Opinion: Teaching Games

Figured I would write up a new piece since it has been a while since I have updated. Potions Class is still out for purchase on The Game Crafter, and I’m working on getting my second design to fruition. Which design that is changes from time to time but I have a few starting early testing phases.

So, though I don’t have any new news to report I figured I would write about something that came up as a topic on one of my favorite podcasts, The State of Games. It was an episode on rules. It was all about good rules, bad rules, and teaching rules. Of course being a listener to the podcast I have limited input as I am listening in my car on the way to work, aside from shouting at my iPhone as it continues on it’s obedient way playing my requested audio. Needless to say it isn’t the prefered way to get your opinion out there.

I then hopped on Twitter, my favorite game dev discussion platform. Of course with such a grandios topic I had to… 1/3

…split my tweets into multiple parts to make sure that they could articulate the full depth of what I wanted… 2/3

…to express. 3/3

Of course the community isn’t as active on Facebook, a platform that allows longer-format discussion, but then I remembered. Don’t I have a website or something? I mean I know I had some sort of webspace to hock my goods to the public. So here it is…to all you fine folks. Free of charge. My opinion on teaching games.

Teaching games to me is a bit of an art form. To take rules that are commonly now on multiple large page booklets and condensing them into something easily explainable to a group of new players isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. If the players are experienced gamers it can be a bit easier as concepts are more commonly known to them with little explanation. That being said there are some ways I like to look at the idea of layering new concepts together to quickly form a cohesive outline of the game to get you off and to the races.

What are we doing?

One of the key pieces that any game has is an objective. Some victory condition we are working towards. This should be something we can easily articulate to a player as to why we are even doing all this. There could be some flavor text with it, but we need to get the end goal in sight of the players. If I use Kingsburg as an example I can boil it down to:

We are trying to be the player with the most victory points at the end of the game. Victory points are earned by doing various things within the game.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. I know there will be far more questions piggy backing on this but I have quickly laid down the premise of the game and included ‘Victory Points’ as an important term to look out for since they are what you need to win.

How do we do it?

This is when we move into the structure of the game. Generally most games have some “setup” that should hopefully be done by the time you start teaching the game. A player should be able to sit down and have some stuff in front of them that you will introduce.

More important than the stuff that you give them though is the structure of the game. I will stop right now and say if you are going to sit down and teach a game and you don’t already know how the structure of a turn/round of the game goes, you’re about to have a bad time. In the podcast that prompted this all they had mentioned if the rules can not be fit inside a box lid, do not read them verbatim. I couldn’t agree more, and on top of that I will also add if you have never read them, or played a game, take ten-fifteen minutes to at very least flip through and learn turn and round structures. These are pinnacle in knowing when to play things, how to play things, and making sure you can get through the first few turns with as few hiccups as possible.

Using Kingsburg as an example again I know that the game is played in 5 years, and features 8 “phases” to each year. Now I could sit and explain this all but I find a majority of people rather just do instead of hearing. So we will play a super lenient first year in the game. This works great for worker placement games like this because they are simply building the same round structure for a set number of them. Most other games have a simple enough turn structure you should be able to go once around the table, answering questions and helping out that the second and third times will only get easier. So with Kingsburg in mind again I just tell people:

We play in 5 “years” (air quotes can help to get across special terminology for what seems like arbitrary game events) and each year has 8 parts. I’ll walk us through the first year…

Now I’ve setup the basic structure of the game, and even mentioned an end point. I’ve also described that there are 8 events in each year (and will probably have pointed the track on the board out since it is incredibly helpful). ¬†On top of that after a few minutes of talking I’ve got us into our first game of Kingsburg, using the first round as our training wheels round.

But…

I know, I haven’t even described half of the crap in the game, how is anyone supposed to play this? That is probably what you are yelling at your device in which this is being viewed. That is because I have given people just what they need to know to start, and by the end of their first productive season within the game they will pretty much understand the structure of the game.

By the end of spring, the first point in the game anyone gets to do anything of note, a player will already know how productive seasons work, how to roll for turn order and advisory placement. As well as building, and what the symbols for advisors means. I can be able to do that within a relatively short time by layering-on new concepts as needed by the game. That first spring cycle will be more in depth than other parts of the game but I am creating a much smaller ramp into those rules and concepts.

On the other hand if I cracked open the rules book and started reading large sections of concepts, or trying to explain all parts of the game before we could even get the first session off the ground I will effectively be asking my players to climb a cliff-face before we can even be playing a game.

Will this work for every game? No.

Of course every game has a different structure to turns and rounds. Different spaces on the board. Different cards that may happen at different times. But the idea I am trying to get across isn’t ‘How to teach every game perfectly everytime’, it is how to best trying and structure your discussion to give your players a ramp into the game instead of having to sit through a written essay to play a game. I’ll try and sum it up a bit better.

TL:DR VERSION (though it probably has more than I talked about elsewhere)

  1. Know the rules or at least general turn/round structure before trying to teach, bow out of teaching if someone else knows the rules and will teach for you.
  2. Don’t read the rules, teach the rules.
  3. Create a ramp into the game, don’t explain every detail up front.
  4. Have the game setup for players, and give them their end-game goal, how to win, and then head into how you get those things by going through the turn/round structure.
  5. Don’t be afraid to defer to the rules on finer points as things move along (If you teach it enough you probably will get past this at some point)
  6. Relax, try and have fun, in the event you forget something, just roll with it this game or fix it and continue from then forward.
  7. When you are teaching, play to have fun, don’t play to win. The next game you can try and crush everyone.

Final Thoughts

For those learning the rules, try and be respectful, ask questions when you have them, don’t hold on to them or you may derail a conversation and train of thought with an out of place question. Also, if you know the rules, please don’t interject things as I’m trying to teach them. Seriously…don’t do it. After the explanation, then add things if you want. Remember these are games so try and have fun.

What are your thoughts?

Of course this is all Beaupinion. The machinations of my own rambling mind. I’m sure they are full of logical errors, backwards logic, and hypocrisy, so sound off below and let me know what you think on teaching and learning rules for tabletop games.