How to Teach Your Game
Post by: Jay Treat
While few teachers get the respect or compensation that would support this claim, teaching isn't easy and it’s not something most people can do well without some training. And yet, you can’t get people to play games with you—or sell your game design—if you can’t teach them how to play it. The good news is, unlike flying a plane, teaching isn't an all-or-nothing skill and you can teach even if you’re not an expert. The bad news is, teaching a game poorly falls somewhere between boring and frustrating, which reduces the chances those players will let you teach them more games in the future. And certainly doesn't qualify as putting your best foot forward when trying to impress a publisher.
I can help.
Teaching, like so many things, is all about empathy. The more you can put yourself in your students’ shoes, the better you can teach them. It’s all about knowing what they could understand, what they do understand, and what questions they’re keeping to themselves. If you know all of that, you’ll know what to explain next and, if you know your students, how best to explain it.
I wrote about a few methods to become more empathetic that I recommend you check out before continuing. Some of them are pretty out-there, but these methods are directly applicable to other aspects of game design, and life in general:
You might also check out Games to Play to Become a Better Game Designer, a geeklist with several entries that will help you become more empathetic, and thus, a better teacher.
As with everything, there’s no one right way to teach. Duh. What I share now is my method, what makes sense to me, and what seems to work in my experience.
Start at the Top
Starting with details, in medias res, is disorienting. It can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but the point of teaching a game is understanding, so we want to start from a bird’s eye view. What is this game about? “It’s a trick-taking game with spies” and “It’s a cooperative game where players are trying to escape a crumbling space station under attack from aliens” are good starts. “You’re bidding not to take numbers” is not.
The first two take advantage of things the players already know to jump-start the process. Players know what trick-taking games are, and they know what spies are, and they’re already starting to imagine the combination and building expectations. If what you tell them next fits those expectations, you’re going to see a lot of nodding heads and the rest will come fairly easily.
I've had more than a few games explained to me that made no sense until the teacher was finished and someone asked, “Wait, is this game… cooperative?” Men assume unknown people are male, people assume the “Spot” you’re talking about is a dog, and gamers assume your game is competitive. It’s what makes a game different that you need to call out immediately, because everything you leave out or save for later will be filled in with default assumptions until you do, and that can seriously throw people off the scent.
No Thanks! is a game where players are trying to keep their scores as low as possible by guessing what the breaking point is for each number card that goes around. You spend a limited personal supply of chips to avoid taking a number, but eventually you’ll run out of chips and be forced to take whatever comes your way. The only way to get more chips is to take a number card (all of which are bad, but some are much worse than others). Each turn, you’re evaluating whether you’d rather pass on a card or suck it up and take it now to improve your future standing. In essence, “You’re bidding not to take numbers…” but that statement only makes sense now that you've got the big picture.
Get to the Heart of it
You've got the very high-level concept of the game in place. Players are looking at the game components and starting to predict how they relate to that, how they might be used, what kinds of things they’re going to get to do. Now is when you hook them. Give them the heart of the game. Tell them what makes the game tick; how they’re going to be spending the next hour.
“Each player shares one of the six factions vying for control of the city with another player. Each round, you’ll have to work with one of your opponents in order to score. You’ll deploy agents from all the factions, trying to play the ones that are good for you when they’re best for you, and the ones that are bad for you, when they’re least bad. Scheming, collusion and manipulation are your bread and butter.”
“The space station has been messed up after the alien ship neutralized it with their lasers. We’re trying to navigate the twisted wreckage while we look for the escape teleporter. We’ll need to open these tech modules to find it, and our Mechanic and Engineer will be patching the station up to form rooms so that we can access them. We've got to be quick, though, because one of the station’s systems fails every turn and aliens are boarding from these four locations. The Marine is the only one that can fight them back. And its up to the Smuggler to go outside in her space suit to access the modules we don’t have time to rearrange. We've got to work together or we’re all doomed, and so are our families back on Earth.”
What’s the Point
Explain the goal. If it’s simply to earn the most points, say that. It may be obvious, but it’s too quick not to say when the alternative is confusion.
With all these high-level items laid out, you can explain turn structure, the component lexicon, and any other must-know items in whatever order feels natural.
Assuming players take turns (if it’s real-time, you should've mentioned that in the introduction), are there rounds and phases? Is there a strict phase structure, or can players do different things at different times? Overview the whole structure before detailing any one part.
“We take turns individually until someone wins. On your turn, you can research, build, or research and build.”
“Each round will have three phases. The first phase is upkeep where we all move our bits along this track. Next is the action phase, where we’ll each take one of three actions in turn order. Finally we resolve conflicts. If the game hasn't ended, we start a new round.”
Notice how I don’t describe the individual actions just yet. Think of it as if you were looking at a map of america on the computer, and it’s loading in via nine chunks in a 3x3 grid. Would you rather see Alaska load in full detail first, down to the smallest roads and such before you see Montana or Oregon, or would you rather see the country’s full outline and all the states first before you start to see more and more details as they load? You might prefer the former if you already understand the layout of the country and are looking for the path between Skagway and Victoria BC, but players learning a new game don’t have that layout in their heads yet, nor would they even know to look for the game’s Skagway at this point.
There are a few games whose pieces are so few or so self-explanatory, you don’t need to explain what they are, but most games require a little show and tell. “These cubes are resources, the meeples are workers, the red number on the cards is ‘power’ and these three symbols indicate whether the card’s animal, vegetable or mineral.” For games with a large dictionary of symbols, like Race for the Galaxy, what each and every symbol means is the last thing you want to teach your players, but you still want to give them the basics. “Each card can be played for its cost or discarded to pay the cost of another card. The hex shows how many victory points it’s worth in play. Down the left side are abilities that will trigger during different phases of each round.”
For Dominion: “These are victory point cards which you’ll earn during the game and will determine the winner at the end. These are action cards; you can only play one action each turn normally. These are gold cards which you can combine to buy new cards. All of them have a cost, here, and an effect/value here.”
Once the only layer left is the nitty-gritty details, share them.
Or don’t, depending on how nitty and/or gritty they are.
Abstract games are harder to learn because all the rules are new, and will seem arbitrary at first. Games with a strong theme (more specifically, games whose theme is integrated seamlessly into the rules) are easier to learn because you’re not learning new things, you’re just mapping old things together. If humans move 1 space each turn, but horses move 2 spaces, players will remember that because they already know that horses are faster. Dissonance will make learning even harder than arbitrary rules: Humans are size 3, but faeries are size 5… makes no sense; everyone knows faeries are smaller than humans!
While teaching a game, the rules and theme are already in place, and you have no control over how resonant they are, but you can capitalize on resonance to help you teach. Why can’t monsters heal while occupying Tokyo? Obviously they’re on full-rampage and there’s no time to sit and relax for a while. If you offer that bit of flavor, that window into the game-world, while explaining this seemingly arbitrary exception, more players will understand and remember it.
Sometimes a friend asks if you've heard from Bob Shmacky and you’re like, “Who’s Bob Shmacky?” and he responds, “You know. Bob!” And then you instantly know he’s talking about your mutual friend, Bob. If he had just said ‘Bob’ in the first place, there would have been no confusion, but the extra detail triggered your brain to expect him to be talking about someone new.
You may be tempted to explain a detail that’s relevant to what you’re talking about now to get it out of the way. Perhaps you’re explaining the flow of the game from setup, to the round and turn structure to the end of the game, all chronologically. While there are players who refuse to start playing a game until they know every rule, no matter how small, most players would rather start as soon as they have the gist, expecting for the rules they just heard to “click” once they've taken a turn or so. You can reiterate how things work as they come up in the game and then explain the little details and exceptions. Most people need hands-on practice to internalize a concept, and most need some amount of repetition of explanation. This method does both.
Ask for Questions
The surest way to make sure no one asks you questions, and that at least some of your students remain confused about something, is to imply that only stupid people would need to ask questions. That sounds like something you’d have to actively do and easy to avoid, but just the opposite is true. If you don’t explicitly ask for questions, or if you tie questions to misunderstanding, or if you look at a specific person when you ask, you’re doing it. Try to phrase it in a way that suggests of course there are questions. “What did I miss?” “Can I clarify anything?” “I went through combat pretty quickly. Was anything unclear?”
From start to finish, here’s how I might explain The Last Planet.
The Last Planet is a tactical tile-laying game with a StarCraft theme. Each player is one of three alien races that just discovered the last inhabitable planet in their war-ravaged galaxy. You will establish your presence on this planet by building outward from your starting base. Each tile represents a structure or unit you can build. They have a cost to build and you can only build a tile if it fits against a piece you already have. These worker units will help you gather resources from these natural resource areas, so that you can build your army and conquer the planet.
On your turn, you’ll gather resources first, then adjust or advance any number of tile chains, and finally resolve combat. In the first phase, take one mineral for each base you own, and then each of your workers can take any resource from a natural resource area it’s touching.
A ‘chain’ is one or more tiles in a line, not counting your base. In the second phase, you can adjust the outermost unit of each chain by rotating it against the next piece. You can advance a chain by buying a new tile that fits and placing it at the end of the chain (and you can create new chains by attaching it to your base). You can also advance a chain by picking up the unit at the start of the chain and placing it at the end, but that breaks the chain from the base which means you can’t buy new tiles at the end of that chain unless it’s reconnected to your base.
When you’re done moving your units, we’ll resolve conflicts in groups. Choose any group of enemy units that overlap your own to handle first. The effects of combat are simultaneous, but the order you resolve dice rolls in could affect your choices. Choose one of your units and decide which of its attack dice you’re rolling against the enemy units its touching. Then your opponent will do the same and so on, until every unit in the group has attacked. For each die result against a unit that matches its defense, it takes one damage. Remove each unit that’s taken as much damage as it has defense.
You win when all your opponents’ bases are destroyed. You may concede at any time; remove all your pieces from play when you do.
I’m pretty sure it’s harder to teach how to teach games than to teach games, so I’m confident there must be questions. What do I need to explain differently or in more detail? Did I skip something important? Do you smell contradictions I can try to clear up?
How do you teach games? I’m sure my perspective is neither the only perspective, nor the best. I hope you’ll share yours below for the benefit of the other readers.