Who Teaches the Teacher?


There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana Jones is brought face-to-face with the person who has manipulated both Indy and his father in order to find the holy grail: Walter Donovan. Indy is surprised by this, as Donovan seemed so friendly and forthright before. And for good measure, Donovan had told him at the beginning of the movie, “Don’t trust anybody.” Surely he didn’t mean to include himself in that?

Betrayal by the sage who initiated one’s adventure is a well-worn trope and, if the number of movies it appears in is any indication, makes for great cinema. It does not, however, make for great board gaming. And, unfortunately, for those of us who teach board games, it can sometimes give us an unfair advantage.

I think the assumption is that if someone is helping you through a game, that person obviously has your interests at heart. And while that may be true—indeed, when I teach a game, I try to answer players’ questions about the best move to make honestly—a game is still usually competitive. As much as I try to help new players play like veterans, I’m still trying to win. But newbies usually don’t attack their teacher; the teacher is on their team.

There is no game I’ve played where this affects the flow more than in The Resistance. Try as I may to be impartial, if I play the spy while teaching the game, chances are I will win. Sure, we can chalk this up to my skillful use of misdirection (…), but I think I can attribute more of my success to being the trusted teacher. “He can’t be the spy; he’s teaching us how to play.”

Similarly, in a recent game of Midgard, I was in the lead, and the scoring is open, so everyone knew I was in the lead, yet my pieces were not attacked much while other players’ were. I walked away with the victory, and as much as my strategy for the game was to lie low, the question arises: were others afraid to attack me because I was the teacher?

Of course, being the teacher can also swing the other way. When I play games with one of my brothers-in-law, it doesn’t matter who is in the lead: he attacks me because he knows I have experience and can usually work that in my favor. But while this happens occasionally, I haven’t seen this nearly as much as the almost kingmaking tendency of gaming apprenticeship.

So how do we gaming teachers combat this tendency? First of all, I think keeping in mind one of the paramount rules of teaching games should help: The goal is for everyone to have a good time, not for you to win. Sure, what facilitates everyone having a good time is all the players being invested in the game and caring about winning, but this should not be the primary concern.

Second, while I think it’s okay not to reveal all of your strategy points to a new player (there should be some element of discovery), you should not withhold from new players information about who really has the lead. This was one place where I could have done better in my game of Midgard. While I had a small lead visible on the scoring track, I had a huge stash of hidden points that new players often ignore. I could have more strongly reinforced the point that I was in the lead.

And third, and perhaps most crucial, the leader should bear no grudges toward other players at the table. While I like to think it’s respect that keeps the new players from attacking, I think it’s more often fear of retaliation. Retaliation from another new player may hurt, but retaliation from the acknowledged “master” at the table could be devastating. Having a new player roquet your ball in croquet will usually result in the loss of a few yards; an experienced croquet player could send your ball to the other side of the field. I think it’s important for new players to understand that a game is a game, and attacking the teacher will not result in Death Star levels of repercussions for them.

What about you? Have you noticed the “teacher advantage”? How do you combat it?

This post is part of my series on teaching. The first post (on patience) is here, followed up with posts on consistency and explaining

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

Discussion4 Comments

  1. In trying to teach a certain BDG to people at GenCon, I took the approach of building a rules skeleton and letting the players fill in the rest of the parts as they chose. If a question about gameplay was asked, I tried to use the word *because* as much as possible.

    I think if you outline the reasoning behind the decisions you’re making, it makes it a little more palatable for new players.

    If I was actually playing with people, I would let them make a move and then sporadically offer insights about certain aspects of the game (faction strengths/weakness, Cost:Honor ratios, etc).

  2. This takes on a different angle, I believe, in teaching kids. There the goal is 100% to give them the best insight so they can learn, regardless of whether you win or lose as a result. In fact, your losing can often reinforce another element you’re trying to teach children: Sportsmaship. You don’t need to win to have fun and you need to be a good loser. While not going into in-depth detail (for obvious time reasons), I will always point out strategies they can use against me and that I can potentially use against them in any giving situation. After 2 or 3 teaching games (depending on its complexity), I will then let them explore strategies on their own – without ruthlessly explointing mistakes, of course! Can you see my halo? 🙂

    I would argue, as experienced gamers, to take the same approach with new or casual adult gamers. With seasoned gamers, you can be more technical in teaching and circumspect in strategy.

    I’ll admit your one example of The Resistance is a bit different, since that is a unique game in which secret identity is important. Maybe teach the game “demo style,” instead? Teach it as a bystander to the others while they play? At least for that first game…

  3. Personally, when teaching a game to someone new to gaming, or to a casual gamer, I tend to lose more often then I win. My approach is to help them make right decisions, and to show them why what I do might not be the best method. With some games, I even will go as far as having both of us play with our hands gace up on the table, and we both help each other with our turns. My goal is to make sure that they have enough understanding to be competitive after a few games, and for both of us to have fun. Of course, with experienced gamers, it’s as simple as ‘It’s like Game X mixed with Game Y, but combat is like Game Z. Here’s the basic rules, every man for themselves!’

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