Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can’t…

You’ve probably seen it before. It often happens when players learning a game for the first time. It begins with a confused pause but quickly escalates to an indignant accusation. And it’s all over a game.


After witnessing it a few times, you’ll begin to recognise the tell tale signs of a rule query.

At first, there’s a subtle but unexpected pause as a player takes his or her turn and their opponent contemplates theirs.

Then there’s the furrowed brow of confusion, followed by the twisted mouth of indignation, and sometimes even the pointed finger of accusation.

And then, the lips part and out of the heart the mouth speaks: “You never said we could do that!”

What happens next tends to vary from player to player, game to game, and rule to rule.

There may be defensiveness, evasiveness, or even a bit of shouting.

But the awkward pause that immediately precedes this is universal. Fellow players watch on, shifting their gaze from accused to accuser as if a silent tennis match was being played out before them.

Did he explain that rule correctly? Is that even a rule? What are the rules?

This scenario can be quite awkward and uncomfortable for some people, but it can often be avoided – or at least managed – without the need for spittle to fly across the table.

Style Is The Goal Means

Teaching games is a thankless task. Players actually take the time to read through the rules and often have a solo play through just so their fellow players don’t have to do likewise.

Quite frankly, the rest of us should be grateful, even if the instruction doesn’t always hit the spot. This is partly because there tends to be a mixture of teaching and learning styles all around the same table.

Take The Pillars Of The Earth as an example:

Some teachers, (like me), try to create a thematic introduction to lure people in…

*Puts on a minstrel hat and strums a lute* “You find thyself in medieval England. Hark! A civil war cometh! And before you lies Kingsbridge, a town begging for a grand cathedral. Forsooth, it could be you who builds it!”

Others, (like my wife), prefer to get stuck into the mechanics much more directly:

“At the beginning of every turn, you can either place workers into the resource gathering areas on the game board or pay gold to hire a craftsman…”

Neither approach is wrong – actually, mine was all kinds of wrong – but it highlights the differences in our learning styles. I’m a visual learner, so I try to create a visual scene by using the theme. Angie is a kinesthetic learner, so she makes use of the more practical side of things: rules, mechanics, and components.

And on the other side of the table, you’ve got people who are absorbing the information in their own unique ways…and a few who aren’t absorbing it at all.

Blind Bidding

I recently spent a bit of time teaching someone how to play Race For The Galaxy, a game with a steep learning curve but which in my opinion is well worth climbing because of the extraordinary views that can be seen from the summit.

This person had previously attempted – and failed – to learn the game from the rule booklet alone.

“This is really the sort of game you need to learn by being taught by someone who already knows how to play it,” I said.

“But it shouldn’t be that way!” he replied. “A rule booklet should be all that’s needed!”

He was right in principle, but this often differs in practice. The interpretation of rules tends to rotate around the specificity of instructions via words such as must, may and then. But sometimes the official rules can be vague or poorly explained.

When my wife and I were new to modern board games, we tried to play Colosseum by reading through the rule booklet and it was a disaster. We started with 4 players, but only had 3 by the time some genius suggested we “just start playing and try to figure it out as we go” – the other player had long since fallen asleep on the couch!

No doubt much of that was due to our inexperience, but it wasn’t the out-of-the-box situation we’d been anticipating.

Where To From Here?

Okay, so teaching games is a difficult and thankless undertaking that involves different teaching and learning styles, but how can the rule query minefield be navigated?

Here are some basic tips around rule queries to maintain harmony at your gaming table – unless of course you’re playing Spartacus or Diplomacy:
+ Don’t take it too seriously. It’s just a game, after all.
+ As a teacher, be aware that your would be students may have different learning styles.
+ As a student, give the teacher a bit of grace with the learning process.
+ Don’t get too bogged down in the rules. Sometimes it’s just best to start playing and figure it out as you go.
+ Treat the first game as a learning game. Nobody is expecting you to ace the meta strategy on your first turn.
+ Relax and enjoy yourself. We’re all here to have fun, right, so stop taking it so seriously!
+ Don’t be afraid to make house rules. The key to gaming is having fun – not getting every tiny detail exactly correct. Our group uses a house rule for Libertalia because we prefer it that way – even if it means I get cursed for it!

+ If a rule has been accidentally broken, use common sense and the joys of democracy to agree on a solution. Some rules are easier to do this with than others. In 7 Wonders, for example, if a player discovers they have accidentally constructed the same building twice, simply trash one of the duplicates for 3 gold to make amends. But if a new player has unintentionally been enjoying the use of his or her neighbours’ resources without paying for them, a more creative solution might be required.
+ Don’t be so serious. (Srsly.)

Why So SeriouslyBoard
(Meme image courtesy of Nathan Grange.)
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David and Angela