You know this game, inside and out. It’s easy to learn, but as you’re talking you see the wrinkle forming in between their eyes. Another’s eyebrow just arched up. They’re not getting it. Why is this harder to explain than you thought?

A lot of people have trouble teaching a game to other people. Most of the time, it’s just in the delivery.

Step 1: Control the Table

I’ve seen people sit across the table from me trying to tell me how to play a game while others are setting it up. The problem with this is that you’re not in control of the table. When you start talking about cards or some other component, you need to be able to grab those, show how they work, etc. If someone hasn’t gotten them out yet, it makes your presentation stumble and they start to lose interest.

You should be the one opening the box. As you take out the board and components, name them, give very little brief descriptions. It’s okay to say you’ll tell them more about something later. Right now you’re just introducing the components. If something catches their eye and they grab for it, take it back. Cool artwork or interesting components can be very distracting. Take it back and tell them you’ll get to that in just a minute.

If there are other players who know how to play, hand them cards or other components to shuffle and arrange as needed. If others try and chime in, stifle it. This is your table right now. Only one person should teach. Teaching by committee is the fastest way to make a person feel overwhelmed. This is your table.

For instance, when teaching Asking for Trobils, people almost always want to look through the RiffRaff cards while I’m talking. The characters are fun, as they were designed to be, but looking through them will have to wait.

Step 2: Introduce the Theme

A lot of people skip this because they either think it’s implied, or they feel it’s not necessary to understand the mechanics of the game. The theme of the game can often explain the why.

Them: “Why am I drawing cards when I go to that spot?”
You: “Because you’re a pirate pillaging and the cards are what you get.”
Them: “Oh, I’m a pirate?”

You’ll avoid interruptions like that if you simply explain the theme right away. Use one, maybe two sentences at the most. You’re not trying to dive them into the world of the game right now, let the game do that.

The last time I taught Lords of Waterdeep to someone, my brother kept interrupting by telling them why the purple cubes were wizards, the black were rogues, etc. and how the colors were associated with those representations. I had to take control of the table and tell him to stop. It wasn’t important for them to learn why purple was the best choice to represent a wizard right now, and he was letting his enthusiasm for the theme get in the way of teaching something properly.

With Asking for Trobils, when I introduce the theme, I simply say something like, “Trobils are space vermin that have infected the planet Paradise. We all play Trobil Hunters trying to be the Greatest Trobil Hunter in the galaxy.”

Step 3: Start with the End

Imagine if someone started giving you directions to drive somewhere without you knowing what the destination was. You wouldn’t know why you were making that turn, or even how long these directions were going to be. A journey is so much easier to explain if you give the destination first.

Sometimes this is easy. A lot of games are point accumulation and so saying something like, “The winner is the one with the most points at the end” is a simple way of telling the player how to win. Keep in mind though, the next question in their mind is, “How does the game end?”.

I’ve seen explanations fall apart at this point. When talking about how the game ends, you suddenly find yourself discussing concepts that you haven’t gotten to yet. Sometimes the best thing to do is a quick mention and a “we’ll get to that in a minute”.

Other games can be a little more complicated to explain when it comes to winning. Just remember to keep it simple. Don’t explain how to get to the win yet, just what is required. Use only one sentence.

“In Talisman you win my reaching the center of the board and killing everyone else off.”

“In Dungeon Lords you win by having the most points at the end”

“In Arkham Horror, you win by either killing the creature that rises at the end, or by stopping them from rising by closing gates.”

Since I just said when describing the theme of Asking for Trobils that players are Trobil Hunters, my explaination of how to win flows very easily after that. “You win by having the most points at the end of the game, and you get points by capturing Trobil cards. The game ends when all the Trobil cards are gone. I’ll discuss how to get Trobil cards in a moment.

Step 4: On Their Turn

People learn best when things are presented to them in their perspective. Tell them what they’ll be doing on their turn. Most games have player mats or cards you can even hand out at this point so that they can follow along.

This usually makes it easy to tie in things that you’ve held on to, such as how to get points, get to the middle of the board, close gates, etc. In some cases, turns are a little harder to explain. In Evil Intent for example, players take their turns almost simultaneously. In that instance you describe what everyone is doing.

When you get to a certain component, such as, “At the start of your turn, draw a card from this deck”, this is when you describe what that deck is and what to do with the cards. There shouldn’t be any more holding back on information. Always try to stick close to what they do on their turn though. If you start talking about how cards work, make sure to explain it from their perspective.

Always approach things from their perspective. What are they doing? Why are they doing it?

“On your turn you either place a ship on the board, or you pick up all of your ships. Placing a ship on the board lets you interact with that location.”

How People Learn

The most important thing to keep in mind when teaching is how different people learn. There are generally three different ways people learn; visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Most people are a blend of all three, although I can tell you that I’m almost 0% auditory. If you talk to me without moving a muscle, it goes in one ear and out the other.

Visual Learners learn best when presented with images, props, and motions. So for instance, if I tell a visual learner that they can move their piece down the point track, they’ll pick up on that lesson better if I pick up the piece while saying this and actually move it down the track.

Auditory learners learn by listening to you speak. This is one of the reasons why controlling the table is important. There should be only one source of information coming their way. Auditory learners also do well if they repeat a summary of what you just said back at you. If you notice a player doing this, then they’re listening to your words more than anything else in your presentation.

Kinesthetic Learners learn by doing. If you feel you might be losing someone, hand them the dice to roll and explain what their result means. Give them the card to hold and look at while you explain it. Get their hands involved. The last time I explained Cosmic Encounters I directed people to actually pick up their ships and place them where I was telling them to place them in different situations.

If you put all of these methods into practice, then you’ll hold everyone’s attention.

The Wrap Up

Let me just put this out there, you’re probably going to forget something. Especially in a complicated game. I dare anyone to teach Arkham Horror without starting a sentence with “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention…”.

The best way to find out if you’ve missed something is asking for questions at the end.

In some cases, playing a dummy round would be a good idea. You start first and show everyone what to do and why you’re doing it. In a dummy round, nothing is kept secret.

Remember to look people in the eyes and engage them. I like to stand up when teaching at larger tables so that I can reach over to others. Just like the game, try and keep the teaching fun and enjoy yourself.

If you’re interested in Asking for Trobils, check out our Kickstarter page!

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Christian Strain

Game Designer at Kraken Games

Christian is a co-founder of Kraken Games. After releasing their first game, Evil Intent, Christian is currently working with Kraken Games on three other projects including their upcoming title, Asking for Trobils.

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  1. Norv Brooks on July 28, 2014

    Chris, a well written How To article!

  2. Jeff Cornelius on July 28, 2014

    I love that someone actually wrote about this! One of the things in the industry that is definitely lacking. Thanks, Chris, for giving us your insights.

  3. Christina Major on July 28, 2014

    Really really great points that touch on a lot of pitfalls I’ve seen in various meetups where trying to teach a game (mostly everyone trying to explain things at once). I think it’s also important in all of this to say HOW you shut someone down if they’re trying to talk over you. I’ve seen this handled very ham-handedly/condescendingly, and you don’t want people to approach the game from a point of anger. A simple, “Oh yeah, those are important, I’ll get to those in just a minute” and putting your hand over the card/piece usually acknowledges their “helpful contribution” while simultaneously bringing control back to you.

  4. Kelsey Domeny on July 28, 2014

    Great article, Chris! I esp. resonate with “Start at the End.” I hate it when someone is teaching me a game and jumps into the minutia of turns and cards before telling me the end game. I need to know what is necessary to win before you teach me how to get there. Great job. I’ll def. be reviewing this piece before teaching games at Gen Con this year!

    • Christian Strain Author on July 28, 2014

      Yeah that’s a big deal for me too. I’ve stopped people and asked how to win before…. being the interruption i mentioned before lol.

  5. John Q. on July 28, 2014

    I really like the article. I’ve been trying to get better at intros, since I seem to be the one introducing most of the games to my group. The worst feeling in the world is trying to explain the game in a straight forward manner, but ending up bouncing around in rule minutia. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep it as simple as possible off the top.

    Also, interesting differences between this and the Shut Up & Sit Down video on the same topic. The main one being whether or not you hand out components to players before you’ve knocked out your rule explanation. You make the point that they can be distracting, and that’s totally true, but it does give players a means to start to put themselves in a game. I guess you have to play to your audience.

    • Christian Strain Author on July 28, 2014

      Thanks John Q. I think handing them components of the game can be helpful if you’re explaining that component. I sort of touched on that with the Kinesthetic Learners. As long as they’re being used as a teaching tool and not a distraction, components are great for teaching 🙂

    • Jeff Cornelius on July 30, 2014

      Another thing that is great for teaching (especially for visual learners like me) is the player reference card. I always hand those to people at the beginning.

  6. Betsy Cornelius on July 28, 2014

    Great article! And pretty much exactly how Jeff teaches games. He knows doing something like reading straight from the directions or giving too much detail too soon would immediately turn me off a game.

  7. SgtHatred on July 29, 2014

    Thanks for the tips. I always end up teaching my game group new games and this should be tons of help.

  8. Brett on July 29, 2014

    I believe knowing the rules very well and being confident about them really helps. Better to get something slightly wrong then spend time constantly referring back to the rulebook.

    • Christian Strain Author on July 29, 2014

      Good point Brett. This was coming from the assumption that the teacher already knows the game pretty well, but the points are still the same.

  9. Sarah on July 30, 2014

    I’ve also always found it useful when being introduced to a game (or when introducing someone else to the game) to play transparently the first time around. For games where you win by skill especially I find it more useful the first time if everyone provides a brief explanation for the action they have chosen on their turn. Rather than being focused on being the least skilled, this allows me as a new player to understand not only the game mechanics but different ways to approach the game in the future.

    • Christian Strain on August 4, 2014

      An example round can be useful. Especially if they still look confused after you’re done teaching lol.

  10. TexasGeoker on July 31, 2014

    There are too many people that “think” they can teach a game. There are also as many out there that are impossible to teach a game. And you know who you are! You complain later in the game when you are reminded of a rule you didn’t remember because you have no attention span! With that all said . . . this is a great article. I learned as much about learning a game as I did about teaching a game. Thanks! I look forward to using your words of wisdom when I teach a game with my group this weekend.

  11. Steve Bennett on August 4, 2014

    Great article. I’d make one comment though: people tend to teach the mechanics of each turn, and it’s redundant. You’ll always cover that during their first turn anyway. In fact, in a lot of cases, you might as well skip most of the explanation until it’s actually their turn.

    So, instead of “At the start of each turn, you’ll draw a card. Then you’ll select an action which is one of ….. And then you’ll have to discard a card”, just wait and it becomes:

    “Ok, it’s your go. Pick up a card. Now, choose an action. You can either x, y, or z. I’d probably y at this point, because you need more cards. Ok, you’re y-ing? Now, discard. Good.”

    The only things you really need to explain at the start are things they’ll complain about not knowing later – mostly end game goals, or actions that they can perform out of sequence (“What? You didn’t tell me I can trade when it’s not my turn…”)

    • Christian Strain on August 4, 2014

      Thanks Steve, but I couldn’t disagree more lol. I can’t stand when people try and teach a game to me like that. I make them stop and tell me what I’m doing and why. I don’t want to be guided through a game, I want to play it. Teaching a game like that makes them feel like it’s a hassle to teach them and you’re just making them go through what they have to so you can go.

      More importantly, you’re not focused on them. You’re playing. You’re thinking about your turn. Things will be missed. Also, there are games with secrets, games where planning ahead is important.

      If you say something like “draw a card. Sometimes you can choose to draw a card, but you don’t want to right now, so just draw a card.” Now you’ve taken the decision process away from them. Now they’re not playing, you are.

      Teaching like that removes the fun, the focus, and the full understanding of the game for the student.

      • Darren on August 4, 2014

        True story. Typically, I’ll do a sample turn for everyone anyways. That way they can see the flow of the turn structure, and make their own choices from turn one.

  12. Darren on August 4, 2014

    Valid points. After explaining the theme, and how to win, I generally do a sample turn for everyone. This way people can make decisions and understand the general flow of a game. You don’t have to necessarily DO a full turn; Just lay out the phases/structure of a turn.

    It also helps to set the turn order so that new players can go last. Then they see a few examples of how a turn can play out, before they have to make any choices.

  13. Discardthiscard on July 17, 2015

    I think sometimes the trap in teaching a game is, you want it to be as short as possible so you can start playing as fast as possible.
    Not many people like listening to rules for 30-40 minutes, when all those pretty meeples and bits are in front of you. (People start building little meeple towers or forts)
    But when playing heavy euros comes heavy rules.
    In our group most of us have aquasition disorder so most of the games are new and we rarely play games more than a few times in a short period of time.
    I hate it when a game has to stop to discuss rules and look things up in the rulebook or on bgg
    Most of the time at the end of the evening when everyone is gone, i quickread the rules one more time to see if i forgot someting, so next time we can play it with lesser rules wrong.

    Mistakes happen, live with it. It’s just a game, we play to have fun and we like the company of our friends.

    • Christian Strain Author on July 17, 2015

      The building meeple forts and playing on the phone while I’m trying to explain a game is a big pet peeve of mine. The best way to avoid that is to give them tasks. Give them a deck as you start to explain the cards and ask them to shuffle. When you start to discuss the types of resources, have them separate them. Basically, keep them involved.

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