Category Archives: Teaching Board Games

Wherein I do my best to give tips and tutorials on how to teach others to play board games.

Dear Designers: Please have your rule books play tested

One thing I have noticed since I started playing board games, is that it becomes painfully obvious how few rule books are play tested. So many designers will show off their games at conventions on anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to try it out. They’ll go to their friendly local game store and introduce the regulars to their game, and show them how it works. Play testing is often done with close contact to the designer, as questions are clarified and the game is polished even while playing the game.

By the time the game is officially published and finally out, everyone involved in the play testing and design process has already played the game by being taught to play it by the designer, or at least by players who learned to play from the designer. When the final rule book is made, no one seems to bother actually learning the game from nothing but the rule book. This is a huge mistake that so many designers are making, because the huge majority of your audience isn’t going to have you around to help them once your game is published. You’re not going to be there when the first Kickstarter backers receive their brand new limited edition copies of the game.  Don’t let a player’s first experience with your game be soiled for no reason other than a poorly made and tested rule book.

I’m not even just talking about “learning” a game from the rule book, because equally important is using the rule book as a reference when a question comes up. Players need to both be able to learn the game from the rule book, as well as find answers to complicated questions that may come up during play, without having to spend too much time away from the game looking for those answers. When the designer is sitting next to a new play testing group, neither learning or reference is important, because within seconds the designer can make sure everything is running smoothly, and if a game breaking issue is found they can quickly correct the trouble.

One great example of what I’m referring to is a game I got from Miniature Market’s black Friday sale: Guilds of Cadwallon. As it turns out, Guilds was a Kickstarter game. Having not heard anything about it besides seeing it for cheap on Miniature Market’s website, I dug into the rule book. There are some rather egregious typos that make the “simple” process of counting components and setting up the game confusing. The numbers in the book don’t add up, and don’t match what your “District Deck” will actually have after setting up! Beyond obvious typos, there are rules that make no sense at all until you’ve finished reading the entire rule book, and even then there are ambiguities that I couldn’t make sense of. It tells you to optionally play action cards, but not how you get them. After a round and you finish finding out who won each district, the game doesn’t even tell you what you’re supposed to do from that point! It says determine who won the cards, and pass the first player token. It doesn’t say what you do with cards you won, if they go into a hand, face down, face up, who knows?

Of course, if you watch the 10 minute long “how to play” video on their Kickstarter page, you learn how to play really quickly. It’s a surprisingly easy game, but the rule book is utterly worthless. It’s obvious they’ve never sat someone down with their game, and played it purely by reading and learning from the rule book and no outside help.

All a designer has to do is take the “final draft” of the rule book, find a group of players who have never played before and know absolutely nothing about the game, and watch what happens. This is what I call the “Blind Play Test” and it is a type of play testing that needs to be done for every single game in addition to the play testing that designers are already doing.  The main rule in blind play testing is that the designer can’t talk or aid the players in any way. The second the designer interferes with the game being played, they’ve already ruined the experiment. Instead, the designer should take notes on everything the players find themselves confused about, and especially note everything that the players do “wrong” in the game.

After the game is over, the designer should sit down with those players, and find out what they thought was confusing, and what could have made the learning process better. Any time that the game was played wrong, the designer should also question why they played that way. It is important to note that the designer needs to carefully word this question so that it isn’t accusing the players of playing wrong, but more that the designer is trying to find out what made the players make that decision. Specifically, what about the rules made it seem like that was the correct way to play, because clearly the rules didn’t cover that case clearly enough.

Using what was learned in the “blind play test”, the rule book should be revised and this process needs to be repeated until a play group (or several play groups!) makes it through a game with no major issues.

Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Guilds of Cadwallon specifically because this is a huge problem for a huge majority of board games. Guilds just happened to be the game I most recently ran into this problem with. The game itself seems to be quite good and I look forward to playing it for the first time. The fact of the matter is that tons of games have rule book issues, and all of them could have been solved by play testing the rule book itself.

So, as someone who learns games almost entirely from reading the rule book and rarely gets a chance to be taught a game directly from the designers, please have your rule books play tested. Resist the urge to teach new players, and help them in their first games.

Teaching someone new to play a board game is an art form

Teaching a game is an art form, and every game needs a different teaching method. Dominion, for example, is relatively straight forward and each player is doing their own thing allowing you to teach a bit more while playing. This makes teaching it slightly easier than a game such as Terra Mystica, which requires you to cover a ton of iconography and front loaded mechanics before you can even begin. No one method is going to work for both games, and anyone who tells you there’s one way to teach a board game is wrong. That being said, teaching a board game should follow a few basic steps regardless of the game.

If you’re going to teach a game, you should outline the teaching method for yourself before actually teaching it. That’s the first step. Each game has specific parts that need outlined, but they all fit into specific categories.

The biggest tip I can give is that you shouldn’t don’t bother talking about the “story” and the mythology of the game. You’ll make the game more confusing for people who just want to play and don’t care about the flavor. You can mix flavor in throughout the explanation of the game, but don’t front load it. Often times, putting too much flavor in your explanation will just make the new player more confused about the actual mechanics of the game. It’s better to make sure they understand the rules first and foremost, only adding flavor to help set the mood.

I will make a basic outline for a few games with varying difficulties. This is by no means a full teaching tutorial for any of the games, but it will give you a good idea of where to start. I will likely be adding more detailed teaching tutorials for each of these games in later posts.

1) What is the goal of the game? Give the players the most straight forward way to win.

Dominion: You’re a land baron and you want to buy provinces

Resistance: Win missions for your team, either as a resistance trying to hurt the government, or a spy trying to foil their plans. The first team to win 3 missions wins the game.

Settlers: Build 10 points worth of settlements

Terra Mystica: Have the largest town and the most devout priests. (Yes, the actual goal of TM is victory points, but the easiest most straight forward way to WIN is to have the largest town and be at the top of every religion track.)

It’s okay for #1 to be overly vague, as long as it does a good idea of telling your players WHAT they should be doing. Do not talk about HOW you meet the goal of the game, just WHAT the goal is. The goal should be easy and clearly defined. Ideally, giving this instruction should make at least one player ask “how do I do that?”

2) How do you meet the goal of the game? Once again we are looking for the most straight forward way to meet the goal of the game.

Dominion: On your turn you will have a hand of cards. You can use your hand of cards to buy provinces, duchys, and estates. You can also use your cards to buy these other cards, which will make it easier to buy provinces, duchys, and estates later in the game. (point to the cards, but don’t explain them yet. Just acknowledge their presence)

Resistance: If you are a resistance member, you want to pass a mission. Pass 3 missions and the resistance wins. If you are a spy, you want to fail a mission. A failed mission counts as a win for the spies. Fail 3 missions and the spies win.

Settlers: Show them the “cost” card, and explain buying settlements and cities with resources. Explain that settlements are worth 1 point, cities are worth 2. Explain that roads have to be built between settlements. Explain that development cards do cool shit and are also sometimes worth a point. Lastly, explain largest army and longest road.

Terra Mystica: Explain the costs on the player board. Explain the upgrade path. Explain various ways of getting “victory points” and that the winner is the actual person with the most victory points, so not to ignore them until the end.

Once again, this will lead to hopefully another few questions which is still helping keep players interested and involved in the explanation. The most important part of this step is to give the new players a clear path to victory without hiding it behind possibly scary mechanics. You want to get through both step 1 and 2 relatively quickly.

3) Explain what you do on an actual turn.

Dominion: Draw cards. Spend points. Do what cards say. Make a fake hand using a mix of cards that will be in the game, and go through the motions.

Resistance: Jump straight to what a team does. Show picking pass/fail cards and putting them in the center. Do this a few times showing each possible result. They will inevitably ask about how teams get decided. This lets you talk about naming a team, followed by voting on the team. Go through each bit of steps, but AVOID discussing strategy. Just do the bare minimum to explain the mechanics of the game and make a turn work.

Settlers: Roll the dice. Take resources. Explain trading. Buy something. Make a fake hand of enough resources to be able to do stuff. Ideally, make 2 face up hands one for the player, and one for someone to trade with. Explain in more detail about the rules about building settlements (2 spaces between, roads connecting them, how to block a player from building, etc)

Terra Mystica: Explain how to gain resources. Explain what each resource is and how you get it. Explain each of the 8 actions, but do it in the most simple way possible. You can go through details of each action as people do them in the game, all they need to know right now is what the actions are, and the idea behind what they do. Explain passing, and picking a new scroll for your next turn.

The most important part of this step is to explain the mechanics of what a player will be doing on their turn. Don’t worry so much about the details of those mechanics, just explain the actions a player will take. Once again, you don’t want to muddy the instructions with specific mechanics, but ideally you will be providing things for players to ask you.

4) Fill in the missing parts and answer questions.

Domion: Clarify what each card does that’s available to purchase. Encourage players to pick them up, read them, etc.

Resistance: Explain some basic strategy. With 5 players, naming a 3 person team without you on it means there is a spy on it (even if you’re a spy!). Explain that spies generally want to act like resistance. Explain why a spy wouldn’t ALWAYS fail. Explain that voting no unless you’re on it can sometimes be a good strategy.

Settlers: Talk about the desert, rolling 7s, how knights work, show some example dev cards.

Terra Mystica: Talk about individual player powers. Explain founding towns. Explain more of the iconography. Explain the random “this round” bonus tiles. Explain in greater detail the idea of terraforming. Also talk about the advantages and disadvantages of building next to other players.

Don’t worry about weird things that might come up unless they will ALWAYS come up. Deal with the weirdness as it comes up or right before it will come up throughout the game.

5) Start playing the game!

Allow players some flexibility to undo actions during their first game. If something weird is about to happen, interrupt the game and explain the nuances of what is going on and why.


The most important part of teaching a game, is to make players WANT to ask you questions. Each step of the instruction should lead you to the answer to the next thing they’re likely to ask. If answers have a quick response, give it immediately. If the answer requires further explanation about mechanics and weirdness, tell them you will revisit that question during step 4.

You do need to think about players who learn by doing, as well as who learn by instruction, or who don’t like learning at all, but by breaking it into these steps it should cover everyone well enough. The learn by doing will be happy with actually dealing out hand and doing example turns in step 3 and it won’t take them long to get to that if you do steps 1 and 2 properly. During step 2 and step 4, the self-taught quick learner will be reading iconography and card text, and flipping through the deck while listening. The player who isn’t good at learning and just wants to play will get quick summaries early on.

Giving players decks to shuffle and things to do is probably a bad idea, because it takes their attention away from the explanation. Ideally you should be able to do all of those things while explaining each piece.

Unless you know all of your players have played a game, don’t use it as an example. Unless you know all of your players know of a game mechanic, don’t name it. Telling players that “Dominion is a deckbuilder” doesn’t help them if they don’t know what a deckbuilder is. Don’t even mention “building your deck” until step 4 where you talk about specifics of the game and some quick strategy. If all of your players have played Dominion, and you’re teaching them to play Thunderstone: by all means during step 1 say Thunderstone is just like dominion, but that you get victory points by killing monsters in the dungeon instead of buying provinces.

One last benefit to not saying “it’s a deck builder” or going into specific mechanics too quickly, is that players who are more experienced will have lightbulb moments where they “get it” and even inexperienced players will help drive the instruction because hopefully by giving the right openings for questions will help them “get it” themselves. An experienced player will quickly figure out Dominion is a deckbuilder in step 2 of your instructions as soon as you explain buying cards lets you do more later. They’ll exclaim “Oh! So then it’s a deckbuilder like Thunderstone?” in their smuggest voice, to which you can say EXACTLY! The new players won’t be alienated for not knowing, because you didn’t treat them like they should, but the experienced player quickly uses that extra knoweldge they lightbulbed into in order to teach themselves the concepts of the game and allowing them to study the specific nuances.

The most important aspect, is to keep the players you’re teaching invested in the rules. If they’re asking you questions, you’re probably doing a good job of that. Just be certain that you aren’t too dismissive if they ask something you’re not ready to explain yet. If it’s a fairly simple answer, it doesn’t hurt to skip ahead to answer it, but try to keep the questions from snowballing away from a concise and easy to understand explanation of the game.