Without doubt the worst bit of board games is the bit in which you have to explain the rules. If you’re like me you’re often gripped with terror at the thought of having to explain mechanical processes and make those processes sound fun to people who have agreed to put aside an evening to come play a game with you. To me, this is a huge responsibility; when people agree to put aside their pre-conceptions and give gaming a go I feel honoured. But I feel equally overwhelmed, overwhelmed with the fear that I might be about to waste somebody’s evening. It could be that the game is the wrong game, but equally it could be because of a stodgy rules explanation. Stodgy rules explanations have the power to destroy a game before it’s even played. They have the power to suck the energy out of a room. A bad rules explanation will make even the simplest game seem bewilderingly complex and impenetrable; it will make gaming feel like an elitist culture, one your non-gaming friends will feel very much outside of.
Fortunately, there are some really simple and easy tips that will help make your rules explanations easier and more fun (or if not more fun then more bearable). Some of these tips will involve homework. There’s no way round it. If you want people to be interested in games, and if you want people to enjoy games with you, you’re going to have to put the effort in to make those games interesting and accessible and fun. This involves the rules explanation: we gamers often fail to realise that rules explanations are part of the board game experience and not just something that precedes the board game experience. Don’t make it more painful than it has to be.
So without further ado…
1. Know the rules
It goes without saying that you should know how to play your game. Have you ever gone to a friend’s house and the friend cracked open a board game (literally — the shrinkwrap was still on), took out the manual and read the manual to you page-by-page as you all worked out together where the components went and what bit was what? Remember how how long it took? That was time which would have been better spent playing the game. I’m sure that many seasoned gamers enjoy the fun of discovering a game together — I’m sure that for many gamers this is part of the experience — but non-gamers likely won’t. Imagine that somebody reading an instruction manual is your first experience of board games. You’re going to be asking what in Pete’s name you’ve gotten yourself into.
There’s no bigger turn-off than watching somebody struggle to explain something that they’re simultaneously learning. Imagine you take French lessons and your French tutor can’t speak any French but it’s okay because he has a French grammar book he’s going to read with you. Not knowing your game renders board games boring, but it can also render them incomprehensible — non-gamers will quickly feel lost and bewildered. Remember, non-gamers don’t know what the rest of us know: the game will probably get good once you’ve played it a bit. But why make your friends work at all? It’s your game, and they’ve agreed to give up their undoubtedly very busy time to come and play it with you. Don’t make it a chore.
So learn the rules if you want to play a game with somebody. But don’t just read the manual; crack out the components, set up a dummy game and play the game. Visit YouTube; I guarantee there’s a video in which somebody will teach you how to play your game. Watch it. Then watch it again. There’s probably also a video somewhere on YouTube of people playing the game. Watch that one too. Don’t stop watching YouTube until you know the game inside out. By the end of the day you should be reciting game rules in your sleep.
2. Put the game in context.
Is there anything more bewildering than a rules explanation which starts like this:
Okay, this is Pandemic. At the beginning of your turn you can do four things. You can move from one city to another; you can charter a flight to another city by trading in that city’s card…
Wait, what?! Imagine that this is how somebody introduces you to the world of Pandemic. In the space of ten seconds you’re already floundering in a sea of questions, most prevalent among them being: “What’s the point of this?”
Starting a game by jumping into the rules is at best going to make your rules explanation longer than it should be — you’ll end up backtracking to clarify rules you’ve already explained. More seriously, it’s an exercise in futility. Put it this way: nobody’s going to remember anything you say if you don’t give them a reason to understand it. You might as well explain the rules in Swahili. So put everything in context. Instead of launching into the rules, state the terms of the game ahead of time:
This is Pandemic, a game in which we all have to work together to cure four global diseases. We win if we find a cure for all four diseases and we find cures by collecting five cards of the same colour.
This is everything your friends need to know. It sets out the terms of the game (Who are we? What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How do we win?) At this point nothing else matters — the rest is just details you’re going to flesh out as you go along. And because everybody now knows the terms of the game it’s going to be a lot easier for them to process the rules you’re about to explain.
3. Don’t undo step two with information overload
So you’ve learnt your rules inside out. You’ve put the game in context. Don’t undo everything with information overload. Don’t, for example, go through all of the rules step-by-step and explain the entire game. People will switch off. They’ll get bored. People of a certain disposition will start completely unrelated conversations just to stay awake. You’ll spend energy and time trying to get everybody back on track.
Most games don’t need you to explain everything before you play. There’s no point; the human brain is incapable of processing all that information, which means most of the stuff you’re firing into it is just going to bounce straight out and will have to be fired back in at a later time. Most games just need the basics. In the Pandemic example, you can break everything down into chunks. Explain a player’s turn first: tell each player that they can do four actions and what the main, important actions are; and explain that at the end of their turn some stuff will happen that’s going to put more cubes on the board. Everything else is just stuff that will reveal itself naturally. Trust me, after seeing one or two turns everybody’s going to understand how to play.
You might think that there are some important things you need to explain before you play. If you’re playing Pandemic, you might think you need to explain how epidemic cards work. You don’t. Your players barely understand how a turn works but you’re about to dump a load of information on them that’s going to make the game sound complex and overbearing. That’s not to say you’re wrong; Pandemic’s epidemic cards really are important. But you don’t need to explain how they work; what you really need to explain is that there are epidemic cards spaced equally through the deck and that when you hit one it’s going to trigger some nasty stuff that you’ll explain when the situation comes up.
And later in the game you’ll hit one, at which point you can stop everything and say, “Okay, let me explain how this is going to work.” The beauty of doing things this way is that it allows you to tease out all those beautiful, elegant rules that elevate the game into something special — you know, those rules which make people gasp when you reveal them:
“Wait,” your friend will suddenly say, “Those cards are going to get shuffled and go back on top of the deck? You mean, we’re going to start drawing them all again??”.
Explaining things in this way also allows you to demonstrate the rules as you reveal them. Speaking of which…
4. Illustrate rules with demonstrations
People are notoriously bad at taking in information that’s verbally thrown at them. The information’s out of context. For it all to make sense, people typically need to see what’s being explained. This is equally true when you explain a board game. This should be easy — all the pieces are right there in front of you, waiting to be fondled and played with. So let your players choose their characters and give them a bunch of components. “Don’t worry about what all this stuff does”, you’ll say in a soothing voice, “everything will become clear very soon.”
Once everybody’s got some shiny new toys to play with you can illustrate your rules explanation. You can demonstrate how things work. But it’s important that you use your players in these demonstrations. Name check them:
“Steve wants to get from Chicago to Sao Paolo. He’s got a Sao Paolo card in his hand so he can trade it in to move directly…”
That sort of thing. Making your rules visual in this way is going to make it a lot easier for people to remember, and including your players in the demonstration is going to make the information stick much better than it otherwise would. But if that seems too much you could try dummy turns…
5. Dummy turns.
Sometimes a game is just so complex or difficult to teach that it’s better if you demonstrate it instead of explain it. I do this with something like Galaxy Trucker, which mostly takes place in real-time and is difficult to explain as you go along. With Galaxy Trucker I tend to put the game in context, explain roughly what’s going to happen and give a general guide to the components everyone’s going to be playing with:
“These are cabins. You need them to get more crew. Like most things in Galaxy Trucker you need as many crew as you can get”).
And then we’ll typically play a practise round after which I can correct mistakes and clarify certain rules that maybe didn’t make sense before or which people found confusing. All of which means everybody’s ready to start in earnest. It’s simple. I didn’t even really have to explain the rules.
Those are just five simple tips that will hopefully make your board game rules explanations more palatable, less confusing and maybe even fun. You probably have more which you should definitely leave in the comments below. Anything which makes the most boring and intimidating part of board games less boring and less intimidating is more than welcome here.