Recommend
21 
 Thumb up
 Hide
14 Posts

BoardGameGeek» Forums » Gaming Related » Gaming Articles

Subject: The Boardtastic Guide to Explaining Rules... Good rss

Your Tags: Add tags
Popular Tags: [View All]
Chris J Davis
United Kingdom
London
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Overtext pending moderation...
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
In this guide I am going to attempt to describe a framework for explaining the rules to board games in a clear and easily-digestible way. I have seen it happen too often that a gaming session has been spoiled by a botched rules explanation, with no one enjoying the game because they haven’t got the slightest idea what they are doing. This guide now exists to help reduce the number of those occurrences.

In brief, the best way to explain the rules of a board game is to start big (with the over-arching theme of the game) and work your way down to the details (the minutiae of the rules). In this way, the players will hopefully never feel too overwhelmed, as they can always link whatever is being explained now back to something more general and easier to understand that went before.

I will illustrate each point with an example using that most famous of games, Monopoly. This will mean that the examples may in some cases be quite simplistic compared to some games you might be explaining, but hopefully it should be enough to give an idea of what is required. These examples will be written in italics at the end of each section.

So, the first thing you start with is...

1. Theme

What is the game about?

The first thing you need to do is explain the theme of the game. Are we trading commodities in medieval Europe or are we slaughtering innocent monsters in a dungeon? This is important for two reasons:

- To give the players some kind of “plain English” context that they can use as their foundation for attaching the rules to. If you start straight off with explaining the rules and just throwing a bunch of cards, icons and other game jargon at the players without providing any sort of context, the players will become hopelessly confused and have no idea what anything of what they are doing really means.

- To make the players care about the game and their role in it. Without a theme, the game becomes a completely abstract exercise - like Chess or Draughts - and it is much harder to get a player emotionally invested in a generic pawn than it is to get them emotionally invested in a brave hero slaying monsters or a great leader building an empire.

Even if you think the theme should be obvious, explain it anyway; it is useful to use this time to focus on describing the aspects of the theme that are most strongly represented in the game. If it is an empire-building game, is the focus on warfare, construction, economics, diplomacy or a mix of all of these things? If the game is based on a TV show, does each player play as one of the characters or do they represent whole factions from within the show? Does the game represent an episode, a season or the whole series?

Monopoly is a game of property trading where each of us plays as a property developer, buying and selling famous areas of London, developing them and trying to make as much money as possible.

2. Overview

What happens during a game?

Next you will want to describe what sorts of events typically happen during a game, what sorts of things the players will be doing and what the players are trying to achieve (i.e, how to win). This section is basically a bridge between the theme and the rules, essentially explaining the theme again but in a way that makes more use of specific game terms and concepts, but without yet going into any actual rules.

One important thing to also mention at this time (and in fact, should probably be the first thing you say during this section) is whether the game is competitive, cooperative, semi-cooperative or a team game. Without mentioning this, most people will assume a game is competitive. Not knowing this important piece of information can very easily leave players extremely confused until far into the explanation, especially if some of the participants are new to board gaming and may not even be aware of the existence of cooperative board games!

During this time it may also be helpful to point out the different components as you talk about the aspects of the game that will involve them. For example, if you say “players spend resources to buy goods”, point out the resource tokens and goods cards while you are saying this. This will help players begin to identify components by their names and understand how they are used in the game, even if it is only in a very general sense for now.

During the game we’ll be travelling around the track on the board [indicate spaces on the board] trying to land on available properties so you can buy them [indicate property deed cards], and trying to avoid landing on properties opponents have bought so as to avoid paying rent. Trading properties with other players also forms a big part of the game. You will also be able to build houses and hotels [indicate houses and hotels] which will increase the value of the rent you get from other players landing on them. The aim of the game is to be the last player remaining after all other players have become bankrupt.

3. Structure

How does the game advance?

Next, outline the basic structure of how the game progresses; how long will the game go on for (in terms of rounds/turns, or any kind of game-ending condition)? What order will the players be taking their turns in (if there even is such a thing as player turns in this particular game)? Which parts of the game will be repeated in a regular manner and which parts only happen once or at particular times?

Again, avoid going into the nitty-gritty of any detailed rules at this point - you’re just trying to give the players a general idea of how the game will flow, and how their turns will typically progress.

The game will start with a random player, and then we will each take a turn going clockwise around the table. On your turn you will roll dice, move your playing piece and then may perform some additional optional actions. As the game goes on players will become bankrupt and will be removed from the game. The remaining players will continue taking turns until there is only one player remaining, at which point that player wins.

4. Actions

What do the players do?

Now, in bullet-point form, tell the players what they are actually able to do, with each item possibly followed by a very brief description. If a typical turn is comprised of a number of phases, bullet-point those phases. If there are a number of actions the players can choose from, bullet-point those actions. If the game is mostly about playing different types of cards, show the different card types. This is also a good time to state which of the actions/phases are mandatory and which are optional.

Again, you are not explaining in detail how any of these phases/actions/cards work just yet - you are just familiarising the players with what they will be expected to do during the course of the game, easing them in gently.

On your turn, you have one action that you must perform, which is to move your playing piece and carry out the consequences of the space you land on. You also have a number of optional actions available to you, which are:

- Trade with another player - this can be with money or properties.
- Buy or sell houses and/or hotels in order to increase the rent you receive on your properties.
- Mortgage or un-mortgage properties, which is useful if you need a bit of extra cash.


5. Rules

How do the players do what they do?

Finally we get around to explaining the meat of the game - the details of the rules in regard to each of the points you listed in the previous section.

Typically in the case of actions or cards, you should explain these in order from simplest to most complex; explaining the easiest to understand first will give the other players confidence that the rest of the actions/phases will be just as easy to understand (even if they’re not - a subtle psychological trick). Or it may be prudent to first explain the actions that are most “basic” or “core” to the game, as other actions may build off of those. The specifics of the game should guide you on the best order in which to explain the player actions.

Obviously, if the player turn is made up of just a set sequence of phases, you simply explain them in the order in which the phases occur.

Another important point is that you should, for the most part, only explain the most common flow of events for each action/phase. Don’t confuse your audience with all the exceptions that may occur along the way - leave that for later (the explanation, not the confusion...hopefully). Additionally, don’t explain anything that doesn’t need to be explained; if there is anything in the game that you can administrate on behalf of the other players without them needing to know about it (such as bookkeeping events), try to do so, and don’t bother explaining the details of it to them. Seriously - they don’t care. They may be able to help you with it more once they become more experienced with the game. For now, just mention briefly that this bookkeeping event happens, then move on.

If there is anything that can be left out of the explanation until it actually happens in the game, leave it out, though this you have to be extremely careful with. The question you must ask yourself is: am I likely to be shouted at with “you didn’t tell us about that!” if I neglect explaining this rule now? In most cases the answer will be yes, so use this editing discretion sparsely!

This is probably a good time to mention that this will be the section where players will have the most questions regarding what you’re explaining or, very commonly, what you are about to explain. If someone asks a question that is directly relevant to what you are explaining at that precise time, it is okay to answer that question immediately. If someone preempts you and begins asking questions about something you know you will be explaining later, the phrase “I’ll be coming to that in a moment” is your friend! Use it liberally.

Finally, if any self-contained aspects of the game that you might normally explain during this section are so especially complicated that they deserve their own dedicated section, consider only giving a brief outline here and then explaining those rules once the players have a fuller understanding of how the rest of the game works. For example, if a game contains a very intricate and complicated combat system, mention here the different ways in which combat can be initiated, but then leave the explanation of how combats are actually resolved until later.

The first thing I will explain is moving around the board, as - like I said - that is the only action you must perform at some point during your turn. To move, you roll two dice and the result is the number of spaces you move your piece clockwise around the board. If you land... [explain about landing on an unowned property, or on an owned property. Do not explain about Chance, Community Chest, Jail, Go to Jail or GO - these are exception rules, which should be left until later].

Before or after your movement, you may perform any or all of the following actions, as many times as you like, and in any order: you may... [explain about buying/selling houses, trading properties/money, mortgaging/unmortgaging properties].


6. Exceptions

What else can happen?

In this part you’re just filling in the cracks. Now that the players understand basically how the game works, you can go back and explain all the fiddly little rules that you left out during the previous section so as not to confuse people. Now is the time to confuse people; after sitting through the previous five sections, the players have invested too much time to back out now.

Note that you should use some judgement on what is considered an exception and what is not. If you find that you are basically just going back and repeating section 5 again, then you have probably deemed a little too much as “exceptional” and should probably consider incorporating some of this section into the “core” rules of section 5. Experience will tell you how much complication and confusion your audience can handle, as well as when you have got the mix about right.

You can start this section with the phrase “there's just a few more things I need to tell you about”. This reassures your audience that the explanation is coming to an end and that they won’t have to listen to you waffle on for much longer.

Just a few more things I need to tell you about: there are these other spaces on the board... [explain about Chance, Community Chest, Jail, Go to Jail, and GO]. Also, if you roll doubles on your movement roll... [explain about rolling doubles].

7. Victory

How do you win?

Next comes the most important part of all: what exactly is the point of everything you are doing? What are you trying to achieve?

You should have touched on this briefly and in very general terms during section 2, but here you lay out the specific conditions of what will cause the game to end and determine whether individual players have won or lost. This should be straightforward enough and doesn’t really require any in-depth explanation - just tell the players how to win!

The only thing I might say is that it is usually not worth mentioning tie-breaker rules unless it is a game with a high chance of a tie occurring. Typically, only tell the players tie-breaker conditions if they ask, or if it becomes apparent during a game that a tie could occur.

If ever a player is completely out of money and assets, that player is considered bankrupt and is removed from the game. The game ends when there is only one player remaining - that player is the winner!

8. Summary

What happens during a game... again?

Just because you’ve explained the end of the game doesn’t mean the rules explanation is quite finished. You now need to help the players cement together everything you have just told them. Basically, you will be reiterating section 2 (the overview), but with even more specific game concepts included. Doing this allows the players to once again see the “big picture” of the game, but this time with them applying everything they have just learned and understanding how it all fits together into that overview.

So, to recap: you will be moving around the board, trying to land on as many available properties as you can so that you can buy them, then trade those properties with other players to form property sets of the same colour. You’ll then build houses and hotels on those properties in order to increase their rental value in an attempt to bankrupt the other players and be the last player remaining.

9. Strategy

What should the players do?

The very last step of a good rule explanation is a matter of courtesy. i.e, don’t explain only the basics of the rules and then proceed to stomp all over the unwitting n00bs just BECAUSE I CAN!!! To ensure the game is enjoyable for them (and for you; after all, a victory without any real resistance is a hollow victory) it is a good idea to also provide some basic strategy tips to get people going, especially for the early turns of the game during which the other players will still be finding their feet.

This is not to say that you should start playing the other players’ roles for them, or go deeply into finesse strategies that only the most experienced of grand-masters will have grasped. This is only to help players avoid common pitfalls that could potentially ruin their game before it has even really begun, or to just give them a gentle push along the right path. You may also want to point out some otherwise hidden aspects of the game that will be become obvious after even just one play, so that the players are aware of them in advance (such as a common card effect that might appear particularly often during play).

Generally, you will want to buy as much as possible in your early turns while you have lots of money, as if you don’t buy everything you land on immediately it will probably go at auction to the player who wants it most. Also, you may notice that there is a big jump in rental income between the 2-house and the 3-house mark, so it is a good idea to get to at least three houses on properties as quickly as possible.

Other Tips

- Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Don’t worry that you may be boring your audience by repeating the same game concept again and again - this is a good thing (the repetition, not the tedium). Repetition of concepts will help players remember them, as well as mitigate the possibility that a player may have missed it the first time around. This is especially true if you repeat the same concepts in different, overlapping contexts, as it will help players “join the dots” between different parts of the game. Explaining everything once and once only may leave players confused as they remain unsure of how it all joins together.

- Throughout the whole explanation, give plenty of examples, preferably using the actual components to illustrate. Even ask other players to join in and help you with your examples (reassuring them that this is just an example and that the outcome won’t reflect badly on them), as the players are also likely to learn more by doing rather than just listening.

- Be patient! Players will have lots of questions, and it will happen (many times) that players will miss rules you have explained and will ask you to repeat them (again and again and again). This is completely normal and to be expected. After all, learning the entire ruleset to a board game in just 20 minutes is a lot to take in all at once, and unlike you, they haven’t had the opportunity to lounge around studying the rulebook at their leisure. If the questions start to become too numerous or start going into too much detail, reassure the player(s) that it will become obvious once you begin playing.

- Don’t forget to use the phrase “I’ll be coming to that later” often! Begin to regard this phrase as your best friend!

- Try to remain coherent as much as reasonably possible. It won’t do any of the other players any good if the focus of your explanation keeps moving all over the place. Try to keep a steady pace and remain focussed on explaining one thing at a time.

- There are always exceptions! These guidelines are not hard-and-fast rules on how every board game can be explained easily. You will always find games where the above guides just don’t work and you will either need to adapt them or even find an entirely new way to explain. Some common examples of when this might be the case are:

* Games with a real-time element (Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker).
* Games that are formed of “two (or more) games in one” (Dungeon Lords, Space Cadets).
* Games with any other unconventional mechanics.

- Sometimes (only sometimes) the best way for players to learn is to just start playing and let them learn the rules as they go along. This is usually true for games with relatively simple rules that follow a prescribed sequence that the players can do little or nothing to affect. This approach may also be preferable if you are dealing with a particularly impatient bunch of non-gamers.

Anyway, I hope this guide has been of some help to you. Now that you know the secret technique of a well-explained board game I look forward to learning many, many games from you all in the future!

Good luck!
18 
 Thumb up
1.50
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Ziegreich
New Zealand
Auckland
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
I think the How Do You Win section needs to be right after the theme. "This is a game about trading properties. To win, you have to be the richest player by the end of the game."
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
T France
United States
Oakland
California
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
I have two friends who insist on knowing the win condition first. This is a nice layout,though!...
3 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
J C Lawrence
United States
Campbell
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
bleached_lizard wrote:
In brief, the best way to explain the rules of a board game is to start big (with the over-arching theme of the game) and work your way down to the details (the minutiae of the rules).
My general approach to theme when teaching rules is something like, This game is all about money, uhh, somewhere. Ok, now that we're done with the theme, on with the rules...

Quote:
- To make the players care about the game and their role in it.
In many of the games I play the players have no identifiable or even particularly relevant role. They are merely actors in a system.

Quote:
How do you win?
Which I prefer to put up front. This is a game about FOO. At the end of the game the player with the most BAR wins. The game ends when BAZ. These are the various nouns in the game. This is how the nouns relate to each other in the game. This is the construction of a player turn. This is the construction of a round. This is how and when the game ends, and how the winner is determined. Questions?

Quote:
9. Strategy
Is anathema. Never mention it unless the players explicitly request it, and if anything they'll usually request that there be no mentions of strategy or any interpretation of the game beyond the literal definition of the rules as written.

Quote:
What should the players do?
They should try and win. How is up to them. They and you are on their own.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Jeffrey Formosa
Australia
flag msg tools
Thanks for taking the time to write that. Though I am sure most experienced boardgame hosts will have their own ideas and may disagree with some of the article, for people with little to no experience the article serves as a good foundation base.

I do think that explaining strategy to the new players should be very limited. Some people like me find enjoyment and intellectual stimulation in figuring out the strategy of games, which is something that you wouldn't want to interfere with. In your Monopoly example I believe you went to far in mentioning the 2-3 house jump.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Greg
United Kingdom
flag msg tools
designer
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
My instinct with this was to say that I find it works well to start with the condition for victory and express the other rules in the context of this, but on reflection I do start with theme. It's just that it happens before the "rules explaination" stage, at the "which game shall we play" stage.

As for strategy, I think it depends on the game. Generally I'd avoid it, but there are three types of game I'll mention strategic considerations for at the end of the rules explaination.
1) If the game is long and the first move is critical. Committing someone to a three hour twilight imperium game that they know they can't win after the first move because they produced and couldn't expand to adjacent systems is no fun for anyone.
2) If he game has early player elimination. Having a player join a mafia game and get immediately lynched for something obvious and have to sit around for the rest of the game is no good.
3) If the game is cooperative and played to a time limit. Trying to express why we want to fire both lasers at once during a space alert planning session is impossible and either leads to an unclose failed game or "just do what we say" neiher of which are much fun.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Brian
United States
Somerville
Massachusetts
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
I absolutely agree with others that the first rules-related thing to be said should be "The player who (is/has) X when Y wins." Knowing the overarching goal allows players to internalize the rules more easily and begin to form the rudiments of a strategy while learning the rules.

Theme is for me mostly irrelevant, so when I explain rules to a like-minded group I inject them in the rules only when its a good metaphor to explain a somewhat-tricky mechanic. I certainly won't lead with it beyond a sentence or two tops.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Jonathan Berry
United States
Louisville
Kentucky
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
That's a good article. I have to say that I agree with some of the other posters. After theme I explain what it takes to win. Then I get into game play, rules, and what the player does on their turn.

Good stuff tho!


Cheers!
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chris J Davis
United Kingdom
London
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Overtext pending moderation...
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
In case nobody had noticed (and it seems nobody did), it *does* say that one of the things you should talk about in section 2 is how to win.

Also, I should probably be clear that this guide is intended for the more Ameritrashy side of games as that's what my friends and I usually play (it was written in response to many of my non-hardcore gamer friends suddenly turning to the dark side and buying a flurry of games of their own).
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chris J Davis
United Kingdom
London
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Overtext pending moderation...
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
clearclaw wrote:


Quote:
9. Strategy
Is anathema. Never mention it unless the players explicitly request it, and if anything they'll usually request that there be no mentions of strategy or any interpretation of the game beyond the literal definition of the rules as written.
*Your* players. Why are you speaking on behalf of my players or anyone else's players?

Quote:
Quote:
What should the players do?
They should try and win. How is up to them. They and you are on their own.
This may be okay if you are entirely a group of hardcore board gamers, but if you're the only one and the rest of the players are friends who are more on the casual side of it, then the quickest way to put them off ever coming back again is by letting them fuck up in the first turn, crash and burn, and spend the rest of the game being miserable and not enjoying it.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chris J Davis
United Kingdom
London
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Overtext pending moderation...
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Scarmouth wrote:
Thanks for taking the time to write that. Though I am sure most experienced boardgame hosts will have their own ideas and may disagree with some of the article, for people with little to no experience the article serves as a good foundation base.

I do think that explaining strategy to the new players should be very limited. Some people like me find enjoyment and intellectual stimulation in figuring out the strategy of games, which is something that you wouldn't want to interfere with. In your Monopoly example I believe you went to far in mentioning the 2-3 house jump.
Possibly, but it was difficult to think of good examples for Monopoly!

Maybe a better example would have been to talk about some of the Chance and Community Chest cards that could come up (maybe particularly the "repairs on all your houses" one).
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Christopher Scatliff
Canada
Victoria
British Columbia
flag msg tools
It's about time, too.
badge
I hate overtext but love irony.
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
I love it when clearclaw shows up. It's like the Monty Python scenes where Graham Chapman comes in as the general complaining that things have gotten too silly.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Mario Lanza
United States
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
The quality of a rules explanation is important to me and this guide is among the best I've read on the topic. Well articulated. Thank you.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls