The 6 Most Insidious Mistakes when Explaining a Game

Some believe that board games are inherently complicated. There are, after all, so many rules there. Gamers often try to to explain supposedly simple games to non-gamers whose eyes glaze over as soon as things like turn phases, action points and tiebreakers are mentioned.

It’s easy and awfully convenient to hide behind alleged truisms like “people don’t like learning rules”. It allows publishers to keep putting out rulebooks that seem to copy their didactic setup from the charta of some Prussian boarding school. That’s why I want to talk about the six most common mistakes experienced gamers make, when it comes to introducing new people to board games. Especially those who suspect that ‘worker placement’ is some kind of key command in Excel.

To be clear, these are all mistakes I’ve made myself for a long time, with the well-intentioned goal of making it easier for people to get into board games.

Mistake #1 – Leading with theme

This is one of the classic bits of advice when it comes to explaining a game. Use the theme to communicate and lay out rules. This way, they are no longer abstract concepts but supposedly tangible and easier to grasp. A game’s theme tells us who we are, what we want and maybe even how to get it. We are British industrialists. We want to get very rich and we do that by building factories and England’s infrastructure. This is Brass Birmingham. It sounds nice. It’s an easy entry into a review, too. I should know, because that’s what I did. But it doesn’t explain the game, it only lays out the game’s theme.

Some times an intro like this can even obscure the game itself. Because the people sitting at the table are usually not British. Nor do they want to get obscenely rich this evening; or know anything about building factories or English infrastructure. At best, the theme provides an evocative description of what we do. It helps us commit the game and some of its rules to memory.

There’s nothing wrong with talking about the theme, when explaining a game. But it should be done, because it is a mnemonic device for the actual explanation. Theme shouldn’t be invoked in the belief that it will make the actual explanation easier to follow, faster or clearer.

Mistake #2 – Not telling people how to play

This isn’t so much a mistake, as it is a very common oversight. An effective game explanation needs more than talk about rules and theme. One of the key ideas to get across is the game’s tonality. I’m not referring to the mood the theme is supposed to evoke, but the actual style of interaction players should lean into for the upcoming game.

Should we hinder each other at every opportunity and prevent us from getting ahead? Do we sink into a relaxed state of thinking and plotting? Are we going to enjoy surprising twists and turns as the game progresses, or should we carefully anticipate how the next few rounds will go?

The decision how to interact with each other isn’t made independently from the game. Some games simply don’t work, unless you approach them in a sufficiently competitive way. Others become an exhausting, torturous slog if all you can do is keep each other from scoring the last few points.

A game will miss the mark when met with the wrong mindset

Every design is based on assumptions about how players will interact. If you’re willing to adapt your behaviour to the game’s assumption about you, it’s likely to open itself up to you much quicker. Of course there is no necessity to do that. But it does help to understand how various aspects of the game are connected. It’s easier to understand a game, once you know what the underlying mindset is.

Mistake #3 – Answering questions

Admittedly, I’ve phrased these sub-headlines in a way that makes it sound like I am calling good advice a mistake. Of course, it’s a good thing to respond to people who ask you questions. Nobody is interested in hearing a monologue about a game they don’t know yet, without the opportunity to ask a question.

My point is that a straight answer to a question can often miss the actual issue. A question is always a sign that the explanation doesn’t land with the audience. Maybe there’s a point that seems contradictory. Or some kind of connection doesn’t add up. Or maybe somebody just needs attention or appreciation for listening quietly without shoving dice up their nose.

A good explanation of a game must always be a dialogue. It’s not about simply conveying knowledge about the game’s rules. The goal must always be to create an understanding of the processes and interactions that shape the game. Ideally, it also lays out the purpose of playing this game.

So a player asking a question always serves as a brief insight into their thinking. It tells you how complete their understanding of the game is. That’s why simply stating facts about the game is rarely useful here. A question is always an opportunity to clarify one aspect or another of the game.

Particularly, if you get the impression that a player is doubling down on something that only plays a minor role in the game itself.

Mistake #4 – A complete and accurate explanation

If you explain games often, this is by far one of the most annoying and aggravating things to happen: players accusing you of omitting some “important” and “decisive” rule. With great indignation you’re accused of either manipulating other people’s chances at winning the game, or have completely devalued the time you spent playing the game together.

For fear of having to go through this experience again, you start to mention every single rule in your game explanation, no matter how trivial it might seem to you now. Possible edge cases are mentioned in advance. In fact, why not simply go through all tiebreakers and victory points variables before the first turn has even begun? After all, no one should be able to say that something wasn’t properly explained to them.

Learning the symbols does not mean understanding the game

The problem, of course, is that a thorough explanation of a game not only eats up a lot of time, it also provides far more input than most people can digest at once without sufficient practice. Not least of all, because such an approach to explaining a game misses the point. A game explanation is not supposed to give everyone the same chances at winning an introductory game. Not only is that not possible, it also doesn’t matter for a first impression of game.

Everyone having the same chances at winning isn’t the reason why people are interested in a new game. Nor is it the reason why they might rave about the game later.

If you don’t want to turn your game explanation into an undiluted lecture nobody paid for, you have to simplify, shorten and compress. Despite the claims of people suffering from chronic decision avoidance, you don’t need to know about every single detail in order to understand something.

On the contrary, insisting on pointing out every single detail about a game before even making a single move gives the impression that board games are a pedantic and narrow-minded hobby.

Mistake #5 – Explaining the rules

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when explaining a game is to explain its rules. To be clear, it’s not wrong to mention or communicate them. The mistake lies in believing that by explaining the rules you have, in fact, explained the game. The most important question a game explanation has to answer is: how do I play this? It is not about clarifying what’s allowed and what isn’t. It’s also not about detailing the conditions under which something that’s permitted is now forbidden, or when something that isn’t allowed is now possible.

The key to explaining a game is talking about what players do. The answer an explanation provides must therefore be concrete and tangible: we do this. You’re trying to teach people an activity. The point isn’t to get them to absorb as much knowledge in the shortest time possible. Because the game that follows isn’t some kind of interactive quiz they’re supposed to ace.

Brass Birmingham, for example, is a game in which we play cards to place tiles and score points. It’s important to ground gameplay in the physical actions we take. This is the foundation on which we build our understanding of a game.

Don’t talk to me, I’m a panda

Once people understand what they physically do in a game, they can understand the constraints that rules place on those actions. They can then talk about the considerations that form their decision-making. And then they can talk about how those actions are framed by the game’s theme. This is the point where most people openly participate in the game, by providing their own explanations what placing a factory tile in a still undeveloped city “means”. It’s a seemingly minor act that often contributes a lot to our enjoyment of a game.

Mistake #6 – Letting players discover strategies on their own

To an experienced gamer revealing strategies during a game explanation will likely seem deeply counter-productive. Because if you play a lot of games, and different ones to boot, exploring and discovering the game’s possibilities is an important source of fun. It might even be the most important of them all.

There’s a special joy in working your way through a game and exploring new facets through repeated plays. The moment when things click and the tactical and strategic tricks reveal themselves to you, never fails to delight even the most curmudgeonly gamer.

It is only natural to want to preserve this experience for newcomers. After all, nobody wants to spoil the most impactful moments of a story when they’re busy recommending a film or book. In practice, however, you’re withholding important information that helps people grasp the game quicker. It’s these insights into your own experience, that best explain the game’s appeal to others.

It allows others to see how the game works from your point of view. You get to convey the exact moment when you understood the game fully. But what’s arguably more important than even that, is that this shows that your shared experience of the game is the point of play, as opposed to you competing for that decisive final victory point.

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