I’m not a particularly good teacher when it comes to how to play games, which is odd really because I’ve done quite a bit of teaching in regard to other subjects in the past. There’s a knack to being good at teaching game rules though, and I think the reason I haven’t got it is because generally, I only ever have to teach myself!
Whenever I get a new game, I always open the box, look at the components, and then read the rules. I then play through it by myself, irrespective of whether it’s a solo game or not, and that’s how I learn, by doing.
I would hazard a guess that most people who play solo are quite good at picking up games from a set of rules, as hard as it may be sometimes, and I often think it’s easier to learn a complicated game this way than have it taught.
For starters, I’m a bit of a plodder. I process information quite slowly, but I get there in the end and usually with the right result. So, when I’m in a group and someone is teaching the game, whilst my ears are willing, I’m often lagging behind in my head. This doesn’t usually bother me, as I pick things up better by just getting on with it and playing the game, seeing for myself how the game’s mechanisms work. I then ask questions as I go – occasionally drawing a look of, ‘Duh! He told us that a minute ago,’ but again, it’s part of how I learn (It’s also part of how I teach; constantly asking questions!).
The other thing about having a game taught to you is that you’re relying on the teacher to teach the game correctly. Ah! yes, I’m sure we’ve all been there, where you go and play the game with a different group only to find you’ve been playing it wrong on oh so many accounts! We all make mistakes, though, I know I make dozens when I teach a game, but usually it’s because I forget things and halfway through, I’ll go, ‘Oh yeah! I forgot you can do this, and it gets you loads of points!’ usually on my turn and to my advantage – I don’t know why, it always seems happen that way!
Even when I’m teaching a game I know like the back of my hand, I get it wrong. Wrong isn’t quite the right word. I know the rules, I know the strategies, I know how all the mechanisms work, but getting it across in a logical order is where the difficulty comes.
I am, however, getting better at it. I’ve found a way that works for me. Before the game starts, I’ll give a brief outline of the game, just a sentence or two, similar to what you’d find on the back of the box. I then follow the set-up, getting the players involved in placing things, sorting resources, etc. whilst explaining what they are – these are bed knobs and they act as currency, kind of thing. With the game set up, I then skim through the rules, putting things into my own words and keeping to the core concepts. This gives everyone a basic idea of what’s going on. Then we start playing, but I lead everyone through the first few turns until they’re happy to go it alone – some might pick it up straight away and need no further guidance, whilst others may need a helping hand until they have it clear. I always make sure that everyone knows the first game is just a run-through and we can stop at any time, either to clarify things or, if everyone is happy, to start again for real.
Anyway, what I really wanted to discuss here, is how I go about the process solo. I’ve already mentioned that I’ll read the rules then play it through, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I’m the kind of person who likes to explore and get to know the mechanisms, how they work and the strategies they introduce to the game play. Not just the solo variant either, if it has one, but at different player counts, as well as trying out any difficulty settings.
I usually start off with the natural player count for the game. So, if it’s a 2-player game, say with a solo variant, I’ll play it at 2-players first. Likewise, if the game advertises 2 to 4 players, I usually start at 3 or 4, depending upon how much space it takes to do so and how much ‘housekeeping’ there is to do.
Housekeeping – A gaming term widely used for the amount of things a player has to keep track off during their turn, such as updating tokens, ordering cards, moving markers etc.
There are three reasons why I do this.
Firstly, there’s a chance I’ll end up teaching it to others, so I need to know the set-up and rules for multiplayer and not just solo.
Secondly, I find it the best, and quickest, way to learn the strategies of game. Things are often more apparent when playing like this, as I’m seeing the game from different perspectives, and I can try several things out in a single game to see how they work. I can see, for example, how doing something as one player can affect the others, which isn’t always obvious when playing solely against the game or a bot, and this enables me to refine tactics, though on many occasions the solo variants require their own, totally different, approach.
Thirdly, I may well review the game and getting a feel for how it plays at different player counts is important. I might not get to play the game with three or four other people, especially with current circumstances, and so it helps to see if there are any glaring flaws with the game, which often rear their head at max or minimum player count, a common fault being the increase in play time, which isn’t always linear.
Once I’ve played the game at a normal player count, then I’ll move onto the solo variant, presuming it has one, and play it through again. Sometimes, though, it isn’t always made easy by the standard of the written rules, or they don’t cover all the situations that can arise during a game. When I learnt Robinson Crusoe, for instance, I found the rules extremely illogical and difficult to follow. Or a game like Marvel Champions The Card Game, where the rules are straightforward but it isn’t always obvious how some of the card actions work. It’s at this point I visit BGG. I often print out rewritten rules from the BGG forums, or FAQs from there or from the publisher’s website.
With the rules buttoned down and a good understanding of the basic strategies, I’ll decide on my preferred player count. I say this because the solo variant isn’t always the best way to play a game solo. This is especially evident with co-op games, where, at the end of the day, you can play most of them at any player count, as you’re playing against the game rather than each other. With most co-op games, it will often advise you to play with two characters, such as with Eldritch Horror, but I much prefer the game with three or four. Everyone will have their favourite way to play, but sometimes you have to explore all the options to find it.
Once that’s settled, I’ll then start tinkering with any difficulty settings. I never approach a new game on anything less than the standard difficulty. ‘Easy’ levels are usually exactly that and I find I can waste a game playing on them. This is a personal thing, going back to how I learn. If I’m faced with something difficult then I’m more prone to see how it should be tackled and what strategies are the most relevant. On easy levels, games can often be won playing ineffective strategies, which then lead you down a merry path if you follow the same tack on harder settings.
I’ve recently learnt to play Under Falling Skies, a pure solo game very reminiscent of the old arcade game, Space Invaders. I found the game to be a challenge (actually downright difficult to be honest) on the standard level, but by playing at a harder level, even though I couldn’t beat the standard one, I was able to see what really mattered and refined my play. I then returned to the standard difficulty and was able to win the majority of games.
Once I’m fully up to speed with a game, it will then depend upon what mood I’m in as to the difficulty level I play. Sometimes, I’ll be looking for the challenge of something difficult, pushing my little grey brain cells to work out how to beat the game. Other times, I’ll just want to play for the enjoyment of it all and choose a level that gives me even odds to beat. Either way, at this point I’ll have learnt the game.
I’ll finish with one issue that I have, and I’m sure many more out there suffer from it too, and that’s remembering rules for games I haven’t played in a while (sometimes, as little as a couple of weeks!) – I’ve had goldfish with greater memory capacity than I have! Unless I play something repeatedly, or the rules are especially straightforward, then I always end up with my head in the rulebook for the first ten minutes or so of a game. For those games that really cause me a problem (Marvel: Champions I’m looking at you) I print out a cheat sheet for the rules I commonly forget or get wrong. It’s something that I doubt I’ll ever get around, but at least I know my weaknesses!
And that sums everything up about me and teaching a game. Whether you’re teaching yourself or others, you have to find your own way. Teaching yourself is so much easier, as you know how you learn and can therefor follow that path – maybe you follow ‘Watch it Played‘ videos, or you prefer to be physically taught by someone else. Teaching others, though, is a whole different ball game and you have to have a variety of tricks up your sleeve if your initial approach fails short. And so please, feel free to share any tips, tricks, methods, experiences, or horror stories you have of teaching people the rules of a game, I need all the help I can get!