People sit squashed together on well worn couches, jostling each other with easy camaraderie. Chairs have been pulled in from other rooms with people sitting perched comfortably on them as they share friendly banter. Glasses, cups, and bottles tinkle and clink, and the crunch and chew of snacks being enjoyed adds another layer to the sense of contentment in the room. Eventually the talking slowly peters out, drinks are placed safely on nearby tables, and then every face in the room turns to you…
“So,” one of the faces says, “How do we play?”
Panic grips your chest as you stare into those expectant faces. Your heartbeat begins to thump in your ears and your eyes grow wide as you look down at the arrayed cards, dice, and little wooden people strewn out on the huge board in front of you, the table beneath almost audibly groaning under their weight.
Oh god, you think. I can’t do this!
You lurch to your feet, your eyes darting around the room for some escape route. You let out a guttural scream and give one last look at the table surrounded by your friends before hurling yourself as hard as you can through the room’s double glazed window and falling into the loving arms of gravity.
Alright in case it wasn’t obvious, this week I’m going to talk about rules explanations and bringing games to new people.
No matter who you’re playing with this is usually the toughest part of any game. If you’re playing with people you don’t know, it’s tough because you’re bringing a whole lot of attention on yourself from people whose personalities you don’t know, and you can’t gauge how they’ll respond to you. If you’re playing with people who don’t play board games, it can feel awkward because you immediately feel like the class goody goody who’s trying to have “organised fun!”. And if you’re playing with board gamers who haven’t played the game before, you can pretty much guarantee you’re going to get hassle for not having explained the minutia of the game to them right from the get go (the ol’ chestnut of “Oh, well if I’d known that I would’ve…” Super fun that one.).
Right off the bat the first thing you should do is make sure you know the rules. This sounds obvious but if you keep having to consult the rulebook during the explanation, or you end up contradicting yourself you’re going to confuse the hell out of people and run the risk of losing them before the game starts.
“Ok so these guys can attack and move and… Wait no, they can lie down to get extra… Wait, hang on…”
One of the things I always struggle with is where to start, or what to address first. I usually like to set up the “fiction” of the game from the outset and then try to wrap in the goal or win condition alongside it. So…
“We’re villagers trying to hunt down werewolves. We win if we find them.”
“Basically we’re trying to sneak contraband past the sheriff into the market to sell. The person with the most money at the end wins.”
“So the zombie apocalypse happened. We need to work together to survive through one of the coldest winters of all time.”
This is pretty much your “elevator pitch”. You want it to grab people straight away so that they’ll want to know exactly how to play this cool game with all the fun little pieces. If you manage that you’ve won half the battle.
Next you need to get down to the nitty gritty of the rules. This can be tricky, particularly when it comes to games with a lot of moving parts. Even something as simple as One Night Ultimate Werewolf can be confusing when someone explains it to you (the good thing about ONUW being that you can play and screw up, and it actually usually adds to the experience!). For bigger games you don’t have the luxury of screwing up and just playing again in five minutes, so you need to really think about how you’re going to explain it. Focus on the players – what they can do, what they have in front of them, what benefit different things will give them. Engage with them rather than keeping it abstract, use them as examples when explaining how things work. Things like “So if Paddy goes to this location, he gets two gold.” or “Emmet has 5 ships here, so Paddy would need at least 6 to try to take it.”
If at all possible try to break things up. Explain the basics up front, enough to get people playing, and get into the complicated stuff as you play through the first turn. Be sure to explain to people that this is what you’re doing or you run the risk of the aforementioned “Oh if I’d known that…” scenario.
And finally, practice. This will happen naturally as you do more and more explanations but don’t be afraid to do a run through by yourself at home. I’m pretty comfortable speaking in front of people because of my work and years of DMing D&D campaigns, but a lot of people aren’t. If you’re one of them, why not write out a few bullet points to help keep you on track? I recorded a video recently for the site for “How to Play ONUW” (it was a test but the real one is coming) and as I rewatched it I noticed how much I was rambling and that it was a bit disjointed. So do review yourself and ask the people around you what you did right and what you did wrong.
That’s it really. Do your best and hopefully your infectious enthusiasm and general attractiveness will see you through. Any more tips? Leave them in the comments below!
Oh, and keep an eye out for future “How to play…” videos, where you can viciously rip into my rules explanation technique!