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Guide to Gaming: Learning a New Game

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One of the biggest hurdles of getting into board games–besides figuring out which games to buy–is learning how to play those games, especially when you don’t have an experienced player teaching you. When a game extends beyond “roll some dice, move your mice,” it takes a bit more effort to learn. This is one of the reasons that hobby gaming is slow to enter Target and Wal-Mart shelves–people are intimidated by lengthier rulebooks and games they aren’t familiar with.

But please, don’t let this stop you from trying new games. It is possible to learn games from the rulebook, to teach your friends and family, and to have a good time. This guide aims to give you some tips on how to effectively learn to play a game. Most of these assume you’re learning from scratch, from the rulebook, although I will offer a few pointers when learning a new game from someone else.

Without further ado… How to Learn a New Game

Read the Rulebook Ahead of Time and More than Once

When you buy Sorry, you can pop open the box, set out the pieces, read through the rules in 5 minutes and start playing.  But you aren’t going to get a whole lot of long-lasting strategy and fun, unless you’re playing with a 5 year old.

When you buy a hobby game, you’re going to need to read the rulebook.  Study it.  Okay you don’t have to commit it to memory, but it is a good idea to try and get down the basic arc of the game, and focus on any areas that seem confusing.  I usually read through an entire rulebook at least twice before I bring a game to the table.

Not only will this help you familiarize yourself with the rules, it will help familiarize yourself with the rulebook, making it easier to look up rules questions in the middle of a game when you need to.  If you have some general idea of the layout of the rulebook, you’ll spend less time paging through it looking for an answer.

Play the Game by Yourself

… at least for a few rounds. It’s one thing to read the rules; it’s another to see how those rules translate into the bits and boards on the table.  Some rules may seem clear but you have to work through them when you start putting it on the table.  Other rules may seem confusing until you have the parts in front of you.  And you’ll give yourself tactile experience with the various rules, making them easier to remember.

You don’t need to play through an entire game yourself, but playing a round or two will help give you a feel for the flow of the game, and possibly help you discover any immediate questions you might encounter.  When you have context for a rule, it makes it a whole lot easier to remember, demonstrate, and answer any questions.

Be Organized

Many hobby games have lots and lots of bits that do different things.  If you have a big pile of random bits, you’re going to spend a lot of time just separating the bits before you can even figure out what is what.  If you go through the bits when you first open the box – after all, if it’s a new game you’re going to need to punch them out anyways.  Many games include box inserts to keep parts sorted, but if not, I highly recommend investing in small baggies and other organizational items.  I got a box of 300+ mini baggies from the beads section in a craft store, and it has been totally worth it.

Going through and organizing the bits, especially along with the parts list in the rulebook, will make sure you can identify each bit and it’s purpose in the game.  Once they’re organized it will be easier to set the game up without wasting time sorting bits, and you can get right to explaining what the bits do.  Also if you have them nicely organized when you’re reading through the rules or playing a few test rounds, you can quickly access the right bits and again, help remember what they are for.

The First Game

You may not like it, but the first time you play any game, even if you’re the teacher, it’s going to be a learning game.  You’re not even going to really know the basic strategies, what key things to avoid, or the major questions that will pop up in the middle of the game.  Mistakes will be made and the winner of the game will likely be more due to luck than experience.  You’re going to have to all of these things, so here’s a few tips to maximize the learning.

Keep the Rulebook Handy

You’re going to have questions.  Your players will have questions you don’t know the answer to.  You’re going to need the rulebook, so make sure it’s right there.  You don’t want to have to halt the game to dig out the rulebook.  It takes long enough to look up a rule.

The first time I play a game with no prior experience, I will not only keep the rulebook handy, but keep it open.  I constantly check rules and try to anticipate questions that players  (and sometimes even I) will have.  I look at areas that might be confusing and look them up before anyone even asks, so i’ll be ready.  If I think I or someone else made a mistake, I will check on it, without stopping the game, just to make sure.

Allow Mistakes

People are going to make mistakes.  That’s just part of a first-time game.  You’re not going to remember every little rule and neither are your players.  The important thing is, try not to let the game grind to a halt unless absolutely necessary.

Most mistakes will be minor, and not big enough to swing the course of the game one way or another.  Well, it might be, but no more than the inexperience of all the players and their poor strategic decisions. If you’re not 100% about a minor rule, just make your best guess and THEN look it up in the rules while everyone continues to play the game.  If an error was made, forgive all past mistakes and then continue the rest of the game with the new rule.  Do not undo the last few turns or try to figure out where everyone went wrong already; just admit mistakes were made, clarify the correct way to play, and continue on.  See, it’s worse to make a game last forever because of rules questions, which ruins the pacing and makes it hard to grasp the true flow of the game, than to ignore a few mistakes in a group of all inexperienced players.

However, once a rule is clarified, don’t let future mistakes slide.  Players need to learn how to play the game correctly, so don’t allow them to practice erroneously.  That’s why you should play with the correct rule once it’s discovered, even if multiple mistakes were already made.  And don’t let future mistakes slip on by; it’s a learning game, mistakes happen, try and get your players to let it go.  Yes it’s unfair, but the first game isn’t exactly fair and the point is to learn, not to get everything perfect the first time around.

Stop When You Need To

Sometimes there will be a rules question on a major point.  In this case, you should stop and look up the rule before continuing.  While minor mistakes can be overlooked, major mistakes can ruin the game.  In a competitive game, it will usually ruin it for 1 player while helping out another.  It’s kind of a judgement call to figure out which rules need to pause the game to be learned, and which can allow the game to continue while the rule is looked up.  A good guiding point is if the action affects only 1 player (usually the player taking the action), allow them to do it to your best judgement and look up the rule while the game continues.  But if the rule is going to affect more than one player (and those players are not on the same team), such as one player attacking another player’s units, the rule should be clarified before proceeding.

Try One or Two Strategies

On your first play you’re not going to know all the strategies or which is the best or how to balance them out.  So, just pick one strategy and roll with it.  See what happens.  Unless it’s clearly not working, then you might want to switch it up.

The truth is, most games require a balance of strategies in order to secure victory.  But sticking with a few the first time around will help you see what different strategies might accomplish in an environment you know nothing about.  Hopefully you get a good idea of what the different strategies do, especially if you watch how other strategies work out for other players (assuming they pick a different strategy than you).

You don’t need to know every possible strategy you might take on your first game.  It will slow the game down if you try to work through everything, so just make a choice and see what happens.  You’ll learn as you play and you don’t have to be a master the first time around.

After the Game

After the first time I play any game – and sometimes after the first few plays – I will give the rulebook another thorough read-through.  After playing, I have a much better picture of what the game looks like, and I’ve experienced many of the major questions and confusing points of the game.  With these in mind, another readthrough of the rules can clarify any troublesome questions.  In some cases I discover rules I missed before, or answer questions that I couldn’t find in the rulebook in the middle of the game. It’s just a good way to get a refresher of the rules, to help you remember them in the long run.

I will often skim through rulebooks again before each time I’m going to play them, just to get a quick refresher of the rules, and check up on anything I’m not certain about.  It just helps the games go smoother if at least one player, that would be you, is familiar enough with the rules to know them without looking them up.

Playing Again

Your first game is always a learning game; but playing the same game again, as soon as you can, helps solidify the rules in your (and your players’) heads. If you can play a game twice in a row in the same session, more power to you, but more likely you’ll play it one week, and then play again the next week.   The more you play, the faster you learn.

Learning From Another Player

The tips for learning from another player are generally the same as the other tips, once you start playing the game.  However as someone who teaches games to a lot of different people, there’s one thing I prefer my learners to do:

Save your questions

If you need clarification on a significant point that the teacher just discussed, go ahead and ask it unless you think you can save it to the end.  But don’t ask about parts unexplained, and don’t look too far ahead.  Chances are, the teacher has worked out an outline in his or her head and will get through all the parts step by step in an order that makes the most sense. Asking about parts of the game that the teacher hasn’t gotten to yet will just throw the teacher off.

Instead, wait until the end of the teacher’s explanation and then ask your questions. Chances are your initial questions will  be answered at some point in the explanation, and it’ll go a lot faster and smoother if there are few interruptions.

Ask Questions

Once the explanation is done, feel free to ask questions. Make sure you understand the basics before jumping into the game, but understand that the rules will probably click with you much better once you start playing. Especially during the game, when you encounter a situation you’re totally unclear about, just ask the question. But be willing to wait for an answer or to play in a possibly wrong way until the rules can be checked.

Conclusion

The important thing overall is that you take it easy. Don’t worry about being a master at the game right off.  Focus on playing and learning, but don’t try to do everything all at once–it’s better to keep the game moving if you can. Mistakes will happen–both on your part and on other players–and be forgiving. Avoid stopping the game to look up rules as much as you can, but look them up when you need to. Don’t try to undo every mistake that is made; just keep playing and use the correct rule for the rest of the game. And most importantly… play the game many, many times!

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. A strategy I use in learning games is to check out reviews. Reviews usually offer a “how it works” section (as ours do), which is a good distillation of the rules. You won’t learn to play from these summaries, but they usually offer enough context and arc to make the game easier to learn from the rulebook.

  2. Nice job! Yes, the kids and I ALWAYS discover a rule we played wrong AFTER our first game! Really important to not stress over those mistakes! 🙂

  3. If you play just a couple of rounds, also make sure you understand the “end of game” scoring/conditions. My buddies still razz me about this for a couple of games I’ve taught where I forgot to do this! 🙂

  4. I think a great method of learning anything is video. I enjoy watching videos that explain how to play a game, though there are downsides to many videos out there right now. Still, its a great entry point and easier for many people to digest.

    • I’m used to digesting rulebooks (mostly because I review a lot of games here…), so I prefer written. I can understand the appeal of video, though. I think Tom Vasel especially is very good at giving a broad overview in his Dice Tower series.

    • THIS. I think video overviews really sew it up. Some people are readers, and that’s fine – but if you want a quickstart then video has to be the easiest way to make it happen.

    • This is a good idea. I don’t usually do it because I don’t always have the time to sit and watch a video, while I can read and re-read rulebooks at spare moments. I also worry about videos not fully explaining or missing minor details, so I prefer to review the actual rulebook.

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