time is precious at any gaming event. Why waste it going over rules the players won't remember?

A friend and I visited one gaming group for the first time about a year ago. The hostess began teaching us the rules to The Princes of Florence. I knew a little about the game in advance, so I expected a more than average number of rules. Still, the explanation was quite overwhelming. She spent too much time going over different implications of the rules and tactics we might employ in different situations. Both my friend and I agreed later that we felt anxious. We wanted her to stop talking and let us play. The funny thing was that the other group of gamers was tearing into Starfarers of Catan at the same time. We were thirty minutes in to actually playing our game when we realized that other group was still going over the rules!

It's a simple fact: Players don't need to know every rule to start playing the game. I've experienced the information overload that comes from listening to all the rules at once. They may make sense for a moment, but during the game I find myself asking about the very thing that was explained earlier. Players remember rules best when they experience them in the context of the game. I like to give them the bare minimum, then jump right in.

The How and Why of a Game

In order to get moving quickly, I almost always explain rules in terms of a "how" and a "why". Generally speaking, every game is about how you get stuff and why you want it. "How" is what you can do on a turn, "why" is the scoring objectives or winning conditions. In practice, I usually start with the why.

If we're playing Modern Art, I set up a situation for the end of the round and show how the paintings are valued. When I taught Citadels at the game store last month, I set out seven districts and explained how to score them, including all the bonuses. I usually don't worry about things like ties or special situations. At this point, I want players to have a general idea of what it takes to win the game. Any details beyond that would need to be repeated later anyway.

As for the how, I give an overview of a player's turn. What choices will the player have to make in a typical round? Obviously this can be more or less complex depending on the game. Regardless, I try to give a quick example of each choice the player will have and briefly explain the results. I'm always grateful for the player aids that come with some games. They make this part of the explanation very simple. Occasionally I print up my own aids if the game manufacturer doesn't supply one.

Cosmic Encounter player aidDuring this phase of the explanation, I still avoid going into a lot of detail. Cosmic Encounter comes to mind as a good example here, as it usually appeals to the gamers I meet at the game store. I have the newest Hasbro edition that comes with a good summary card. As I walk through the phases of a turn I tell players, for example, that they can ask for allies as an attacker, then the defender can also invite allies. At this time, however, I don't go into what benefits/risks are involved in being an ally. Why bother? I know they'll have be reminded at least twice when it comes up in actual play.

After I've gone over the typical choices of a turn, I usually take the first one to get the game started. If someone else at the table has played before as well, I arrange the seating so we take the first two turns. That way the new players can actually see what they'll be doing before they have to take their own turns.

There's no doubt some new players have felt like I rush to get into a game. Those unfamiliar with my style may complain a little in some of the more complex games, but I assure them I'll warn them when something new is coming up and I remind them again the first game is to learn the rules. The simple fact is that the game is often more exciting this way. Furthermore, since I don't go into depth on different strategies or tactics at the start of the game, players can discover them for themselves. As we all know, this is a very satisfying experience even if the discoveries were quite simple. This sense of accomplishment for new players is very desirable whether I'm trying to sell games during demos or just hoping to attract more regulars to my group.

Pay Attention to the Players

My sink or swim approach puts a great responsibility on me during the game. Since I gave a general overview of the game and didn't explain every situation that could arise, I have to see it coming before we get in the thick of it. Generally problems come in the form of assumptions I've made or that the players have made. If I catch such misunderstandings quickly enough, we can usually recover easily by letting a player take back a turn. However, I don't always catch the misunderstandings in time.

I still remember playing a great game of Through the Desert. We were all deep in strategy when I realized one friend, a first-time player, had blocked off a section of the board with two different colored camels. I assumed I was clear about the fact a "line" of camels was always considered to be of only one color, but apparently I wasn't. In this case he'd wasted a fair number of turns and the damage was quite irreparable. It's hard to make Through the Desert look bad, but I came close that evening.

Traders of Genoa cardSometimes these misunderstandings are unavoidable. When I introduced Traders of Genoa to several players last fall, one of the players had a misunderstanding throughout most of the game that I never expected. At some point in the game he got the "Fabrics" Privilege card. Of course, we didnít know he had that particular card, but we were perplexed as to why he was hoarding so many fabrics. It turned out that he thought the numbers on the card referred to how many fabrics he had. He was going for all six so he could make 200 Ducats at the end! Assumptions like this will always be made on behalf of new players and it's impossible to catch them all. I make mental notes each time I catch one, though, and I try to be aware of how similar wrong assumptions might turn up in other games I introduce.

By the way, if this responsibility to watch for everyone's misunderstandings detracts from my ability to play a great game myself, so be it. My focus must be on the new players and that they have a good experience.

Other Considerations

As a game nears its final rounds, I often give everyone at the table a quick overview of the scoring. With so many new things coming along during that first game, it's very common that players will forget the details of how the game will be scored. I'd rather have players realize fifteen minutes early that they forgot something and have no way of winning. Discovering that at the very end of the game can leave a bad taste in their mouths, making it less likely they'll try it again. This is especially true of longer games.

As if there's not enough to think about, some effort must also be put in to make the first game fun. This varies from game to game, of course, and many games need very little help in this area. Regardless, sometimes that first time through requires a little extra charm. I try to emphasize the theme, no matter how light, to keep everyone's imagination active. Sometimes speculating about what's really happening "in the game" is comical. Making towers mysteriously growing under knights with the action cards in Torres and those troops in the left flank of Battle Cry that just can't seem to be ordered around are always good for a laugh. Not surprisingly, I find I need this comic relief more when teaching younger players new games.

Lastly, there is a time to admit a game isn't working and to try another one. It's far better to end it prematurely rather than dragging it out until they never want to try a new game again. I've had to stop RoboRally and San Marco dead in the first couple of turns. Both are great games with the right people, but tastes vary and there's no sense wasting time with a bad game choice when most of the players aren't having any fun.

And that's what it's really aboutómaking that entire first time through the game fun. Whether you're just leading a gaming group or trying to sell the games, take the teaching part seriously. Keep the rules brief, start playing right away and keep teaching as you go. Chances are everyone will enjoy the experience a lot more. It will be good for the hobby in general and it will be great as you make new friends who keep coming back for more.

- Mike Petty

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