Friday Night Shots – How Do You Learn a Game?

We’ve come a long way in this hobby (especially wargames, since that’s what I used to play in my youth) since the days where there were very few games coming out each year so everybody who was interested in gaming actually was playing those same few games.

In those days, most players had the game, scanned through the rulebook, and just made do. I actually don’t recall how I learned to play things like Squad Leader, War & Peace, or the like.

I know I played with my brother, but I don’t remember how I learned them.

I was a kid. That was 40+ years ago. The memory fades.

Nowadays, though, there are plenty of ways to learn a game, and it varies by the player!

This came to mind today when I sat down at lunch at my office and read through the rulebook for Skies Above Britain from GMT. I’ve been doing that for a few lunches now, going through the introductory scenarios as suggested in the rulebook, learning the dogfight mechanic, the attacking bombers mechanic, and today was the Intercept Phase.

I like this programmed instruction method, though the game is still boggling my mind a bit.

But back then, we didn’t have that!

Somebody usually has to read the rulebook, though not always.

This is where the quality of the rulebook can be an issue. Hopefully the rulebook is good enough that it can help.

I actually taught Wayfarers of the South Tigris after having read the rulebook twice and nothing else.

I didn’t even get the game out and look at it on the table at all.

When I taught the game, I used the same teaching order as the rulebook is, doing the concepts and then how a turn goes, etc.

That’s how I learned the game, and it seemed to work pretty well.

In the future, I may modify it slightly, telling people how a turn works before backtracking and detailing what those various actions mean.

But it was just the rulebook.

Nothing else.

Usually, if I’m teaching myself a game, I like to get everything set up and work my way through at least a few turns, trying to see how the sequence of play will work in practice so I’m familiar with it.

Back when one of our offices at work wasn’t in use, my boss actually let me use it as a “learning a game” office. I would go down there at lunch and teach myself a game, leaving it set up because it inevitably took more than an hour to work through.

That went away when the office got assigned to an actual person (curse them!), but it was really handy. I would set up a 2-3 player game (depending on the game) and just play through some turns.

It was a great way to learn a game, and if you have the table space to do it, I highly recommend it.

But sometimes you don’t have that luxury, and you just have to read through the rulebook a few times and do your best.

And warn your fellow players that the teach of it may be a bit chaotic, like my first teach of Stationfall by Ion Game Design.

I read through the rulebook, the learning manual, and the reference guide a number of times, but I warned my friends that this would be a disorganized teach.

Midway through the teach, one of my friends commented “well, you did warn us it would be chaotic!”

But we’ve played Stationfall twice and people have really enjoyed it, so I think that it was successful.

Personally, my favourite way to learn a game is to have somebody already familiar with it teach the game to us. It makes it easier on me because I just have to go by what they say and internalize that. I don’t have to try and figure things out for myself.

But that comes with pitfalls of its own

Damn, I loved this game…

What if they don’t have all the rules right?

Whenever I’m taught a game at our regular game day, I usually go back and look at the rulebook, or at least look on BGG. Often, I find that one or two things weren’t actually correct. I then post about it on our Discord channel.

Sometimes the teacher actually comes back and says “whoops, I got this wrong!”

I don’t do this to be mean to the teacher. They did their best, and I’m one to talk about misunderstanding rules. I do it all the time!

I even do it with the games that I teach, and often I find just as many things done wrong. I’m not afraid to publicly state that I taught something wrong.

I do it so that all of us can have the rules right the next time, and for the teacher’s information in case they are teaching it to other people at some point.

I often say that I really enjoyed the game and I want to play it again. And this time we’ll play it even more accurately. And probably 95% of the time, that’s actually true.

The other issue with being taught a game, especially if you are a boardgame reviewer like I am (yes, I’m aware I haven’t done a review in a while…stay tuned!), is that there are some things you can’t comment on in the review, which makes it so that the review is a bit incomplete.

You can’t really comment too much on the rulebook and how easy it is to understand the game from it.

Sure, you can look at the rulebook afterwards, but you already know how to play the game. You can’t really say how good the rulebook is as a teaching aid when you already know the game.

So there’s reading the rulebook multiple times and teaching from there, or maybe getting out and doing a solo playthrough of the multiplayer experience.

And there’s teaching from the rulebook.

One thing we didn’t have when I was a kid (“What’s this Internet thing you young people are talking about?”) was “how to play” videos or even playthroughs of games that are on Youtube.

The king of those, of course, is Rodney Smith and his “Watch it Played” videos.

If Rodney’s covered a game, you know you’re going to get a great teaching aid for playing the game. If you’re teaching a game that he’s done, I highly recommend you watch a video before trying to teach your friends.

But sometimes you don’t need an actual “teaching” video.

Sometimes just watching a playthrough (maybe with a teach at the beginning) is what you need.

When I was preparing to teach Stationfall, I watched the Heavy Cardboard 4-player playthrough of the game that was done on Tabletop Simulator with the designer, Matt Eklund.

That teach was invaluable as it really gave me clarity on some of the concepts of the game and teaching directly from the rulebook would be very difficult.

(Yes, I know there’s a “tutorial” game to play for that game, but when you have a regular Sunday get together where different games are played each week, nobody is going to want to play a scripted “tutorial”).

I know most of my usual Friday Night Shots commenters are people who do the whole rulebook thing, learning the game that way and maybe teaching afterwards. They’re wargamers who are probably responsible for teaching, if their fellow players aren’t also reading the rulebook themselves.

But there is a large contingent of people out there who have no experience with the rulebook because they are always taught games.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing?

I know my wife (who doesn’t really play games unless I ask her to play with me) is never going near a rulebook.

I have to teach her.

Many of the games I’ve played have been taught by somebody else.

That’s the primary way I learn, though as I collect more and more games, I’m having to do it other ways as well.

Maybe one day I’ll again have the table space to set up a game and learn it by doing.

But most of the time, if I’m teaching one of my own games, it’s basically from the rulebook that I’ve read through multiple times.

And I hope I’m coherent when I’m teaching it.

I await some of my friends commenting here on how I haven’t done a great job on that.

I hope all of this makes sense.

I have to say that Crown Royal makes a good whiskey addition to Diet Pepsi, and that might be affecting how this post came out.

But let me know what you think!

How do you learn games? And if you learn from the rulebook, what’s your criteria for saying whether or not the rulebook is good?

9 Comments on “Friday Night Shots – How Do You Learn a Game?

  1. As always, excellent post!
    I guess I fall into the category of “usual Friday Night Shots commenters”… and my approach resembles yours pretty closely. Rulebook reading is still essential to me, and I really appreciate the great advances rulebooks have made. Division into “Learn to Play” and “Reference” rulebooks is one that comes to my mind immediately. Extended examples of play also often give you a great idea of the flow of a game, particularly in more complex games.
    If I know in advance I’ll teach a complex game that I don’t know myself yet (a fate that frequently befalls me, as I am often introducing new and complex games to my friends), I’ll also try to get a multi-handed solo game (or at least a few rounds of such a game) in.
    I also enjoy not having to do the teach myself… and just sitting back and soaking up someone else’s explanation!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loving this Friday Night series!

    I mix my approach depending on my excitement level for the game and also the amount of energy I want to put in. Either start by reading the manual or watching a playthrough/Rodney.

    Then if I’m really struggling I’ll sit down and play a few rounds. Usually, it really helps to connect together different mechanics that you can’t get from just reading.

    As an aside, I also got Stationfall recently… but I’m scared to start learning it because I’ve heard it’s a beast.

    My group does NOT love rules explanations so I try to teach as we play. Of course, I get blamed for a lot of missed rules, or someone develops a whole strategy around something that makes no sense to do. But that happens whether I give the upfront explanation or not – as learning the rules of mid-large games can be cognitive overload.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stationfall is a beast to teach, but itโ€™s worth it if you like complete chaos. Itโ€™s such a fun game. And nobody knows whatโ€™s going on until itโ€™s too late! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. As a group we usually have one person who has taken the time to glance at the rules, then run through a game with regular stops for ‘OK, what happens now?’ as we progress. I find that I learn best by doing things rather than reading the manual, but sometimes it’s me who is interested in the game and so it falls to me to lead on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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