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How to Teach Games Like a Pro

It’s the perfect time of year to spend some quality time with your favorite people. That means you’ll probably want to play some games! But are you prepared to teach you non-game friends and family how to play? Check out this awesome article by Dr. Stephen Vargo, our Demo Team Lead and Game Aficionado!

Teaching Board Games

In this post, I will give guidelines on teaching or demonstrating a board game to a new player. The technique used is loosely based on Ryan Sturm’s How to Play podcast episode entitled “How to Teach Games”. I will use King of Tokyo as an example since most people know how to play this game fairly well. Of course, this style is just a guideline for teaching and may be adjusted according to your personal style. To start, you should understand the game very well yourself to as much extent as possible. Consider asking another demo member if you need help.

The general layout for introducing a game should be as follows:

A) Game theme (very short)

B) Victory conditions and end of game trigger

C) Summary (very brief) of major parts of a round/turn

D) Anatomy of a turn

E) Strategy [Gameplay]

F) Post game


A) Game theme: This should be a very simple summary of the game theme and likely the major mechanic. Answer the question: “What is this game about?” Linking the theme to the game should help players remember the rules and mechanics of the game.

KoT: In this game we each assume the identity of a different monster terrorizing Tokyo. We gain fame (victory) points throughout the game, trying to reach 20 points before the other monsters do or eliminating all other monsters by dealing damage to them until they are down to zero life points. To do this we will roll and reroll dice trying to obtain results that assist us in doing this.


B) Victory conditions and end of game trigger: In order to put the rules into context (and therefore before explaining the rules), you should be able to state the victory conditions or the “ways” to score points. In addition, you should explain how the game ends, especially what triggers it.

KoT: The game ends as soon as one monster reaches 20 victory points or all of the monsters have been knocked out of the game except one.


C) Summary of turn parts: This should be a very simple sketch of how a turn proceeds without too many details about how the rules constrain the gamer. Again, it’s very brief and describes what an observer would see should they walk up and watch a game in progress.

KoT: A turn begins with a player rolling the dice several times until a final result is accepted and resolved. Damage is dealt to other monsters, points are scored, life force is recovered for your monster (healing), and energy cubes (the game’s currency) are collected. Finally, energy cubes may be spent to purchase cards which give special abilities.

Note: As you can see, by now, the gamer has heard certain key elements of the game multiple times (victory conditions, game mechanics, etc). This serves to reinforce the most important components of the game’s concepts.


D) Anatomy of a turn/Detailed turn instructions: In this portion, you should cover the main rules. Rule details should include major rules, but try to avoid covering an exhaustive list of every minor rule, especially if it can wait to be introduced during gameplay so that there is some relevance to it. Usually, the simplest way to approach this is to step through a sample game turn of a player. It can be very difficult to keep from wandering into the fine details. It is also tempting to interject strategy tips here, but I find it is usually best to save those until the end when you can use the strategy tips as a form of rule recap as well. Also, don’t bring up the exceptions to the rules which occur under certain conditions. Now is not the time to explain that “special bonus” or “penalty exception” (for instance, if explaining Monopoly, avoid telling players at this point what happens if doubles are rolled for movement and especially avoid describing how 3 doubles in a row makes you go to jail. This can easily be explained during the game, and players can’t control it anyhow. Sure, they could prepare for the possibility of an opponent moving 2 or 3 times in a row, but by the time it becomes relevant in the game, you will have had a chance to demonstrate it). It’s ok to use phrases like “In general” or “Most of the time” in explaining the rules. Also, let the gamer know that you aren’t trying to give an exhaustive rules briefing, but just trying to cover enough of the game to be able to play a few turns. Lastly, try to demonstrate visually as many of these rules as possible as you are introducing them. Take a moment to set up your teaching props. This may involve “selecting” certain cards to use as an example rather than randomly drawing a few cards and using them as examples.

KoT: The turn starts by rolling the dice. From these results, desired dice may be set aside to be scored later, and unwanted results may be rerolled. You have a total of 3 rolls. After 3 rolls (or sooner if you want to stop sooner), the final results are resolved. On each die, there are 3 symbols and 3 numbers. Let me show you each. The easiest to resolve are the energy cubes. For each “lightning bolt” symbol, you receive 1 energy cube. The next easiest is the “heart”. For each of these, you heal 1 life point, to a maximum of 10. For each “claw” symbol, damage is done to some of the other monsters. Which monsters are damaged will be described in a moment. Finally, each die has the numbers 1 through 3. These are used to score victory points. In order to score points, you must have a triple of the same number. That triple result is worth that number of points with each additional die showing that number being used to add another victory point. (Show examples). You can also score points by going into and staying in Tokyo. Monsters must enter Tokyo when they do damage to a monster in Tokyo if that monster decides to leave or “yield” Tokyo. While in Tokyo, a monster does damage (when “claws” are rolled, remember?) to ALL monsters outside Tokyo. Conversely, monsters outside Tokyo deal damage only to monsters inside Tokyo (show examples). When you enter Tokyo, you gain 1 victory point. And when you start your turn in Tokyo, you gain 2 victory points. However, when you are in Tokyo, any “hearts” that are rolled may not be used to heal you. For this reason, you may not want to stay in Tokyo. In order to leave, you must “yield” Tokyo when you are attacked by another monster. In that case, you leave Tokyo and the player that attacked you MUST enter Tokyo. Of course, you can choose not to yield and stay in Tokyo as long as you like. Lastly, at the end of your turn, you may purchase as many cards from the market as you can afford with your accumulated energy cubes.

[Note that at this point, I haven’t explained how monsters initially enter Tokyo, the Tokyo Bay position, spending 2 cubes to discard all 3 of the market cards and replace them with new ones, replacing the purchased cards, any of the functions of the various cards, the role of the green dice, determining the starting player, cards dealing damage not being considered an attack, etc. These portions may all be described as they arise during the game.]

demo lead stephen vargo

E) Strategy: Many gamers who are used to gaming will need little help in this area. In general, I recommend pointing out strategy tips during play. However, if there are common beginner pitfalls or more complex long term strategies, you should point those out prior to starting play. Once the game has started, if a player makes a game decision that shows a lack of understanding (or memory) of the rules or concepts, remind them of the relevant rule to keep the player from irreparably harming their game experience. Remember, we aren’t trying to make expert gamers for the first play through, but to give just enough info to interest the player and want to discover the strategies in their own way. If asked “What should I do?” during the game, point out the various options and perhaps recommend the 2 best. Don’t “conveniently” forget the options that may negatively affect your play!

KoT: Are you sure you want to keep that “claw”? You only have 2 life points left and if the monster in Tokyo chooses to leave, you’ll have to go into Tokyo and be subject to possible damage….

Remember, you’re currently in Tokyo, so keeping that “heart” won’t allow you to heal, you may want to reroll it….


F) Post gameplay: VERY IMPORTANT! Let the gamer reflect and digest the game and discuss with you and others the aspects that they enjoyed or that they found difficult. You want this to be a great experience so they will play more games with you! Refrain from over-analyzing strategies used during the game; let those thoughts linger with the player after they leave your house. Finally, take a moment to reflect back on the experience yourself. Anything you’d do differently? Explain differently? Fuzzy on any rules? Was your game explanation too short, too long or just right? Did you miss anything you should have explained? Did you include details too early that weren’t needed? Pick up the rulebook and look through it to see if there were any areas neglected. If you have internet access, find the game entry on boardgamegeek and check some of the forum listings for rules questions or FAQ’s. 

KoT: So, what did you think of the game? What aspects did you particularly enjoy? If you like games with quick turns, maybe we could play Biblios next week! 


Other tips:

1) The goal is for the other gamer(s) to enjoy the game and become interested in playing it again, not for you to rack up a victory against a new player.

2) It’s OK to leave a strategic opening for a new gamer to exploit, it will add to their enjoyment of the game. This doesn’t mean to “throw” the game, but make sure they have fun (and want to play more games in the future).

3) Avoid comparing the game to another one to describe the mechanic. It’s possible that the players will not be familiar with the other game, even simple games like Yahtzee. So it’s best to just explain the rules. Then you know everyone is on the same page. 

4) Be enthusiastic! If you sound bored by the game, other gamers will likely find it boring as well.

5) Try to have the game set up in advance so that the players don’t have to sit there watching the setup. Trying to split your attention by setting up and teaching the game at the same time will likely lead to a confusing game introduction. If you must set it up with everyone waiting, give them each small tasks like shuffling cards, but don’t start your explanation until everything is ready. 

demo lead stephen vargo

About the Author: Dr. Stephen Vargo is a general surgeon and avid gamer. He has been demoing games for IELLO USA for over 3 years at conventions and industry shows and is now IELLO’s Demo Team Lead. This position allows him to share his knowledge and skills with other demo team members who interact with thousands of convention attendees each year. His boundless patience and enthusiasm help him create a delightful game experience for every player at the table.

Published 15 December 2015

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