By Kate Thompson
Once upon a time (in 2015), I got a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. My research focused on memory, attention, and learning. Basically, I became an expert in how people learn and remember things. If you think about it, teaching someone to play a game is exactly that: trying to help them learn and remember the rules of the game.
The following is a list of tips on how to effectively teach a game to someone based on how our brains work! You might already be doing these things, or something similar, but I hope it will still be interesting to learn more about why these strategies work.
We learn by doing
Imagine that you are teaching someone to ride a bike. Would you verbally go through all of the important information at the beginning? Would you plop them on the seat, give a push, and see how it goes? Or would you try to interweave those two strategies? I’m hoping you agree that the interweaving strategy is best. The same applies to board games.
A lot of people like to approach a board game tutorial by explaining ALL of the rules up front. This is overwhelming. However, it’s also a bit of a mismatch. You can’t verbally describe how to ride a bike and expect that to translate into bike riding skill. Similarly, someone won’t REALLY learn the rules of a game until they’ve gone through the motions of a few turns (or sometimes even a whole game). We learn best by actually performing the task we are learning because doing so strengthens the ‘muscles’ that will be used to play the game.
So, there might be things you have to explain verbally, but whenever possible, you should have players practice actions they will need to take. You can do this by just starting the game, and learning as you play (explain rules as they become relevant in the game). You can also just play out small sections or phases as an example of how they work while you are verbally explaining these rules. The best approach will vary depending on the game.
This strategy of getting people playing the game as soon as possible works for another reason. Our memories are made up of all kinds of information that gets linked together. When you remember childhood holidays, you can form a narrative of the things that happened, but you can also smell and taste the food you ate. You can hear the music and sounds of your families voices. You can see the vibrant decorations, and mentally make your way through the house you were in. All of those extra sensory memories make up the context, and the more of that stuff there is, the stronger the memory is. The more characteristics the memory has, the bigger it is. The bigger it is, the easier it is to access. Imagine trying to find a key in a purse or knapsack. It’s much easier to find a key that’s on a keyring with lots of other keys and baubles… but just an individual key is hard to find. So, when you verbally explain the rules AND have players go through the motions of playing, you are creating a bigger, chunkier memory that they are more likely to find again later.
We have short attention spans
I mean, did you even read through that last section completely? Probably not.
The key here is to try and be as brief as you can while not leaving out any important information. One suggestion I do have, though, is to leave out SOME information. Especially if you are teaching a complex game, the trick is to figure out what parts of the rules are necessary to get going. The details can be spattered in during the first few rounds of play once the players have a feel for how the game works in general.
This is another way to avoid losing someone in a rules dump at the beginning of the game. If rules explanation goes on too long, our attention will wander, and we will start to miss things. This could end up souring the game for someone because it seems too complicated, or because they misunderstand how the game works from missing some of the explanation.
Repetition is key
When you experience or learn something for the first time, that represents a pattern of activation in your brain. Technically, a vast network of neurons all fire together in a particular way. These cells have never all fired together in this way before, and that is what makes the memory trace unique. What we are hoping for is that these neurons will become linked or wired together so that we can activate them all together again later… This is remembering (if that description gives you chills, you might be a cognitive psychologist).
The point is that we would like to make this network gel together -- that will help us remember it later. How do we make this happen? By activating the memory! Remembering begets remembering. Every time we activate the memory, it becomes stronger.
So, there are going to be some aspects of a game that will naturally repeat over and over again through the course of the game. You can be reasonably sure that people will remember those rules. Things that happen every turn, for example. They repeat naturally.
For other, more fiddly rules, or things that don’t happen very often in a game, it is a good idea to explain the rules once, but then remind players of those rules whenever it makes sense to do so. For example, if you see someone about to make a move that you think suggests they might have forgotten about another obscure rule, it makes sense to mention that rule again to make sure they are aware of it.
Context helps us remember
The next two points are related to the notion of context and are similar to the first point I made about learning by doing. The main idea that links all of this together is that an isolated tidbit of information floating around in the aether of your mind will be hard to retrieve from memory. But a rich piece of information that is connected to many other pieces of information forms a great beacon in that aether, easy to spot.
We already talked about one way to start building this beacon by making sure players are getting some hands-on experience with parts of the game while they are learning rather than just a verbal rules dump at the start of the game. Here are a couple other helpful ways to create a rich learning experience:
Analogies are mnemonic tricks (a.k.a. Theme Matters!)
Most (but not all) board games have a theme. In Terraforming Mars, the theme is that you are terraforming Mars. What you are REALLY doing is collecting cubes in different places on a piece of paper, and then when you have enough of them, you trade the cubes in for something else, depending on what part of the paper they had been on. If I explained it that way, though, it would be really hard to remember which cubes you trade in for what… and also… why you’d want to do that.
However, if I put a picture of a leaf on your resource board and tell you that cubes on the leaf represent plants, it starts to make a bit more sense. Then I tell you that you can trade 8 of these plant cubes in for a forest tile that you can then put on the board, and that also makes a lot more sense. It’s much easier to remember.
Explaining game rules and mechanics in the context of the game’s theme links this new rule to something that is already concrete in your mind. Think of it like an anchor or mooring that you can latch on to. An existing structure in your mind that you can use to access the new memory, instead of having it floating around all on its own.
First of all, I always start a rules explanation for a game with a summary of the theme and the goals of the game. This sets up the context. Who are we? What do we want? Second, when I am explaining a specific game mechanic I always try to think about why that rule is there from the perspective of the theme of the game. There isn’t always an obvious link, but if you can see one, use it to help explain the mechanic!
Make it FLOW
Another way to create a strong memory is to introduce concepts in a way that flows logically. Maybe this is a series of steps that occur in order, maybe it’s building up from basic concepts to more complex ones. This creates a giant snaking memory in your mind. When game concepts naturally flow from one to the next, the player doesn’t have to remember everything all at once. They just need to remember the first thing, which will trigger the next thing, and so on.
My biggest tip here is that you may or may not want to use the same sequencing as the rule book when explaining how to play a game. I’d suggest looking at the rules and deciding for yourself what makes sense to learn first, and then what the next most obvious rule is to learn after that, and so on.
Here are the two main points:
Do you have any useful tips and tricks for teaching a game? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!!
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