How to Teach Board Games: a Better Way

mission red planet

Do you know how to teach board games? Take what the rule book suggests, and then do it backwards.

Most board game rule books begin with the setup, and then tell players what each individual piece does. But this can often be a pretty inefficient way how to teach board games.

As others have said, the right way to teach board game rules is to start with the goal: what is the player trying to do? But the advice of other board game opiners would have you then go right back to the beginning and explain to players what each of their pieces does.

Don’t do that.

Instead, work backward. Tell the players the goal. Then, tell them the last thing that they have to do to achieve that goal. Then tell them what they have to do to position themselves for that thing. And then keep racing backward.

How to teach board games backwards: an example

I recently taught Mission: Red Planet to a group of children at Brooklyn Game Lab. Here’s how I explained that game.

You win Mission: Red Planet by asserting the greatest dominance over the planet by collecting valuable minerals and completing missions.

How do you collect minerals? Well, three times during the game, we’ll have a scoring phase. In each scoring phase, we put a number of mineral tokens on the mine in each region on the planet. The player with the most astronauts in each region will get all of the tokens on the mine. If there’s a tie, we divvy out the tokens as evenly as possible, leaving any extras on the board for later scoring rounds — or to go unclaimed at the end of the game.

mission_red_planet_box our dummy for how to teach board games

How do you get astronauts onto the planet? Well, astronauts come to mars in rocket ships. Each rocket ship has a destination and a number. When the number of astronauts on the ship equals the number on the ship, the ship launches and accepts no more astronauts. At the end of the turn, the ship lands, and all the astronauts move from the ship to the ship’s destination.

At the start of each new turn, we put down a new ship to replace each one that launched on the previous turn.

How do you get astronauts onto the ships? Glad you asked. At the start of each turn, each player chooses one of their specialist cards. Each specialist card has a number and lets you place astronauts on ships. They also have a special ability. After all players have chosen their card for the turn, we count down from nine to one. When I call the number for your specialist, you turn it over and take your action.

There was a little more to the explanation, but that was the basic structure of it. By the time I finished, the kids were ready to play. They might have had a question or two to clarify something they missed, but that was it.

Why it Works

This method works because it leverages context to increase understanding.

Normally, when you learn the rules of a board game, you don’t have any context. If someone begins an explanation of Mission: Red Planet telling you what each role does, it doesn’t stick because you don’t know why you want to get your astronauts onto the ships.

To be fair, Mission: Red Planet is a somewhat simple game — and this method has some limitations. But it will work for the majority of modern board games.

Settlers of Catan? You win by being the first to earn 10 points. You earn points by buildings cities and settlements and through development cards. How do you get those…?

Pandemic? You win by curing all four diseases before the game beats you. How do you cure the diseases…?

You get the idea.

What tips do you have for teaching board game rules? Tell us in the comments.

2 comments

  1. Clever Move Reply

    That's actually the exact counter-example I was thinking about the entire time I wrote this piece.

    However, I think you could make a modified method work: "You win by earning the most points. One of the most common ways you can win the most points is by having the largest contiguous civilization at the end of the game. What's that? How do you do it? Well…"

    Then you'd pivot to the end-of-turn points and then, probably, to the cult-track points.

  2. Jordan Philip Longstaff Reply

    How would you use this technique to explain Terra Mystica? You win that game by having the most victory points at the end. There are TONS of ways to earn victory points and most of them depend on what race you play.

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