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Explaining Board Games

I play a lot of board games. I’m the person who reads the rules and then tells everyone else who didn’t read the rules how the game works, so we can all have fun playing. This is how I do it.

“In this game we will be _____s trying to do _____.”

That should be the start of every game explanation. If you can’t fill in the blanks on that sentence, you need to read the rules again and figure them out. Knowing who you are and what the end goal is makes every other part of the game make sense. You can’t skip this.

In this game we will be rival kingdoms trying to build the biggest empire on Catan.

“On your turn you will do _____ to try to _____.”

Take it one step down and let the student know what their short term goal is. New players can’t conceive of the vast opportunities that lie inside the ruleset, so you need to let them hit some wins right off. Tell them how they do that, and why they would want to.

On your turn you will use resources to build new roads and cities to try to get more resources to grow faster next turn.

“You have the option of doing _____ or _____ or _____. You’ll weigh _____ against _____ to make your decision.”

Explain breadth-first: skip the details to sketch out the broader picture, letting the student understand which options are available and why they play against each other. If you dive into each option as it presents itself, the core mechanic of “pick an option” will get lost among the noise of the options themselves.

You have the option of building cities or roads or development cards. Roads let you capture territory, but settlements let you use territory.

“If you see this symbol, it means _____.”

Most games have lots and lots of iconography. You need to note the important ones up front, and show where in the rulebook it’s all laid out, so the students can do lookups without revealing their hand.

These pips show how often each number will roll, and how often you’ll get resources if you settle around that territory. More pips means it’s more valuable.

“That part’s confusing, so we’ll get to it in a minute.”

Explain things such that they get a feel for the forest, not for whichever tree happens to be nearby. They’ll understand the pieces better by playing with them, but they need to understand the board to know why the pieces matter.

Development cards can be all sorts of things, so let’s scan through this deck to see a few.

“You want to make sure to _____ because _____.”

Time is a scare resource in all games, and letting people learn that they made a mistake last round that has already irrevocably hurt their chances is no fun, especially if they’re playing against people who knew better. Doubly so if that person is you, who should have told them.

You’ll try to use up resources so they don’t get stolen by the robber, but horde enough resources to build bigger things.

“Maybe you’ll win by _____, or maybe _____.”

Explain a few strategies, and how they work. Say which one you’ve won with before. Give options so they know that they shouldn’t just try to copy you one turn after you’ve done it. If there’s only one way to win, say so.

You can make a lot of cities to win, or get the longest road, or the longest army. Cities can’t be taken away, but the road and army are hard to keep. I like the road, but I know people who go all-in on development cards.

“Maybe you’ll get _____, or maybe _____.”

If there is randomness, let them know the scale of the randomness. Is my reward one-or-two things (normal part of game), or one-or-ten things (outsize wins make game swingy)?

Looking at the pips, this board looks like it’s gonna be starved for ore. That won’t matter much as we start, but it’s going to make the endgame tough. Try to plan ahead to claim ore early or find a way to not need it.

“When you need help, just ask.”

Competitive games often require secrecy of some sort, which makes it very hard to ask for help mid-game. Make it explicit that you’re available to help afterward, and that you won’t abuse the knowledge you gain.

Some development cards or some trades are hard to wrap your mind around at first. Just ask; I won’t cheat you out of your moment to shine.

Now go out there and play some games!