The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Finer Points of Teaching Rules

Mario T. Lanza

July, 2003

The board gaming hobby brings child-like fun to adults. This grade of fun exists at the core of board gaming and cannot be found in most other adult hobbies. Having tapped this "premium" fun is what keeps board gamers longing for gaming opportunities and eager to experience new games. Yet despite the fun present at most tables where games are being played, some board gamers lack one skill essential to assuring that every game experience is as fun and enjoyable as it could be. That skill is teaching the rules. Because there will always be new games to play, there will always be new rules to teach.

We've all played new games. Sometimes we teach the rules, and sometimes we're taught them. Teaching the rules is a skill that you have the opportunity to improve any time you play a new game. Too many gamers, even veteran gamers, blow straight through the rules using ineffective, disorganized approaches that confuse their audiences. Like me, I'm sure you've been there, and I'm sure you'll agree that a poor explanation of a game's rules degrades the gaming experience.

Let me tell you about an experience I had.

At a game meeting about a year and a half ago, I was taught Tigris & Euphrates by a gentleman I'll call Frank. Frank was obviously an enthusiastic board gamer. He was brimming with excitement as he cracked the lid off the box and started setting up the board. In a short while he was teaching the rules using some kind of yo-yo approach, "There's this and there's that, and back to this, now back to that." As unclear as that may have sounded, Frank was even less clear. By the end of his explanation, I was thoroughly confused. Once we began playing, every player had to ask several questions to clarify their understanding. Frank, apparently not totally familiar with the rules, had to repeatedly refer to rulebook. He conveniently introduced a few rules during the course of the game, usually just as he needed to take advantage of them. It was clear the whole game long that only Frank had any understanding of what was going on. The worst thing about this entire experience was that Frank was so engrossed in having his own fun that he didn't seem to care what kind of fun the rest of us were having. Needless to say, Frank won the game by a landslide as the remaining players had only begun to figure out the rules—let alone any tactics!—by the middle of the game.

When Frank had suggested Tigris & Euphrates that day, I was glad to be able to learn it since I had a shrink-wrapped copy in my closet. By the end of that experience I was so turned off to Tigris & Euphrates that I almost traded it. It wasn't until almost a year later that my distaste for Tigris & Euphrates faded enough for me to bother to learn the rules myself and give it another try. Boy, I'm glad I did! Tigris & Euphrates is a deep, captivating game that has become one of my favorites. I would have never known it if I stuck to my first impression.

That whole anecdote makes one solid point. When your approach for teaching the rules is ill devised, you degrade and sometimes ruin the experience for those playing with you. For this reason I suggest that everyone treat teaching the rules as a skill worthy of practice.

If your approach for explaining the rules has proven effective, I applaud you. Read on if only for curiosity's sake. If your approach is only moderately effective, ineffective, or nonexistent, then, I beg you, read on for necessity's sake, for the sake of keeping the "premium fun" in board gaming.

It All Starts Before You Teach

Although the ideal situation is for you to have played the game before you teach it, this won't always be possible. There will inevitably be a time when each of us purchases a game we have never played. The only familiarity we will have with those games is opening the box, checking out the components, and reading the rules.

When you plan on teaching a new game, take care to understand and become comfortable with the rules. If you have to, re-read the rules, familiarize yourself with the components, and check out web-related content. You don't have to overdo it. With games like Trans America, reading the rules once may be enough. You'll know when you've got it. And for the best results, read the rules no more than a few days before you first play.

Avoid teaching a game straight out of the rulebook. I've experienced this and it's an awful waste of time for everyone. Besides, having a knowledgeable person teach the rules saves time and is easier.

If you're teaching a game that was once taught to you, draw upon that learning experience. Remember what things were confusing or unclear and why, and improve upon them. Likewise, whenever you're being taught new games, notice what about your teacher's explanation works and what doesn't and consider how to improve it once you've played the game. I've gleaned some of my best ideas for explaining certain aspects of games by remembering what my experience was like when I was taught.

The Occasion To Teach

You should have some organized approach in mind for teaching the rules when game day arrives. I learned a very effective style of teaching from reading magic tricks. Basically, the writer would explain how to do the trick at a very high level, before adding a section entitled "The Finer Points" where he would add special detail regarding improving your slight-of-hand technique or overall presentation. It was exceptionally helpful, and I eventually decided that this "incremental" style of teaching was suited for explaining games.

Using an incremental approach, you start at the top and work your way to the bottom very quickly covering only the basics, not the details—very much like an outline. Once you've explained the basics, you work your way through again fleshing out the "finer points". Most people don't have the patience to hear out or the ability to absorb a detailed, chronological approach from top to bottom. That's why some speed-reading courses suggest that readers scan through the chapters prior to reading them—it's helpful to see the big picture first. The Incremental Approach is all about painting the big picture first.

The Incremental Approach

In short, The Incremental Approach has you:

  1. Set up the board and components.
  2. Distill the game down to a few sentences. (Less than a minute.)
  3. Paint an overview for the whole game. (1 to 3 minutes.)
  4. Expand the overview using details—the finer points.
  5. Cover the exceptions, if any.
  6. Teach basic strategies and offer "fair warning." (1 or 2 minutes.)

Now for the details:

  1. Always set up the board and all its components first; you'll be using them extensively. Pay attention to how you organize the components. The way that the components are initially organized can improve the clarity of your explanation.

    In Princes of Florence, for example, placing all of the bits used in the auction phase to the left of the scoreboard and all of the bits used in the action phase to the right makes it easier to grasp the structure of the game. This will become especially apparent when you mention that, "All of these items (showing the bits on the left) are bid on during the auction phase," and that, "All of these items (showing the bits on the right) are purchased during the action phase."

  2. Using only a few sentences, boil the game down to a how and a why. In an article about teaching new games to new players Mike Petty calls the how, "what I do on my turn", and the why, "the scoring." (See Making The First Time Count.) In other words, the how and why are, respectively, the "fundamentals of game play" and "their relationship to winning".

    In Hollywood, entire movies are summarized using a short blurb called a "tagline." The best thing about a tagline is that it's terse but informative. Take advantage of the tagline idea when first introducing a game to new players. Be sure your tagline illustrates what points are and how you go about getting them. Once you start thinking about what makes a useful tagline, you'll be started down the right track to explaining the rules in a simple way.

    Here's a tagline you might use to introduce Tigris & Euphrates:

    "Each of us will be building civilizations by placing our leaders and our tiles to the board. Inevitably conflicts will arise between our leaders. Both adding tiles to grow your civilizations and winning conflicts involving your leaders will earn you victory points."

    Notice the most vital information—the core mechanics and how points are earned—are illustrated. In particular, notice how much detail was left out. In Tigris & Euphrates, I mention nothing about monuments, catastrophes, or what's necessary to win conflicts; instead, I chose to cover these finer points later.

  3. Give a brief, general overview abstracting the game down to its core rules and mechanics. Your overview should paint a chronological picture of the whole game from beginning to end. By omitting the brunt of details, you'll be able to quickly cover the breadth of concerns everyone is having. At the forefront of your mind should be showing the connection between a player's actions and scoring. You'll wrap it up with what causes the game to end. Again, explain the general aspects only; the details come next.
  4. Having painted a foundational overview of the game, you're ready to apply the finer points. Walk your audience through the usual turn order describing all the rules at their fullest level of detail. Above all, demonstrate every chance you get. Don't just tell; show the actual game play by offering examples. By the end of your detailed explanation, you should have fleshed out the rules, demonstrated the use of the components, illustrated how points are scored, and covered the specifics that cause the game to end. The only details you should leave out during this stage are the "exceptions." You'll be covering these last.

    Generally speaking, exceptions are "rule breakers," that is, things that fiddle with the general rules. In Puerto Rico, the buildings are the exceptions. In Torres, the action cards are the exceptions. In Amun-Re, the power cards are the exceptions. In La Città, it's the political cards.

    While it's important to bear them in mind, explain the rules as if the exceptions didn't exist. Office from Puerto Rico For example, regarding the trading house in Puerto Rico, simply say, "You can't trade a commodity to the trading house that it already has. The trading house only accepts goods not already in its storerooms." We all have since learned that the office allows a player to supersede this rule, but don't mention that at this point. It's an added level of complexity. It's better to let the general rules sink in first, before covering the exceptions. If I'm with the right group and I want to provoke their thinking, I might foreshadow, "There's a building that will allow you to get around that rule, but I'll get to that later."

    When you're done with this portion of your explanation everyone should have a complete understanding of the basic game. If you make eye contact, you can often determine who's got it and who's clueless. If someone looks wanting, try to determine where he needs help before moving on.

  5. The final level of complexity in explaining the rules is covering the exceptions. As I mentioned, exceptions are rule-breakers or anything you consider complex enough to save for later. The great thing about exceptions is that you have the artistic liberty to decide what qualifies as an exception. It's a judgment call.

    For example, while explaining Settlers of Catan you might choose to mention the longest road and the largest army last, as exceptions. Or, because these two concepts are simple enough, you might just mention them while you're explaining the rules.

    Deciding what to make an exception has a lot to do with knowing your audience. Some players can handle a rulebook explanation of Die Macher and some need it simplified. In general, I tend to make any rule that seems overly aberrant an exception. I think even expert gamers can appreciate that a more incremental explanation is easier to absorb. Because German-style games (like Acquire and Trans America) often have simple rules, you might choose not to use any exceptions. Again, deciding what's an exception is a judgment call.

  6. Teach basic strategies and offer "fair warning." If you've played the game before, it's polite to offer some very basic strategies that might not be obvious to first-timers. Walloping the inexperienced because you can is poor sportsmanship, and it detracts from everyone's fun. Since everyone wants to have fun, spending a minute to give a "fair warning" on some common tactics that you or other experienced players might use will be appreciated.

Guiding Principles For Teaching

There are a few useful thoughts to bear in mind while explaining the rules that should improve your overall effectiveness.

  1. You should undoubtedly expect some of your anxious listeners to interrupt you with questions. Knowing which questions to answer immediately and which to postpone is of utmost importance when giving cohesive explanations. If your rules presentation will eventually answer a question, politely say, "We'll get to that in a minute." Questions meant to clarify the rule you most recently explained should be addressed immediately.

    Whatever you do, don't detour to answer every misplaced question as this disturbs continuity, decreases clarity and disorganizes an otherwise structured explanation. Although you may eventually cover all the rules despite these many detours, your audience may actually have a harder time remembering them. Through practice you'll develop a knack for effectively handling, even anticipating, questions. More often than not simply saying, "We'll get to that in a minute" will be fine. People just want the comfort of knowing that their unanswered questions will, indeed, be answered. Only when your audience is entirely confused or is having a difficult time following, should you consider revising your methods. Normally, if you use any thoughtfully organized approach, this won't be an issue.

  2. The general objective, the means of attaining it, the scoring, and the game-ending conditions are key aspects of the rules for all games. As such, they are worthy of repetition. Cover them with a progressive layer of depth as you drill down into your explanation. A listener's growing understanding often enables him to grasp a rule that was initially unclear. Repetition is neither wordy nor inefficient; it improves clarity, understanding, and remembrance of the rules. Besides, it's easy for your listeners to miss a detail when they're being bombarded by so many.
  3. Understanding how the game is scored is so very important that it deserves special attention. Be thorough and illustrate the various ways points can be scored. Emphasize the aspects of the game that most impact scoring.

    For example, in Java points are earned for building and for upgrading palaces, but even more points are earned for those same palaces at the end of the game. Because end-game scoring is so crucial, I always emphasize the importance of positioning one's developers with this in mind well before the end of the game.

  4. Be logical in the order you explain things to alleviate confusion. Don't explain how to use the power cards in Amun-Re until you've explained how you acquire them. This seems so obvious, yet I have witnessed many confusing, backward attempts at explaining rules.
  5. Being clear and thorough doesn't mean being long-winded. I once played a game of Progress and Destiny (a prototype that may be published by GMT) in which explaining the rules and the first turn took over an hour each! Two hours into our game meeting we had only just begun playing the game. Now having played it, I'm convinced that a comprehensive explanation could have been given in no more than 20 minutes.
  6. Be enthusiastic. How can you not be enthusiastic? You are, after all, about to play a game!

While Playing

Be observant when watching inexperienced players. Sometimes certain moves will seem foolish and you'll be wondering if the player is aware of a particular rule. Simply reiterate the rule and ask the player if he was aware of it. Even attentive listeners can be overwhelmed by too many rules.

Be flexible, allowing inexperienced players to take back their moves when you determine that they're clearly not aware of a certain rule. Don't argue about whether or not you've already explained the rule, simply explain it now and allow them to take back their move. In general, I allow them to take back their move up to the point where the next player begins his turn.

Sometimes, a player may not realize he has a flawed understanding until he notices the player after him doing something that violates his understanding of the rules. In such cases, my group usually asks whether the active player minds backing up his move in order to allow the prior player to redo his own. We respect whatever that decision may be; however, most in my group are flexible. We give one final fair warning regarding that particular rule and accept the "mulligan". People often remark that the first time playing a game is more about learning than it is about winning. If you hold this creed, prove it!

Referring to the rulebook in the middle of the game can reveal that your group is missing or breaking rules. Unless everyone agrees that switching the rules at this point is okay, it's best to note the discrepancy for the next game and continue playing as everyone had been. Remember, so long as everyone shared the same understanding of the rules, the game is no more or less fair for anyone.

After The Game

It's always a good idea to read the rules one last time. You may have missed rules or used them incorrectly. By not re-reading the rules you may go on playing the game improperly dozens of times or, worse yet, teaching others to play it wrong. How embarrassing when a fellow gamer finally points out a rule that you've been butchering for years. (See The Yawning Gap of Forgotten Rules)

Several months ago, I taught my group Atlantic Star. The game allows you to take a 1,000- to 10,000-mark loan from the proceeds of chartered voyages. On a voyage that earned at least 10 points, you could dock 10 points (for 1,000 marks a point) to secure a 10,000-mark loan. Until we had played the game half a dozen times, we weren't aware that loans were capped at 10,000 marks. Eventually, someone developed a tactic of taking full-value loans against their first voyage. On a 43-point voyage, they'd take a 43,000 loan! To further aggravate things, we didn't realize that the cards used in chartered voyages were removed from the game. We recycled them. With limitless loans and recycled ship cards, players soon realized that "clearing" the available voyages until the good options re-emerged, was a viable tactic. Missing those two rules resulted in a crazy variant and a broken game. I assure you, the game is much better now that we play according to all its written rules.

In Tigris & Euphrates we played almost a dozen games until someone discovered that the "green" leader, not the blue one, took treasures. Lesson learned: always read the rules again after playing your first game. Even you, mere human being, are bound to catch rules you missed or mistook.

The Strengths Of The Incremental Approach

I have had a lot of success teaching games to my friends using The Incremental Approach. I think what makes it work so well is that it shows the whole picture immediately and then it drills down level by level incrementally into the details. The audience isn't hearing intricate details about some random game mechanic about which they have no concept and no understanding as to where it fits in. I've sat through "nitty-gritty approaches" that did just that and it's awful.

The Incremental Approach is like looking at work of art through a camera lens from afar and then slowly zooming in. Alternately, the Nitty-Gritty Approach is like being zoomed in all the way on one small spot of the artwork and then panning around. It's confusing and torturous. Don't use it. Most people can learn more easily when they have a high-level understanding first; it gives them something to which they can relate the details.

I've sat through disorganized nitty-gritty explanations where I had to retrospectively piece the big picture together. The goal of The Incremental Approach is to start with the big picture and offer subtly more detail to avoid confusing one's listeners. Enable your audience to piece the picture together as you go, not retrospectively as you're finishing.

The Incremental Approach doesn't take a lot of forethought. I rarely spend even 30 seconds organizing my thoughts the first time I teach a particular game. Once you have the concept down for using the approach it becomes a skill that is easy to apply to teaching any game.

"Professor Easy"Personal instruction teaches in a way that written rules typically do not. The Incremental Approach more strongly suits how the mind works and learns. Though written rules are necessary and important, they're usually not structured for teaching. Rules are most often written chronologically if only to improve our ability to make reference to them. Just because rules are authored by professionals doesn't make them superior for all purposes, particularly teaching. In fact, certain Kosmos games like Starship Catan and Entdecker now include "Professor Easy" guidebooks that are geared toward teaching games in ways that rulebooks can't.

The Incremental Approach is improved by its repetitiveness. It covers and recovers the most important aspects necessary for understanding a game as it drills down. "Repetitio est mater studiorum," that is, "Repetition is the mother of learning." Why not use it?

Because it's incremental, repetitive and methodical, The Incremental Approach is very comprehensible to most. If you've ever been the cause of confusion, you should strongly consider trying it.

Putting It Into Action

The Incremental Approach may be similar to the approach you already use; it may be completely different. In short, it's nothing original. It is just one amalgamation of concepts that many of you already employ.

In the "Teaching games" thread on rec.games.board, Jim Bolland well summarized how he explains the rules:

"In simple terms, it's where you start, where you want to end up, and how you get there, in that order. If you tell someone how they can get somewhere before you tell them where they are going, they will get confused."

While Jim's approach might not be exactly like yours or mine, he has one. He's making use of the teaching tools that work for him.

You can only gauge how well any tool works by putting it into action. There's certainly no "one perfect way" for teaching the rules; what's important is that you have a game plan, that you're not just flying haplessly through a set of rules. Use the Incremental Approach and fine-tune it, or develop an approach of your own. Through plenty of practice with any well-devised approach you'll become a master at explaining the rules. You'll also contribute to making sure your fellow board gamers have all the fun they're due.

- Mario T. Lanza

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