Teaching a Game: Some tips

Hey everyone, Danny from TFG Radio here, and today, I am going to talk about something that chances are, we’ve all done, and chances are, we’ve all done it in less than optimal way: teaching people how to play a game! A lot of people are stuck in inside, and well, the gaming itch doesn’t go away, so now you might be considering teaching various games to your partner, children, housemate, etc, and well, you should go for it! Of course, if you want to help teach people how to git gud at 40K, you should still hit up the ever growing, never dull Tactics Corner.

So, we all learned to play 40K and the other games that we played, and for the vast majority, someone taught us the game rather than learning in total isolation, but if you can remember those sweet days, if you had perfect replay, you’d probably realize that it was a bumpier road than intended. Having taught a lot of games to a lot of people, besides being an educator as well, there are definitely same things to keep in mind to make the process smoother for all involved.

Assume you are assuming too much:

Does anyone else have a memory of sitting in a classroom, the instructor blathering on about something, and you are trying your best to follow along but you cannot connect what they are saying to what you actually need to do? If yes, then that instructor was assuming that you knew more than you did, and knowledge builds upon knowledge, so you cannot progress to a new idea unless you understand the other ideas that actually make it up. What does this mean for you when teaching someone a game? Assume you are assuming they possess knowledge that they do not.

When I was teaching one of my long-time group of friends how to play Dungeons and Dragons, I assumed that they understood when I say “roll a d20”. Now, I know what that means, and if you are reading this, chances are you know what a d20 is, but did they? Not at all. I had to stop and explain that d20, d8, etc where all shorthand for a 20 sided dice, an 8 sided dice, and what not. When one of my friends managed the courage to ask, I felt like an idiot because again, I made the assumption, and it hindered their progress.

Slow down and don’t make assumptions. Be sure to define terms, and always give the other person the opportunity to ask questions. A question is an opportunity to learn, so allow them the safety to ask questions. This actually saves you time in the long run and increases the likelihood that they will continue to invest into learning whatever game you are teaching.

A good way to check your assumptions is to actually practice explaining a mechanic or rule by writing out your answer. Write it down quickly using your natural instincts. Then, re-read the question and look for every word that you use and ask yourself: does an average person know what this word means in this context? Don’t think if you, your playgroup, or your social media circles know it, but rather, would a random person off the street have a high chance to know it? If yes, great. If no, then that is a term that you will have to explain to someone when teaching them a game, especially if they are newer to tabletop games. If you are reading a rule out of a rule book to them, be sure to do the same thing.

It is easy to get excited and want to race through to the most interesting parts of a game, but that doesn’t help someone learn the game. A big part of teaching effectively is being empathetic to the other side, being able to separate what you want/what you see with what they want and what they are seeing.

In short, slow down, take things piece by piece, and don’t assume their knowledge.

Focus on achievable goals

Again, it is easy to get excited that your (insert whoever here) is willing to learn a game, but that does not mean that after 20 minutes of explanation that they are going to understand. Learning takes time because we have to internalize information and synthesize it before we truly “Get it”, and that takes time. With this in mind, don’t try to teach someone how to play a 2000 point ITC game in one sitting.

Each lesson, and yes, if you really want to teach someone effectively, you need to have some concept of a series of lessons that build upon each other to lead to mastery, should have an achievable outcome that is necessary for mastery. Using Age of Sigmar as an example, you should focus on achievable goals and these goals, when all reached, should lead to a solid understanding of how to play the game.

When I taught my wife how to play Age of Sigmar, I focused on the most core mechanics possible in the first session: moving units in a 3d space and understanding what a unit’s statline actually meant. It took about 40 minutes, but after such, she understood in a general sense what bravery was, what movement was, what save was, etc. We barely rolled any dice outside of a few theoretical examples with saves. The next lesson was combat and reading weapon statlines. The lesson after that was magic and special abilities. Finally, the next lesson was the turn structure and how the game actually plays out. After that, she could comfortably play a small points value game without much help from me aside from tactical discussions.

This wasn’t fast, but she understood how to play and was having more fun because she never felt overwhelmed by everything. The last thing that you want is for someone to get an info-dump and then just tune out, and trying to throw everything at them at once will do this.

Provide all perspectives of play

I love to play competitively when I can. When I play just about any game, my mind goes to min-max and calculating the most efficient builds, tactics, etc. That’s just how I naturally think when it comes to games. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy other forms, but I have to consciously switch gears, and the reality is that competitive play is the minority mode of enjoyment for most games.

So if you are a hardcore player, be sure to understand that your “student” will likely not be, and that there are more than one way to enjoy just about any tabletop game. Be sure to go over the various options and explain the many different and valid ways to enjoy the hobby.

While you are teaching mechanics, be sure to talk about the difference between Open Play, Narrative Play, or Matched Play (or cooperative/competitive for some board games or hack’n’slash/RP for RPGs). If you are teaching a tabletop game like 40K or Warcry, be sure to go into the modeling and hobby side as well. You may find that your “student” really gravitates towards that instead, and that’s ok. They may want to play because they finished painting a model and want to see it on the table, or the inverse, they may want to paint because they want to see painted models on the table when they play.

The key is to remember that just about every game can be enjoyed in different ways, and that’s what makes them enjoyable. Don’t try to force someone else into enjoying a game in the same way as you, and chances are, you’ll find that you can enjoy a game in a different way than you first thought. Teachers often learn quite a bit from their students after all.

Focus on Fun over form , at first

This is a biggie, and it is a mistake that a lot of people make. You want to play the game as it is written to be played, but that often takes a lot of mastery. As my counterpart Salty John would say: “No one has played a perfect game of 40K”, and well, that’s likely more true than not.

Focus on making sure that whomever you are teaching is having fun first and foremost, not being technically correct in how to play. That level of precision comes with practice more than anything. What is the point of teaching someone to play a game? For you both to enjoy yourselves. Don’t get too stuck on small details and what is “Technically correct”. Focus on making sure that everyone is enjoying playing the game.

Now, if someone gets a rule wrong to the detriment of other people’s enjoyment, then sure, be there to correct, but if someone gets a rule slightly wrong that has very little impact on anything, let it go and make sure that they are enjoying the game. As the other person gains more understanding, you can correct these smaller errors as the reality is that getting told “you’re doing it wrong” constantly, even if it is a relatively small matter is antithetical to enjoyment and growth. Mastery comes from knowing how to do every little bit right, but competence comes from being able to do the foundations right. Focus on the foundations, and then if the other really starts to invest and enjoy the game, then you can slowly start to polish and perfect their skill sets.

Push for Investment

This is the often the biggest hurdle when it comes to teaching people anything: making them invest in the process. Humans are simple creatures: if we like something, we want more of it. The more we invest into something, which means to enjoy it on some level, the more we are going to want to do it. You want to make sure that you are watching your “student” and seeing what inspires investment for them, and then you need to gently push that aspect.

You need to observe the student and see what actually “works” for them. If it is getting into combat and killing stuff, roll with it, and play games or make custom scenarios were close combat is going to matter. If it is the narrative aspect and investing into a character or a story line, that’s where you are going to want to push. If it is the hobby and painting, well, you know what you need to do. Watch their reactions, see what clicks for them, and see what they naturally gravitate towards or things in which they excel, and try to keep the pressure there.

A student who wants to learn is a student who will learn, and that want comes from investment, and investment comes from enjoyment. Mastery comes from repetition, and well, repetition is tolerable (in some cases enjoyable) thanks to investment.

Ask for Feedback:

Lastly, it always helps to ask for feedback as you are in the process of teaching. While asking students “How was the semester?” at the end is helpful in some ways, I often find it more helpful to ask in the middle of a lecture or discussion “Is this helping? What can we do to make this clearer?”.

Ask for feedback about everything. Make sure your “student” knows that you care about their enjoyment of not just the end result but also the process. You asking them questions helps them ask their own questions, and as I highlighted above, their questions are opportunities for them to truly learn.

Take the feedback to heart. If you get told that you are going too fast, slow down. If you get told that you weren’t being clear, try to walk through it all again, using different verbiage. Whatever the feedback is, your first response should be “what did I do that lead to this feedback?” rather than “they just don’t get it” or “well, that’s wrong”. Some of the feedback may be wrong, and that’s ok, but you should always, if only for a few moments, consider their view and how your own actions helped inform that view. You don’t have to take all the feedback to heart, but it is important to listen to the feedback. This is what helps you tailor your approach to that individual, and unless you find yourself quarantined with a whole lot of folk, you really are dealing with an individual rather than a “classroom”.

In the end, we may all be stuck together, but that is an opportunity to share our interests. Use the opportunity, and be open to the reverse. Be willing to share in other hobbies that you haven’t considered. There will come a time when weekly gaming groups reconvene and life gets back to something like normal, but maybe you’ll have a few new faces in that group too. Thanks as always for reading, and be sure to check out TFG Radio as we amuse ourselves during our hermitage. Lastly, if you have the means, be sure to help out all of the small businesses that you love now more than ever.

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Danny Ruiz

Long-long time 40K player, one of the original triumvirate of head 40K judges at LVO, writer, educator, tyranid-enthusiast, disciple of Angron, man about town, afflicted with faction ADD.

2 Responses to “Teaching a Game: Some tips”

  1. Avatar
    Rob Butcher March 29, 2020 11:28 pm #

    useful advice

    I’d also look at

    (1) the “How to play” guides on Warhammer Community – I’ve been using them to refresh my memory of how to play the different gaming systems. And now to learn how to play WarCry with the different warbands I’m painting up. Children/novices can go back and watch them on youtube instead of listening to “dad”;

    (2) first the Warhammer Conquest and now Mortal Realms part-works included lessons that slowly, slowly built up. You start with barely a squad a side and not too many different weapons. (There were also 5 videos on youTube for 40K which included painting.)
    So normal movement and firing first. Then melee and combat. Next add in saving throws and how to do d3 damage. Use of leaders, spells, vehicles came much later.
    The current Mortal Realms is great at doing this, and to be fair GW have got much better at teaching the different parts of their games.

  2. Avatar
    Rob Butcher March 31, 2020 12:00 am #

    I tried teaching a new game from scratch. I’ve never played Warcry before so watched the “How to video” first.

    Built the Seraphon as a warband and used it against the Nighthaunt (from issues 1&4 of “Mortal Realms”). We found the cards and rules on line*. I chose only to use the basic rules without the abilities cards.

    We played through two games alternating movement/firing/melee on a KillTeam board with Sector Imperialis ruins and had fun. The game only has ONE dice for hit without the need for wound or saving throws so is much easier to play for little ones.

    Today, we’ll try the six dice for initiative leading to doubles/triple and the ability cards.

    Later in the week we’ll start using the three detachments rules.

    * The cards are safely in GW Hq so we’ll buy them when they reopen.

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