Board Games, Board Gaming Life, teaching

The Alchemy of Teaching Board Games

Amanda teaches Benji the intricacies of playing Dinosaur Tea Party.

A friend tried to teach me Alchemists some time ago. I use the word tried not as a comment on his ability to teach games, but rather as an acknowledgement of how I personally learn games. I learn games best by myself. Which is a decidedly sad approach in a hobby that is meant to be social. I learn games by reading the rule book, re-reading as necessary, setting up a mock game, and going through a few rounds by myself. This is true for any game that falls under that nebulous medium-to-heavy banner. (Whatever that means. Complexity is mostly subjective anyway, right?)

My friend actually did a good job teaching the game, but I could sense frustration creeping in as I struggled to understand the primary concept behind the game. I found myself becoming a bit frustrated as well. I get it. I worked as an educator for many years. I even studied teaching for a while. I know that teaching can be a frustrating endeavor. Maybe even more so when you’re teaching something that’s meant to be fun and it’s not clicking for the student.

When I started teaching as a substitute teacher, I had very little experience and training (worked as tutor in college). I’d often think: why aren’t all the students getting this? I would feel frustrated. Defeated. Disappointed in myself. Sometimes, I would even blame the students (not out loud, of course).

Eventually, I learned through both coursework and years of experience as a substitute teacher that most people learn through diverse means. That teaching involves using more than one single approach. That while a forty-five minute lecture (that’s about the time left in a school period after roll call and other business) can be informative, a fifteen minute lecture combined with practice, collaboration, discussion, and summation is invaluable. It gives students the chance to engage with the material in a meaningful way while increasing their comprehension of a subject. Right about here you’re probably thinking : John, who has time for that?  You’re absolutely right! Besides, who would want to go through all that trouble to teach a board game?

And you know what? I agree. Teaching a board game shouldn’t require the same amount of planning and preparation as a lesson plan. Most people don’t have the time or desire for that. But, being aware that teaching is more than merely explaining a concept to someone goes a long way. Don’t just tell someone how to play, show them. Use examples. Move the pieces around. Check for understanding. Especially for those longer, more complex games.

I don’t want to ramble on, so I’ll get to the meat of this post with a few things to keep in mind next time you teach a game.

  • Know your audience. How familiar are they with the type of game they are about to learn? Be aware of terms that they might not be familiar with. Drafting, worker placement, and other board gaming terms can require explanation and might not even be essential for the learner’s enjoyment or engagement.
  • Be clear on what the overall premise of the game is. What’s the theme. What are you doing? How is the winner decided? How do you earn points?
  • Do your best to know the game beforehand. You don’t need encyclopedic knowledge of every edge case scenario, but a good understanding of how the game works will go a long way towards making the experience go smoothly.
  • Check for understanding. Every once in awhile, pause. Instead of asking something vague like “is this making sense?” Or “do you understand? Ask specific questions like, “does anyone have any questions about how to build a city?”
  • If possible, be aware of body language. Don’t become so focused on teaching what’s on the board that you hardly take your eyes off of it. Look at the people around the table. How do they appear? Are they visibly confused? 
  • Know when to stop talking. Sometimes when teaching a game it can be easy to get too excited and want to plow through the rules and start playing the game. Every once in a while, stop. Let your tablemates absorb some of the rules and processes you are explaining. Also, natural pauses give learners a bit of wiggle room in which to voice their questions or concerns.
  • Expect questions. You’ll have covered all the rules and walked through every step of every action and you’re going to have to field a lot of questions. That’s normal. It’s totally fine. Really. It doesn’t mean you failed as a teacher or that you did a poor job of teaching the game. Learning how to play a game is a lot to take in during one sitting. Questions are good!
  • Be patient! This is probably the one piece of advice I hope everyone takes away from this article. Keep your cool and remember that teaching is an ongoing process. Some people will get it right away and some won’t– that’s just how it goes. Your patience, temperament, and kindness will be remembered, even if the rules aren’t.

And lastly…

You got this!

Go out there and share your love of tabletop games!


What are your teaching tips? Comment below or contact me on Twitter.

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