Explaining Boardgame Rules

Shut Up and Sit Down, quite possibly the best boardgaming site out there, just put out a video covering tips for rules explanations. I thought their points were dead on, but I felt that I should add my two cents.

Wholes Versus Parts

Most of us have probably played at least a few games so many times that they feel like clockwork to us. We no longer see particular rules, we see a coherent whole, and we’re able to manipulate the game mechanics to try and nudge our overarching strategies towards a victory, if all goes well. On the other hand, new players are often unable to see the grand design. Instead they see only a handful (or in some cases, dozens) of individual systems, little islands of rules with only tenuous connections between them. A new player knows that there is a complete engine in there somewhere, but he can’t keep it in his head all at once.

The difference here is that experienced players have an understanding of the causal relationship between the different elements of the game. They have grasped the “why” of the mechanics. Beginners may understand how this or that subsystem works on its own, but they don’t understand the usefulness of that system as regards the other subsystems or its effect on the final objective.

Understanding the “why” of every mechanic in the game is essential to playing a game well. Without it, a player’s actions become random (“I’ll try this and see what happens”) or short-sighted. Games are goal-oriented activities, so if players don’t know how an action advances their position then they often end up irritated or bewildered. Of course, when most of us teach boardgames to new players, we do try to explain the purpose of each of the rules and how they fit together, but inevitably our explanations are a bit scatter-shot and incomplete. We’re always backtracking, re-clarifying, correcting ourselves, jumping ahead etc.

After teaching a couple boardgames over a dozen times, I had the realization that the best way to teach an activity like a boardgame was to do it in reverse.

Why-First Explanations

In SU&SD’s video, Quinns points out that the first step in teaching a boardgame is to A.) Give them their components to play with and B.) Explain who they are, how they win, and why it’s going to be fun. I echo this advice completely.

However, after explaining the goal of the game, continue backwards from there, explaining firstly the actions that allow the players to win the game, then what actions enable them to take those actions, and so on. The principle here is that you should never at any point be explaining a rule if you haven’t already explained why it matters. Go from the why to the how, not from the how to the why.

This is the opposite of how most players (and rule books for that matter) go about it. I usually conceive of a game’s rules in tiers, with the goal of the game at the top and with levels of increasingly specific rules below it. The why of each rule is found above it, and its how is below it. The  game’s objective is its own why. When teaching a game, the standard method is to begin with the game’s objective, and then jump back to the lower level rules and try to build up to the objective from there.

The problem with this approach is that after each rule is explained, the teacher has to constantly jump ahead to why it’s important, and the beginners end up feeling lost and ungrounded, because they don’t understand what the ultimate purpose of all these rules is. They know that the lower level rules relate somehow to the objective, and trust that they are working towards it, but they remain in the dark until the end of the explanation, when everything is pulled together. By that point the teacher often has to begin again, because the beginners start asking clarifying questions, trying to grasp the game as a whole.

In contrast, by starting with the game objective and working down through the hows, beginners are always grounded in the purpose of each rule and what the system looks like as a whole. In my experience, this greatly reduces instruction time and helps players to come up with long-term strategies right out of the gate.

Difficulties

Some games are easier to teach this way than others, due to highly interconnected rules or unorthodox structures. In cases like that I just do the best I can, and try to adhere to the principle of “why first.” With that in mind you can’t go too far off. You’ll want to be saying “Here’s how you’re able to do that…” a lot, rather than, “Here’s why you want to do that…”

Another difficulty is that rule books definitely do not help you out here. Rare is the rule book that give you any kind of strategic advice or explanation as to why you should take a particular action. Most rule books are organized chronologically, which is the direction in which we play, but not the direction in which we learn. This really grinds my gears, and I’ve been thinking about making some videos that explain rules in the proper order.

Let me know what you think. Are there any other methods you’ve found to be useful?