I'm fortunate to have a lot of people in my life who will happily sit down to play a board game with me. However, while I've been able to play games with a fair few different people in my social circles, the majority of them don't play board games unless it's with me. This means that I'm nearly always the person teaching games and that many of the people I'm teaching are unfamiliar with the terminology and mechanics of modern tabletop games that are second nature to me.
I'm no expert game teacher, but I've picked up a few tips from my different experiences that I hope you'll find useful if you're planning on sharing your hobby with the non-gamers in your life. You may disagree with me or have a different way of doing it, but I've found these ideas helpful and I hope you'll also find some value in them.
The difference between teaching gamers and non-gamers
Before getting into specific tips, it's helpful to recognise the difference between teaching a game to someone who regularly plays board games and someone who doesn't. This difference will hopefully provide the context for the rest of the article.
I find that there are two big differences between gamers and non-gamers who are learning a new game. The first is the amount of experience the learner has to draw on. The second is how familiar they are with the jargon of the hobby that works as a sort of shorthand between gamers.
A simple example will help to illustrate those differences. If, when teaching Star Realms, I say, "It's a deck-building game that works in a similar way to Dominion," an experienced gamer will immediately know roughly how the game works, whereas for the non-gamer, I might as well have been speaking in Gaelic. Non-gamers don't have the experience to be able to see the mechanical similarities between tabletop games and they don't have the terminology to describe them. It's essential that we bear this in mind when we teach something new.
Tip 1: Make the game's objective clear
I find that it's much easier for people to grasp the mechanics of the game if they know what they're building towards. When teaching Takenoko (a go-to gateway game for me), I'll tell players from the get-go that they're working towards completing X number of objective cards. Then, as I explain the actions available to them, I'll tell them which actions generally help them to complete the different kinds of objectives. This helps them to see why they might choose to do action A over action B, which I find helps to give them the basics of a strategy, rather than just choosing random things every turn.
Another game I teach a lot is Star Realms, which I mentioned above. I'll make sure my opponents know that the goal is to get my authority points down to the 0. Without this focus, it's easy to get fixated on the card-buying and deck-building aspects of the game, forgetting that combat points are what will give you the win. I can then explain the rest of the game with that objective in mind.
Tip 2: Avoid tabletop gaming jargon
For experienced tabletop gamers, the hobby's jargon is a convenient shorthand that allows them to communicate ideas without wasting words. Calling 7 Wonders a 'card-drafting,' 'tableau building' 'point salad' game might tell someone everything they need to know if they're a regular player, but it won't mean anything to a new player.
Instead, you have to translate these phrases into normal language. The basics of card drafting in 7 Wonders is choosing a card from the hand you're dealt, then passing that hand to the next player so that they can choose a card from it. 'Tableau building' translates as placing a card in front of you to give you some ongoing benefit. 'Point salad' games have many different ways to get the points you need to win. You get the idea.
Never underestimate how easy it is to slip into jargon. Game mechanics and rules are full of it. When teaching a game, you should be assessing the group and trying to work out whether what you're saying is hitting the mark or going over their heads. Sometimes people will be confident enough to ask for clarification, but not always. If someone is looking a little confused, it's okay to check yourself and start breaking concepts down even further. If people don't understand how the game works, they won't enjoy it.
Tip 3: Be patient
Patience is a virtue, particularly when you're teaching games to less experienced gamers. While you may learn games by reading the rules, watching videos and drawing on experience from similar games, it's likely that the newer gamers you're teaching don't have that same attitude. They're expecting to learn everything from you and won't have the same level of experience required to pick certain mechanics up intuitively. Bear this in mind and be patient, even if it feels like the same question is coming up again and again.
Take my experience with Scythe. For one player (who plays a fair few board games, but rarely heavier ones), one of Scythe's actions just wasn't clicking. She asked me how it worked multiple times over the course of the game and, eventually, was able to get the hang of it. She ended up really enjoying the game and coming second (while I languished in last).
That said, I'm not always so patient. I know that when I teach games to my wife I'm often less patient than I am with friends because I (unfairly) expect her to pick up games at the same rate that I do (even though I'll have watched videos and read rules before we play). While she's very gracious with me, I can tell that there are times that she'd enjoy a new game more if I slowed down and addressed her questions properly, rather than trying to keep things moving.
Even if answering questions slows down the game and even if you find yourself tackling the same questions over and over, do your best to stay patient and explain things as clearly as possible. If you do so, it's much more likely that the new player will enjoy the game and want to play again in the future.
Teaching Games - It's not the same for everyone
A recent thread about teaching games that I saw on Reddit showed me just how diverse people's preferred teaching methods are. I hope that the tips I've given are useful, but everyone has a different style and every new gamer learns in a slightly different way. Don't be afraid to change things up depending on the game and who's playing.
However, one thing I firmly believe, no matter the situation, is that encouragement and patience in your teaching will never let you down, whether you're teaching a new gamer or someone who's been playing board games for years. If you go in with that attitude, your players will respond better to you and it should be a much more enjoyable experience all round.