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Patience: A Teaching Virtue

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I’m typically the rules explainer in my group. I think part of this reflects my skill set. As an editor by trade, I’m used to following rules. In fact, I get paid to make sure other people follow the rules, and I’m often the one writers make fun of at their conferences. So for me to be a rules explainer is a logical progression.

Being a rules explainer has its perks. For one thing, you get to see the light of understanding go on for new players. It also makes learning players less likely to suspect you are a spy in The Resistance. But it also has its challenges and pitfalls and is sometimes a hard territory to navigate.

As someone who is frequently tasked with explaining rules to board games, I’ve decided to talk about the good and the bad of rules explaining (and maybe rules writing) in a series of posts. I’ll talk about strategies for helping new players understand games as well as ways to handle the typical distractions and advice for which situations merit which games. Today’s topic is a fitting way to begin, the crowning virtue of explaining rules, without which you will almost certainly go awry in any circumstance: patience.

Teaching games to gamers is easy. You can say at the beginning, “This is a deckbuilding game” or “This game uses set collection” or “This game is similar to _____,” and you’ll typically get a nod of understanding. After this, you can quickly enumerate the differences between what you’re teaching and the referenced game and you’re on your way.

But many of us don’t want to play with just “gamers.” We like to share our interests with friends and family. So how do you teach a game to those who don’t have the same point of reference? Or how do you teach a game to someone who is slow to catch on? I’ll get to some specific strategies in future posts, but the first step is patience.

Here are some ways that you can cultivate patience while explaining rules:

  • Take your time. It’s best to teach games when there are no time constraints, when the game is the main activity and no one has anywhere to be. These are my favorite times to teach because if someone doesn’t understand something, you can go over it as many times as you need to. It really takes the pressure off. But there are some instances when time is at a premium. If this is the case, make sure you have a game that can be taught and played within your time frame. (I recently made the mistake of teaching a new game over lunch that would have been better after work.) And be liberal in your estimate of how much time it will take. If you are under the mark, then the game will be leisurely and you can finish up early. But if you are over the mark, everyone (possibly even you) will be checking their watches.
  • Know your stuff. The times I’ve gotten most flustered when explaining rules is when I don’t know the rulebook as well as I should. When a question gets asked that I don’t know the answer to, I have to look it up, and I feel like I’m wasting everyone’s time. Don’t make this mistake. It’s worth it to read the rulebook before you come to the table, maybe even playing a practice turn or two to make sure you understand what you’re trying to teach.
  • Know your audience. Not every game is for every audience. And as much as you might want to get a certain game to the table, playing Twilight Imperium with your family may not be wise. Try to choose a game that everyone would want to play, that fits with a game they’ve already played (that is, not too much novelty, unless that novelty is easily explained) or is an easy-to-learn gateway game. And if your choice turns out to be wrong, don’t be afraid to admit it and move on to something else. A wrong choice can confirm negative opinions about board games or hinder the progress of good opinions. The patience application here is that if you get this right, it should make the teaching process smoother, making patience less necessary.
  • Be flexible. My family interrupts rules explanations. A lot. And it can be annoying, especially when they ask questions about something I’m just about to explain to them. But you know what? If they feel like more a part of the process by asking questions, that’s okay. If they don’t understand the rules to a game as quickly as my friends did, that’s okay, too. The point is to keep the players engaged and at ease. If they are afraid to ask questions, they will probably be afraid to have fun.
  • Keep the goal in mind. You are playing a game presumably to enjoy the company of the people around you. Keep this goal at the center of your teaching time, and guard it against everything else that tries to usurp it.
  • Extend and receive grace. We all make mistakes. If a learner makes a mistake, reassure them, and know when to bend the rules to accommodate mistakes. If a certain player takes an hour on his turn, encourage him to speed it up (winning isn’t everything, and a good game will take multiple plays to “master”), but keep in mind that learning a new game is difficult, and sometimes it takes a while to feel some ownership over your decisions. (This is, admittedly, where my patience wears thin, and I could use some work here.) And if you lose your patience, apologize. These people you’re playing with probably don’t just have a relationship with you at the gaming table, and apologies go a long way toward defusing tension.

What are other ways that you can practice patience while teaching rules?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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