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Subject: Game Explanations: A brief 'How to' guide... rss

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Armand
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It's been almost a year now that I've had a steady game group and that means I've learned and taught dozens of new games; at least two a week. There are a handful of things I've learned about what works and what doesn't work when teaching new games. It's all boiled down to a set of guidelines that seem to work for my group with every new game so I thought I'd put them out there on the geek... here goes:

1. No Lectures. The most comfortable and natural way of explaining a game is to let your left brain take over and just talk your way through it. But it's only comfortable for the teacher. We all fall into this sometimes; we love our games so we love to talk about them. But learning is best accomplished through engaging as many of the senses as possible. Boardgames lend themselves to this wonderfully as they are inherently visual and tactile, so...

2. Show, don't tell. If you're talking for more than 20 seconds, and yes I mean that literally, without moving bits around the table, you're making a big mistake. And even that twenty seconds is probably unnecessary! If you're making an overview statement like, "This is a game about providing power to your cities in Germany" (Power Grid) you can point at the power plants as you say 'power' and hold up a little house and put it on the board as you say 'your cities'. Make a habit of grounding every one of your statements visually and tactilely in the components!

3. Use a walkthrough! The best way of accomplishing the 'show, don't tell' idea is to simply walkthrough the game. You may be tempted to explain 'just a few' rules and then do a walkthrough. Resist this temptation. There is no rule that can't be better explained during the walkthrough. The more important the rule, the more necessary it is to demonstrate it with the bits. A 3 minute two-player walkthrough, right hand against left hand, followed by a reset of the board beats the heck out of any lecture. Get in there and crank the game up right away.

4. Go from big to small. Last night I was taught Outpost and within the first 20 seconds of a ten minute lecture the explainer taught us how 'mega cards' work. At this point I still didn't know there were auctions in the game. I'm trying to think of an analogy... it's sort of like teaching Tic Tac Toe without mentioning that there's a pencil and paper involved. Always have a sense when you're explaining of the old outline format we learned back in school. Start with the big roman numerals and work down.

5. No chocolate in the peanut butter! Never, never mix strategy tips with rules. If you're still explaining rules your group doesn't know how the game works yet. Have you ever heard two people discuss a game you've never played? They might as well be speaking another language. And that's the language you're now speaking when you talk strategy to people who don't yet know the rules. Strategy comes last!

When you do get to it, make a bold statement of demarcation: "This is a strategy note; this is not a rule." Strategy notes should be the bare minimum. If there is a way to lose in the first couple turns of a long game, you should definitely point that out. Otherwise no one wants to hear your strategy theories, they want to play and learn for themselves!

6. Take it as it comes. If there are rules that don't come into play right off the bat hold off on explaining them until they do. Be sure to remember as you're playing not to fully abandon teaching mode - you have to get people the info they need before they need it - but if you can give it to them immediately before they need it that's much better than giving it to them 30 minutes before they need it.

It's very effective to play a couple turns and then say, "Ok, we all know how to play now. So let's hit pause for a minute and look at the endgame conditions and how final scoring is calculated so you can decide where you're going with this."

This works particularly well for VP driven Euro's; for area control games you may need to start with the victory conditions and work backward. But the basic principle holds, don't overload people with theoretical stuff they're only going to forget. Take it as it comes!


I hope these thoughts work for people as we go into the holidays and try to bring our beloved hobby to the non-gaming masses, or at least our aunts, uncles and cousins!

If you have any tips, teaching strategies or pet peeves, shoot! Anything that gets my group to the fun part faster is pure gold...

Happy holidays!

-Armand

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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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I disagree with points 5 and 6.

How you win and, to a lesser extent, when the game ends, are crucial concepts that drive everything you do in a game. They need to be covered in brief as soon as you've laid down enough of the game's structure and terminology for people to be able to understand them. They are the lens through which everything else must be filtered. No one I play with would be willing to start a game without knowing how you win.

As for strategy tips, I find it's best to intersperse broad strategic concepts into the explanation, so people can have context. In particular, strategy explains why you'd want to do something, which helps you to remember what you can do, which is what the rules describe. Without any strategic guidance, it's all a pile of unconnected mechanics. With some strategy, it gives the audience a framework on which to hang things. It's best to stick to one-sentence key ideas, like "doing this enables you to do that thing we just talked about", "you generally want to avoid doing this, unless you have a good reason", "you really, really want to try to do this every turn if you at all can", or "watch out for this nonobvious-but-important consequence of this rule".
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