Explaining Boardgame Rules

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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?

7 thoughts on “Explaining Boardgame Rules”

  1. I’m more than a little disappointed that you didn’t include even a single example. How would this method work for a typically difficult game to teach, like Battlestar Galactica?

    1. Ah, BSG. I have had to explain this game practically every game I’ve played (and I’ve played a lot) and I still have no perfect system. Still, I do use a methodology similar to that presented here.

      First, I explain the overall idea of the game: That is, we are all crew members on the Battlestar Galactica, and we are fleeing from the Cylons trying to get to Kobol. However, two of us are secretly Cylons trying to stop that from happening – and no-one knows who is who.

      Then I deal out the loyalty cards and tell them all to quickly look at the card, and only read the title: You Are a Cylon or You Are Not a Cylon.

      I point out that practically every action, ability, or choice in the game could be used to either help or harm the humans, so if you’re a cunning Cylon you can secretly undermine the humans all game, or bide your time for the perfect time to screw with them in a big way.

      From there, I can start to explain more of the rules, and people can keep an ear out for rules that are important to their team.

      So next I point out all the ways the humans can lose: Any resource dial gets to 0, Galactica gets 6 locations damaged, or centurions get on board, then advance all the way to the end of the track. I point out the Cylons win if the Humans lose. Then I point out how the humans can win: By moving the jump track to the end of the track, at which point the Admiral will choose a destination for us to jump to. On average, these distances are “2”, so typically you need 4 jumps (then one final jump) to win the game. I don’t bother explaining destination cards or how to move the jump track yet. (…Unless asked, the destination cards are pretty easy to explain but it is not necessary.)

      So my next step is to explain the general flow of a round:
      – Draw Skill cards (these are your hand of cards you’ll use throughout the game. You’ll notice each character has a different arrangement based on their skillset, and everyone gets 5. Also note that each skill only has 2 or 3 different types of cards in them, so you’ll soon learn which pile can do what);

      – Take a move (you can move anywhere) and then an Action (in that order. An action is the biggest choice you’ll make each turn. Whereever you see the word “Action:” indicates something you can do. This will be: the location you are standing on, it could be a card in your hand, it could be an action on your character sheet, and if you are the President or Admiral, it could be an ability on your title card, or a card in the Quorom hand.) I skip over space combat altogether, explaining it once the game gets going (only mentioning that pilots CAN get out into space and mix it up with raiders.) Also, I don’t get into what the actions actually do yet [[that comes later as I drill down into finer, and finer detail. The “how to” I’m talking about at the moment is “how to take a turn”, later I will do “how to take actions” which is needed to take a turn, but you see we’re working from how to win, and then backwards from there]];

      – Next we do a Crisis. I point out these will nearly always be nasty challenges the crew has to overcome. I start with a skill check crisis since that’s the most common. I describe how it is flipped over by the current player, they read it out. I point out it has a score in the corner, and each of our skill cards also has a score. I then draw their attention to the “coloured lights” that run down the side of the crisis card. I tell them that cards whose colours match ADD to our score, and those that do no match SUBTRACT. We each take turns to place, facedown, as many cards as we’d like into the middle. We can ask each other how much we’re putting into the pile but: We can ONLY say “a lot” or “a little”, nothing else (and we always refuse to clarify what “a lot” or “a little” means) and we’re allowed to lie. Then we shuffle, and flip the pile adding together the positive cards, and subtracting the negative. If our score matches or exceeds the crisis score, then we pass and follow the pass result (which is usually nothing bad), and if we fail something bad will happen to the humans. I also point out the jump track icon. I show how if negative cards appear in the check, it narrows down who could possibly have added it to the check and so through a process of deduction work out who the Cylons are… but then I introduce the destiny deck and how it can obscure the situation, making it hard to tell if it was a real Cylon, or just destiny. (If I feel like my audience if following me OK up to this point, I point out that 2 negative cards of the same colour is suspicious, but 3 indicate one was absolutely dropped by a Cylon… and if you’ve card-counted the destiny deck, you could even catch them out before that, so a Cylon has be careful with the skill checks they spike.) I point out that Crisis cards are the only way to move the jump track so the only way the humans can win the game is by overcoming as many of these Crisises as possible. I don’t bother explaining the ship activations other than to say “this icon here tells us which Cylon ships will attack, but I’ll do that when it comes up.” I then find a choice Crisis card, and show how they will ask either the current player, President, or Admiral have to make a choice between two bad things. Everyone can discuss, but they get final say. I also mention there is a “Cylon Attack Card” that can appear, which means cylon ships will jump in and attack, but I don’t explain it at that time.

      – Then I wrap up the “turn phase” and basically say “that’s about it.”

      To wrap up, I VERY QUICKLY run through all the locations and what they’re good for. Just quick 1-sentence ideas: Things like: “The FTL room lets us jump earlier, but at the risk of losing population.” “The main battery lets us shoot at raiders, but it’s usually a better idea to use comms or a pilot instead.” “You can’t walk into the brig, but you might be sent there by the Admiral’s Quarters. If you’re in the brig you don’t get a Crisis card – and that means no jump icons so it’s a bad place to be. On the other hand, Cylons are largely gimped in the brig as they can’t contribute many cards to skill checks, and their actions are limited – they’re usually just wasting time if they don’t reveal and get over to the cylon ships.”

      So that brings me to: If you’re a Cylon. I say “Don’t look at your loyalty card yet or you will give yourself away.” Then I say how a Cylon can “reveal” as an ACTION. You can’t just reveal whenever you like. But if you do reveal, you get to do something bad to humans on your way out, then resurrect in the Cylon locations – each Cylon has an ability and it is printed on your Loyalty card. However, each card will say “So long as you are not in the brig.” This means if the humans brig a Cylon – they can still reveal, but they don’t get to do something bad on the way out. Then I quickly run through the Cylon locations as I did for the others. I tell everyone I will give them 10 seconds where EVERYONE MUST STARE at their card for 10 seconds regardless of their allegiance. The Cylons should take this time to memorize their ability, even if they don’t fully understand it.

      Then I get everyone to stare at their loyalty card for 10 seconds.

      Lastly, I show everyone that there are remaining cards in the loyalty deck. I point out that there was 2 YAC cards in there at the start, and at the half-way point I will deal the rest of the cards out. That means at this time, there could be 0, 1, or 2 cylons, but by the half-way point there will definitely be 2. I phrase it like this: You could be on the Cylon team, and not even know it until the half-way point.

      Then we’re off to the races.

      You’ll notice I skip over a lot of stuff: I don’t explain space combat, or what happens if you get 2 YAC cards (I do explain this at the sleeper phase), how the Admiral chooses a destination, nukes, Cylon Attack Cards, etc. These are all things that can be explained as the game progresses. For example “Ok, so this is a Cylon Attack Card, so we put a basestar HERE, and raiders HERE. Now, the Admiral could fire a nuke at them if he wanted…” So long as the players have an idea these things can happen, they should be OK. I think the important thing is to give them enough idea of the overall game processes so they can see how treachery can work and what some of their options are to use those processes.

      The other thing I usually do, is hand out a handy rules reference: http://www.orderofgamers.com/games/battlestar-galactica

      I print out a couple “play references” and 1 “Rules summary”. I give the play references for newbies to look at at their leisure, and a rules summary if anyone is interested.

      1. Love love love this. Thanks so much. Fantastic explanation for a game that I’ve always struggled explaining! :)

  2. You’re absolutely correct. After getting past the first couple of steps you’ve already mentioned (how they win, why it’s going to be fun, etc.) I also find it useful to give a general idea of how the turn structures, and the game in general, are going to flow.
    Example: “We’ll go in clockwise order. On your turn you take two actions, then play passes to the next player. I’ll explain what the options are for your two actions in a bit.”
    This helps construct a mental framework for your explanations to build onto.

  3. Great article! Another example of subjectivity and how everyone is different, we all learn / teach in different ways!

  4. This is absolutely key in teaching game rules. It’s also why writing a good rulebook is so difficult. A good rulebook is a tutorial for the game, starting at the victory condition and working its way backwards. But it’s also a reference, listing all rules in order from setup to endgame.

    So to write a good rulebook, you have to show everything A-Z and Z-A simultaneously. Good luck!

    Also, I think that Mario Lanza wrote the best article about teaching games way back in 2003. Here it is: http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/TeachingRules.shtml

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