Shut Up and Play!


Have you ever been to a concert where the band onstage, instead of doing what they’ve been paid to do, practices for their future career as the voiceover guy for America’s Home Videos? The cry of “Shut up and play!” rises from the audience (or if you, like me, attended mostly Christian rock concerts as a youth, in Christian charity you silently bore ill will toward those onstage, especially if they were the opening act).

Well, a similar problem can plague you when you try to teach the rules to someone. You want to get every rule in, but there are some around the table who either have played before, who understand more quickly than someone else at the table, or who have a low attention span. They cry, “Let’s learn as we go!” the board gaming equivalent of “Shut up and play!”

I have my own feelings on this sort of attitude, which I’ll get to. I’ll begin by saying that it’s best to make the introductory chatter short, or at least interesting. Try to distill the theme of the game down to its essence. If the theme is particularly interesting, you can go into greater detail, but a game like Settlers of Catan isn’t played for its theme, really. And if the rules are well written or engaging, read them for flavor. (I always do this with Kill Doctor Lucky.) Share something unique about the game at hand. And this cannot be overemphasized: if possible, read the rules beforehand. The best speeches are practiced beforehand; the best rules teaching is prepared beforehand as well. I know this isn’t always possible, but whenever it is, this is the best way to eliminate the “ums” and the “let me look that ups.” Beyond these, always—and this is very important—be enthusiastic. If you don’t like the game you’re teaching, neither will those you are teaching it to.

Okay, so I began by saying keep it as short as possible—attention spans are getting shorter by the second. But short means trimming the fat; sometimes there is a lot of meat that can’t be overlooked. @Futurewolfie had me over for a game of Android once, and he told me, “Show up an hour early so I can teach you how to play.” I chuckled a bit, but really, it’s a good thing the other guys were late, because it took a little over an hour to explain the game to me. Could he have taught the rules faster? Maybe, but the point is that Android is a complex game. It isn’t something you can really “teach as you go” and have the players understand what they’re doing. [@Futurewolfie’s editor’s note: seriously, it’s not my fault Android took that long. Soooo many rules. I had a lot of practice teaching Android, and that was about as efficient as it gets!]

I avoid the “teach-as-you-go” method for most games I teach. Granted, I teach mostly strategy games, which are only fun when the players understand what they’re doing and actively choose their moves. Some games—namely, party games—lend themselves well to the teach-as-you-go method because at a party, it’s hard to compete for airtime. But if games are the chosen activity, let’s focus. Let’s learn. I prefer to teach all of the rules at one go because even if the rules are only partially grasped immediately, they provide the foundation for the rest of the game. I find that too much is left out, too much is forgotten, and too much is spoiled if I explain as we go. Players don’t make wise decisions early on if they don’t know the scope of their options or the ultimate goal they’re trying to reach.

When I teach a game, in addition to having a small introduction planned to get new players into the game, I try to give outlines as much as possible, that is, I try to give big-picture overviews before getting into specifics (you can think of it as a taxonomy). For example, in Ticket to Ride, I say, “You can only do one thing on your turn: you can draw cards, play trains, or draw destination tickets. That’s it.” I give the overview first and then explain in detail what each choice entails. Or for Dominion, I don’t explain what each card does. I give the objective—get the green, but not too fast—the turn order, and then get into specific terminology (which, thankfully, is consistent). I usually take the first turn and then reiterate while performing my turn actions what I just explained in the teaching. Through this method, new players hear everything they need to know about the game and see one complete turn before they have to make decisions for themselves. In other words, I tell and then show, which reinforces the telling.

Outlines and overviews may seem burdensome to the teaching task, but I assure you, it is helpful. Careful writers have outlines, despite the up-front work they entail. In fiction it is often praised that such-and-such author “writes to see what happens,” but readers can tell when that’s the case. As Alice learned from the Cheshire Cat, if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t much matter which way you take. Give me an author who uses an outline anyday, as usually the book is leaner and more focused. The same is true in teaching games: the more you can outline the game in advance, the less in-game teaching time you will take. The game may take a while to get going, but once you are playing, turns move quicker. This is a boon, believe me.

Now, sometimes this front-end explanation goes quickly (as in Ticket to Ride); sometimes this may take longer. It depends on the game. But regardless of how long it takes or the impatient cries of “Hurry up! I’ve got Web surfing to do and friends to text!”, I prefer to explain all the rules up front so there are no surprises or cries of “But you didn’t say anything about…” later on. Consider it an insurance policy as well as a strategy advisory. And despite the impatience I sometimes encounter, this is usually the method that sees the most success. (Unless you’re playing Yahtzee or something. Which, if you’re reading this blog, I’m going to wager you aren’t.)

What about you? Do you advocate the “play-as-you-go” method or the explained up-front method? Any success or horror stories on either side?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. You make a persuasive case. I’m one of those impatient players who wants to learn as I go, but your method probably serves new players better. I don’t expect to win a strategy game the first time I play it, so it’s okay with me if I’m missing some piece of info that would have granted me victory.

  2. I find that many players want to be impatient while learning, but like the young Luke Skywalker, they don’t know that they can’t rush their training. Yes, that makes me Yoda. (A very tall Yoda.)

  3. With my kids, I invariably lean more towards the “play as you go” method. I give out as many basics beforehand as possible, but kids are just too much visual learners, especially these days. When I get to teach rules on those rare occasions to adults (like my brother-in-law), definately get as many rules out up-front.

    On a corollary – I really get frustrated when I’m explaining a game to a new player, but one of the kids who has already played keeps interjecting their own explanations! Argh…confusing and takes up time! I suspect there are adult counterparts to this in the more mature gaming groups!

  4. Jason: Yes, that is very frustrating, and it does happen in adult circles too. I usually ask when I’m finished explaining if I’ve left anything out (then other experienced players can chime in). If they chime in unbidden, it really throws off my groove (see: article on patience…). Thanks for commenting!

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