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Subject: Tips on How to Teach Board Games rss

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Kurtis Rose
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We all love to chat about relevant topics of conversation on a multitude of categories here on BGG, but I'd like to start a thread about something that is initially very important to every game -teaching/learning them! The reason that this comes to my mind is that I organize a pretty sizeable gaming group via a website/app called Meetup, and, as the organizer, I teach several games to new/veteran gamers weekly. I recently had a chance to actually learn/be taught a game, and I found that it didn't go well for me; I thought to myself, "what could this person have done better to effectively teach the game to me?" So, after thinking about it, I've decided, as a person who has taught many games, to impart to you the things that I find to be most important when teaching games; I hope that you find this to be useful!

I'll be numbering the following sections in order of tips that I find most important, starting with the most important:

1. Tell the players how to win. This was a criticism that I received early on in my pursuit of effective board game instruction. Someone told me, "you taught this very well, but I really wanted to know how to win from the beginning." That makes so much sense! Everyone wants to know the reason for sitting at the table, and people need a goal to work towards; so, my top tip is to first tell everyone how to actually win the game. After you do this, you should see the gears start cranking as you go into all the other rules of the game.

Quick examples of this would be: Scythe- tell the players that the goal of the game is to be the richest empire, and that, all things considered, money is the victory point of the game; Fury of Dracula- tell the players that the "hunters'" goal is to find Dracula and diminish his life points to zero, and "Dracula's" goal is to reach 13 influence on the influence track (before his/her health is drained by the hunters); 7 Wonders- explain that the object is to accrue the most victory points through multiple avenues (but don't explain each category right from the beginning, that would give the players too much to think about without enough context).

2. Know the rules to the game before you start teaching. Unless you know all of the people that you're playing with beforehand, and/or you've already started with the precedent that you didn't have enough time to read the rules, then you should really take the time to familiarize yourself with the rules before teaching the game. If you are reading through the rules as you are teaching the game, then you are not engaging with the players enough to keep their interest. Even more than that, if you can't confidently tell the other players the answers to their questions, they may constantly ask you whether you've got certain rules right and they may ask you to look at the instruction manual -which can really bog down the game! Knowing the rules before the game starts eliminates most of that problem by establishing you as the authority, and allows everyone to jump right into the game. If the rules to a game are particularly convoluted, I'd suggest watching an instructional video on YouTube (i.e. Rahdo Runs Through, or Watch it Played).

3. Put components into the players' hands. People can, as a general observation, be easily distracted. While teaching rules, you want to find simple ways to keep them focused on your instruction. One of the simplest ways to do this is to get some components in their hands that they can fiddle around with. If the game has colored components for each player, or faction components, get those into the players hands! If it is as simple as picking a color, you can tell the players, "pick your favorite color, that will be your color for the game, but it has no impact on the actual gameplay."

However, it could be a little more complicated that this, right? One of my favorite games is Forbidden Stars. This is a fairly complicated game, and, thusly, a challenge to teach -and I've taught it many times. The factions are asymmetrical, so whichever faction the players' receive will really change their gameplay. How does a player make that decision before actually knowing all of the rules? It could be simple: they don't. Randomize the factions. This is certainly a sensible way of doing things for someone's first play. If players have a problem with this, rationalize it by telling them that they can have more choice in the matter on their second play through.

But what if players unanimously vote that they'd actually like to choose their faction/team (if the rules allow for this)? Well, don't get hung up on it, give them a very brief explanation of what each faction does, and let them choose from there. The main point is that you want to get the components in their hands so that they can take a look at them while you're explaining the game. This will aid them in understanding the component's function as you explain the game, it satisfies that desire for tactile stimulus that people have, and it also gives people a special feeling of ownership ("these are MY components, they don't belong to anyone else").

4. Rule lawyer. What is a rule lawyer? This is someone who is obsessed with the procedural focus of the game, and cannot rest if one thing has gone undone. People like this are fine to play with, and can really help with the flow of the game, but they can also kill a rule explanation. They have a thirst to know the rules, and they want to know the rules on their terms; but, you must always remember that YOU are teaching the game -do not let a rules lawyer hijack your instruction of a game.

Ideally, you'll start teaching a game with an sense of what you want to start with, and a general direction of how the rules should be taught (most likely in the order that they're written in the instruction manual). Sometimes people will start to develop questions as you're teaching certain rules, and they'll interrupt you to ask them. These people are not necessarily rules lawyers, but they can be. The moment that this happens, you have to make a decisive choice on whether you think the players must know the answer to this question right now, or whether you had planned on reaching the explanation of that rule at a later point; if the latter is the case, simply say something to the effect of, "we'll get to that in a bit, just remind me if I forget to explain that," and move on. On that note, don't be dismissive! Communication is key, and people can be really offended if you give off a vibe that you think that their question is unimportant.

5. Don't be a robot. Do not read the rules verbatim, and try your best to use good inflection and avoid a monotone voice. It is very hard for people to focus when a teacher is droning on and on, without any change in stride. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask, "does everyone understand so far?" This helps you evaluate whether people are actually paying attention to what you're saying. More than just getting the answer to that question, you can (hopefully) perceive whether everyone actually heard you ask that question.

On that other hand, you may come across someone that just doesn't do well with rules explanations, no matter how interesting you try to make them. Some people will only learn a game by actually physically playing is. If you think this is the case, there are two things that you can try to accommodate them: 1. physically show off some of the mechanics while you're explaining them (i.e. in a game like T'zolkin, put some "workers" on the board and show how the gears actually function); 2. after the entire rules explanation, play through a couple practice turns/rounds and then restart the game.

If able, insert some flavor into your rules explanation -explain a bit of the theme after certain rules. You'll have to find the balance of this with the crowd that you're playing with; a more-theatrical group of people will want more theme explanation, but rational/euro-gaming-centric people might care less about the theme, and would rather trim the fat and steam through the rules.

6. The point of no return. Sometimes, if you've gathered a group of people below the maximum player count, you might consider allowing another player to join after you've already begun explaining the rules. This may not be a problem, but it also might be quite a problem. I'd say that this mostly depends on the complexity and length of the rules explanation. If you've just started explaining the rules (perhaps you only started explaining a minute ago) it might not be a problem to allow the person to join, and you'll simply restart from the beginning of the rules explanation. If you're already five minutes into rules explanation, you might want to ask the person, "have you already played this game before?" If they have, you may allow them to join, and continue explaining the rules; if they have not played the game before, I'd recommend kindly saying, "well, we've already started, but feel free to take a seat and watch." This option leaves you with a couple choices after you've finished explaining the rules: 1. you could stick with your initial reaction, and just allow the person to watch you play the game; 2. if you want to allow them to join, you could ask them if they'd feel comfortable jumping into the game based on the portion of the rules that they did observe you explain.

7. Don't get caught up in the minutiae. Every time that you teach a game, you should make one thing clear: win or lose, a new player has done a good job if they've learned the game (after playing). One thing that you'll want to focus on while explaining the rules is letting the players know what their options are on a given turn. You don't want to leave out anything essential, but sometimes there are tidbits or exceptions to rules that you can leave out until they arise in the game. This is a judgement call on behalf of the person (you) explaining the rules, and it can sometimes be a hard decision to make, but the human brain can only process a certain amount of information at one time -if you explain the exception to every rule from the beginning, players probably won't even have the foundation/context to fully understand what the purpose of that rule is.

Let me give you an example of a rule that I might omit during a rules explanation: going with my previous example of Forbidden Stars, I'll say that there is a type of token that a player can gain in the game called an "asset". It is important for a player to know that the "asset tokens" do (functionally); there are three different types of asset tokens, and I would explain what each one does. However, there is one small rule in the game that says each player can only have 3 of each, individual asset token. That is not important for a player to know during rules explanation. To me, that is just another number for a player to memorize in an already complicated game -and I may choose to omit that fact until the game starts flowing and the other players actually realize how these "asset tokens" even work.

8. Too many cooks in the kitchen. If you generally teach games, but you have the opportunity to learn a game from somebody (which is an opportunity that I relish!), you should try to remember that you are not the teacher in this situation. Also, if you already know the game, you should avoid interrupting the person teaching, UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. I'll admit, I've given in to this annoying habit too many times; I feel that I can't help myself sometimes, but I always feel bad upon reflection. If you're not the teacher of the rules, then let the teacher do their job.

On the other hand, you may see someone floundering quite a bit while trying to explain rules. It's alright to offer them your help -maybe to even take over the rules explanation completely- they may be grateful! You should never presume, however, that this is the case. As I mentioned above, communication is key -it never hurts to ask, but don't butt in where it isn't warranted.

9. Communication is key! I've said it twice already, but I'll say it again. This is a fact that I've learned in life. If someone is having trouble with a concept during rules teaching -whether it is stated outwardly or whether you've just got an intuition that this may be the case- just use your communication skills! We're people, we can work through this together, but nothing can be learned if it isn't communicated. If there's a level of frustration developing with a certain concept, slow it down for a minute, use words, and resolve the problem. If tension develops even before the game starts, then you might be stuck sitting with a person for a couple hours who really isn't enjoying their time -and that can also affect you and everyone else at the table.

10. The nuclear option. If you reach the end of your rules explanation (or even previous to the end) and someone expresses some type of disinterest in playing, consider letting them leave the game. If you perceive that they might be embarrassed about not understanding the rules, encourage them to stay and let them know that you'll help them with any questions that they have. There might be a case, though, where someone just knows that they won't like a game; don't try to guilt them into playing it! That person will most likely be miserable, and they'll also bring others down with them. You may think to yourself, "I've spent a half-hour explaining the rules to this game, and this person is just going to drop out, bringing us below the BGG recommended player count; not while in this world!" I say, no, don't fall prey to that line of thinking. I've done it before, and, trust me, you may have wasted a half-hour explaining the game to that person, but they will make sure that you waste the next hour or two playing the game. Just let them go and move on. Every game is not for everybody.



Alright! I've said a number of things about this topic, and I hope that you've found something of interest here. If you're not skilled at teaching games, hopefully I've given you something to think about, and if you're even more advanced than me (at teaching games), hopefully I've amused you in some way. If you've got something to add, please leave a comment, or just leave a comment if you like/dislike what you've read!

Happy gaming!
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Bryan Thunkd
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Rosekurt wrote:
4. Rule lawyer. What is a rule lawyer? This is someone who is obsessed with the procedural focus of the game, and cannot rest if one thing has gone undone. People like this are fine to play with, and can really help with the flow of the game, but they can also kill a rule explanation. They have a thirst to know the rules, and they want to know the rules on their terms; but, you must always remember that YOU are teaching the game -do not let a rules lawyer hijack your instruction of a game.
No! That's not what a rules lawyer is! A rules lawyer is someone who tries to exploit rules ambiguity to their advantage. They're the guy who argues "Well, it doesn't say I can't do X." They come up with an interpretation of a vague rule that creates a weird situation and lets them abuse the game. Someone who wants you to go through all the rules is simply thorough.


Rosekurt wrote:
7. Don't get caught up in the minutiae. Every time that you teach a game, you should make one thing clear: win or lose, a new player has done a good job if they've learned the game (after playing). One thing that you'll want to focus on while explaining the rules is letting the players know what their options are on a given turn. You don't want to leave out anything essential, but sometimes there are tidbits or exceptions to rules that you can leave out until they arise in the game. This is a judgement call on behalf of the person (you) explaining the rules, and it can sometimes be a hard decision to make, but the human brain can only process a certain amount of information at one time -if you explain the exception to every rule from the beginning, players probably won't even have the foundation/context to fully understand what the purpose of that rule is.

Let me give you an example of a rule that I might omit during a rules explanation: going with my previous example of Forbidden Stars, I'll say that there is a type of token that a player can gain in the game called an "asset". It is important for a player to know that the "asset tokens" do (functionally); there are three different types of asset tokens, and I would explain what each one does. However, there is one small rule in the game that says each player can only have 3 of each, individual asset token. That is not important for a player to know during rules explanation. To me, that is just another number for a player to memorize in an already complicated game -and I may choose to omit that fact until the game starts flowing and the other players actually realize how these "asset tokens" even work.
I know groups where you'd get lynched for doing this. Don't break out a rule halfway through the game and suddenly tell me there's a limit to how many X I can have! Just because your group can't handle a full rules explanation doesn't mean that all groups suffer from the same problem.

I might wait to explain the exceptions until after you've explained the basics fully, but I wouldn't hold back rules to introduce during the game. I had a game designer do this to me with a prototype he was teaching and it was a huge "WTF!" moment as it completely changed everyone's plans when a new variable was added to the table.

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Kerstin
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Rosekurt wrote:

7. Don't get caught up in the minutiae.


I agree with ThunkD here: Before you follow rule 7 make sure your group is ok with it. In manye cases it can indeed work great and people are ok with just learning some smaller rules later in the game, but I know quiet a few people that HATE it. So just make sure with what kind of crowd you're playing before considering it.
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Ole Richard Tuft
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Rosekurt wrote:

2. Know the rules to the game before you start teaching.


Yep. Reading from the manual is not teaching. The difference is monumental.

Rosekurt wrote:

3. Put components into the players' hands.


And sometimes, don't. If I hand everybody their deck to look through while I teach Quartermaster General, it is inevitable that they will be so intrigued by their deck that they will miss parts of my explanation.
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I'd add a 0 - Backstory

This doesn't have to be long! Just a sentence so we all know what the theme of the game is - this is the hook after all. Then you can go on to how to win.
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Ian Bennetts
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greendayfan333 wrote:
I'd add a 0 - Backstory

This doesn't have to be long! Just a sentence so we all know what the theme of the game is - this is the hook after all. Then you can go on to how to win.


I came here to say exactly the same thing.

Backstory
End Condition
Winning Condition
What you do to win
What other stuff you do

e.g.

We are rival merchants in the market of Istanbul determined to be the most successful by filling our wheelbarrows with rubies. The game ends on the round that one, or more, merchants has 6* rubies in their wheelbarrow. The winner is the player with the most rubies. You get rubies by visiting the Gemstone Dealer, the Sultan's Palace, the wheelright or either Mosque. But to satisfy the needs of those locations you need to gather resources from the other locations in the market...


* I know this varies but let's assume I know how many players are with me at this point.
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Russ Williams
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Thunkd wrote:
Rosekurt wrote:
4. Rule lawyer. What is a rule lawyer? This is someone who is obsessed with the procedural focus of the game, and cannot rest if one thing has gone undone. People like this are fine to play with, and can really help with the flow of the game, but they can also kill a rule explanation. They have a thirst to know the rules, and they want to know the rules on their terms; but, you must always remember that YOU are teaching the game -do not let a rules lawyer hijack your instruction of a game.
No! That's not what a rules lawyer is! A rules lawyer is someone who tries to exploit rules ambiguity to their advantage. They're the guy who argues "Well, it doesn't say I can't do X." They come up with an interpretation of a vague rule that creates a weird situation and let's them abuse the game. Someone who wants you to go through all the rules is simply thorough.

Hmm, you're being a thread lawyer.

"Rule lawyer" is frequently used in both senses (i.e the good helpful person who knows the rules well, as well as the bad person who tries to twist or misuse the rules for personal gain).

Plenty of people even describe themselves as a rule lawyer (usually meaning the good sense).


PS: As a grammar lawyer, I am compelled to note that you meant "lets", not "let's".
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As a demo monkey for various game companies, I'll just add...

3.5 Do an example. Some games do this better than others, and we'll go through a sample turn, as I introduce the steps of the game. Sometimes players will afterwards start the game over, other times they'll continue the game from where the example ended.

8.5 If someone else wants to teach, let them teach. Some players like to teach the rules and, even if they don't do a good job, you can then review what they said. And don't assume they're doing a bad job, and don't assume you're doing a good job, either. If and when the other person goes to the next step in the rules, stop them and review what they said, again using an example. Of course, if they're doing a terrible job, cut them off.
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Bryan Thunkd
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russ wrote:
Hmm, you're being a thread lawyer
I thought I was more of an argumentative cuss, but okay.

russ wrote:
"Rule lawyer" is frequently used in both senses (i.e the good helpful person who knows the rules well, as well as the bad person who tries to twist or misuse the rules for personal gain).
I don't hear it used in the former sense very often. And I think the "lawyer" part of the phrase supports the interpretation where a player argues about the rule and tries to find an interpretation that helps their client (in this case themself).

russ wrote:
PS: As a grammar lawyer, I am compelled to note that you meant "lets", not "let's".
Yeah, I make a ton of grammatical errors when I write. Oddly, I know the correct grammatical rules but when I'm writing in a stream of consciousness all that goes out the window. I usually reread what I write and edit them back out though.
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Sal A.
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Grreat tips!
Also, one of the best ways i found to teach board games is just playing a full round while the new players watch. They will get it even faster.
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April W
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Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?
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russ wrote:
"Rule lawyer" is frequently used in both senses (i.e the good helpful person who knows the rules well, as well as the bad person who tries to twist or misuse the rules for personal gain).

I have only known it used as a pejorative.

(face it, why are there such things as drowning lawyer / shark jokes
)


Quote:
Plenty of people even describe themselves as a rule lawyer (usually meaning the good sense).

I would think that more "Rules Professor".

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Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?


I think you might, I generally need to know what my motivation is before someone tells me I could draw a card or roll the dice or trade with my neighbour.
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Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?

I too often don't care.

(And often the goal is sufficently obvious in any case, e.g. in a game with money it's often a safe bet that you want the most money at the end; in a game with victory points, the most victory points generally wins; etc.)
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Chris Graves
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I used some of these tips to teach a game about a month or so ago. I really liked explaining the victory conditions up front, and REALLY knowing the rules. I made a point of spending several hours in the rule book. I did have to reference the book on several occasions, but had a very firm grasp on most questions as the game progressed.

I also like something I heard on a podcast recently (maybe Secret Cabal?), but the idea of telling the group your outline of what you will be teaching. Example: "I am going to explain the winning conditions and how you trigger end game, then I will explain the board, and finally we will go over your player and faction mats"...or something like this.

One thing I think is important, is to look for is how the players are responding. One game I tried to explain, everyone was getting fidgety, and I could tell they just wanted to get started. After a couple rounds, everyone was good to go and a long explanation wasn't necessary. I guess they could just recognize mechanics and were ready to jump in head first.
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Bryan Thunkd
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Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?
I was demoing a game for a company once, and the guy teaching us how to demo it critiqued me about starting off with "how to win" and told me not to get into that until the players understood how to play the game.

I'm not saying that he was right or that I agree with him, but at least some people don't agree that you should lead off with that.
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Thunkd wrote:
Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?
I was demoing a game for a company once, and the guy teaching us how to demo it critiqued me about starting off with "how to win" and told me not to get into that until the players understood how to play the game.

I'm not saying that he was right or that I agree with him, but at least some people don't agree that you should lead off with that.


I like to tell people how to win at the beginning of the game explanation, and to remind them at the end of the explanation. This helps to people to look for game winning ideas and strategies; and to remind them of all the game winning conditions at the end of the explanation.

This is especially important if the game has multiple victory conditions, or multiple paths to victory.
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Step 1: Watch Rodney Smith's Watch It Played video.

Step 2: Serve good wine, bourbon or beer depending upon the game theme and season of the year.

Step 3: Profit
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Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?


I think most people want to know where they're going before you start giving directions. You don't have to go in-depth early in the rules explanation, just something brief in the beginning and save the minutiae for the end.
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Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?


I think it depends on the game. I need to know what my aim is - even if it's as vague as "building the best empire" - but it really depends on the game as to whether I need to know the victory conditions first, or whether it will make more sense after you've described the turn sequence, or what cards do.
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Paul Brudz
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I use the following outline when teaching a game.

-Theme and objective overview
-Mechanics and scoring summary
-Detailed turn description
-Endgame and exceptions
-Questions?
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Use reference cards if the game came with them. Allow the players to read the info on them as you explain, so they know where to look for reminders later.

If there is a turn summary printed on the board, point it out and go through it step by step.
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Kurtis Rose
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Thanks for all of the great replies everyone! I didn't mean for this list to be the definitive guide on teaching games, I just want to throw out a few ideas for people who are a little less experienced at teaching games from the perspective of someone who has taught many games -and, admittedly, made a lot of mistakes along the way. We're getting lots of great comments going here; keep them coming!

Let's try to stay on track as we go forward; these are not personal attacks on anyone's ideas or teaching techniques -these are simply tips people can either incorporate or disregard. What works for some may not work for all. I will, however, address one of the above comments:

Soleia wrote:
Am I the only person who doesn't care if you don't tell me how to win the game until the end of your rules explanation?


Yes, from my experience, you'd be in the minority. To most people that I've talked to, having a concrete direction/motivation in a game is very important. Giving this to people right from the start helps alleviate that gnawing concern while they sit through a potentially lengthy rules instruction. Furthermore, it helps people with the intake of information, and the development of strategy. Let's say that I tell you in the beginning of rules instruction that "every coin earned is one victory point." You will know, in that instance, that coins are precious. If we're playing a game like Coup, for instance, the accrual of coins (money) does not necessarily directly determine a player's victory outcome.

So, why is this important? Well, first and foremost, we play games to socialize have fun. What is a major fun factor in games? Being competitive and also winning! As I said, learning to play the game in your first play should be considered the primary goal, but it's always nice to have the possibility of winning, or at least giving the other players a run for their money, so it behooves you to give your players the tools necessary to do so.

Also, it shouldn't usually take more than 30 seconds to state the victory condition -that's no burden! Of course, there are exceptions to this recommendation; take Pax Porfiriana for example -I would save talking about victory conditions for last in the case of that game (but, again, that is an extreme exception with regards to a game the majority of gamers will never play).
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Larry L
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Really great advice!

Rosekurt wrote:


6. The point of no return.


Oh yes. This happens to me at cons and meetups. We've gone through the extensive rules explanation in order to play the game. I'm reaching to take my first move, and the host (or another player!) invites someone new to sit down. Asking me to sit through the complete rules explanation a second time is really inconsiderate.
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Rafael Maia
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great advice! thanks for taking the time to write this!
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