Verbally Explaining Rules

December 18, 2011

I’ve gotten to play a lot of boardgames in the last 2 weeks, and yesterday a couple of friends commented I did a good job explaining the rules to a new player – that said, everyone did a great job of teaching as we played, which I find is crucial for speeding the learning curve.

1. Explain the win conditions/general point of play

I start here, because it tells people what they’re TRYING to do, and makes all the rules I give after that, have context.

2. Explain the general rules that constitute the majority of gameplay and a basic strategy around them

I start general, because, again, we’re laying out context – it’s like having folders to store documents in- the folder lets you categorize what the specific rules are, and assists people in retaining the ideas.

I also give a general strategy, because any game that’s a good strategy game can’t be mastered by a quick explanation, plus it gives the new player context to see what other players are doing and why, and learn from that as well. Without that context, the actions appear opaque.

3. Go only into the specifics as immediately pertain to the new players just before, or just as it comes up in play

Save the weird, exception based stuff for last, and only as it’s immediately important or very likely to be immediately important.

Sure, it’s probably great to know that this one thing has this one exception that could be important- but odds are good a new player won’t be able to remember it, or really figure out the reason it’s important. Get them up on the basics first, and the things they’re immediately dealing with.

4. Have everyone explain motivations or highlight choices for the first part of play

“I’m choosing this because it’s good for this and that.” “I’m spending my Bonus Points to get extra dice.” etc. This helps again, give the player context and to model off of what everyone else is doing.

5. Lay out options for new players during play, and point out some strengths/weaknesses to each

Whenever it comes around to the new player’s chance to take action, be sure to list out some viable choices and what makes any of them good choices or why a few are bad choices.

Notice that this is different than simply going, “YOU SHOULD DO THIS”. You may encounter places where there is only one good option, and if that’s the case, point out why that is, and why the other ones aren’t good. (A good game shouldn’t have too many of these points in play…)

The Pitfalls to Avoid

The two big pitfalls I see happen a lot are either trying to explain the rules by the order of procedure OR by getting caught up in explaining EVERY option, instead of what’s immediate and most important.

And the reason is this:

Whatever you first tell players, is most likely to stick. The more material you explain, the less they remember.

So if you start off with explaining 20 minutes of how to set things up, or a whole lot of options but not an overall context- by the time you get around to those important things (assuming you do…) it’s all a blur at that point.

Example: Burning Wheel 101

Burning Wheel 101

Many times I will put together a “quicksheet” – a simple 1-2 page document that highlights the basic rules and procedures for a given roleplaying game. It’s not intended as a full teaching document, as much as something the players can read before the game, AND something the players can reference during the game.  (ETA: Fun enough, it looks like folks were looking at these issues back in 1975, with OD&D character sheets!)

And, as we play, and I highlight options or make suggestions, I point back to the sheet as a process of getting players to see that the core information is right there, and they can and should access it regularly.

“Hey, you could get 2 extra dice if you FORK in your Maps-Wise and Orienteering skills on your sheet.” *points to FORKs section on the sheet*

Making a quicksheet also helps you learn how to phrase things and figure out which aspects are most important in explaining how a given game works. Then, when you come around to teaching new people- you just follow the sheet as a list of talking points.

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