One of the reasons I enjoy the game publisher Stonemaier Games is because of design values that feature a quick beginning and streamlined setup with minimal pre-game choices.
The reason being that it’s fun to be able to start playing a board game right away! Indeed, the feedback I’ve heard time and again from folks new to board games is the difficulty of learning new games is what keeps them from the hobby.
But I want more people in the board game hobby. So here are some tips to make learning a new board game easier.
How to Learn to Play a New Board Game
STEP #1: Have someone teach you the game. The simplest solution to learning a new board game is to find someone to teach you the game. The obvious side benefit of this is the teacher of the game is likely the person who recommended it to you, meaning you’ve already found your gaming partner!
Many people learn just fine by reading through rule books, but many people learn best through having another person walk them through the steps of something. It provides an opportunity for someone to demonstrate the game actions to you in a context where you can ask clarifying questions.
Of course, not everyone is a gifted teacher, but not every board game designer is a gifted technical rulebook writer. So, having someone teach you a new board game is the best and easiest way to learn a new game.
Side Tip: Many game shops will host demo tables or demo nights. Those are great for being able to see new games being demonstrated. It’s a great try before you buy situation.
STEP #2: Watch a video. The board game industry now has more support than ever before. YouTube channels are popping up that exist solely to demonstrate how games are played. Fortunately, publishers are getting wise to this are are contracting with these video hosts in order to get video tutorials filmed.
Even if you have the opportunity of STEP #1, still consider watching a play through video. That one-two punch is really helpful in absorbing the rules and mechanics of a board game. (When Nerds on Earth reviews or unboxes a board game, the number one request we always get is if we plan to record a walkthrough video of the rules.)
Here are the best sources for how to play board game videos:
- Watch it Played. The undisputed king in terms of quality, coupled with a kind and sincere tone to the show. If Watch it Played made a video, watch it to learn the game. (Read our interview with Rodney of Watch it Played.)
- Rahdo Runs Through. Rahdo has a more conversational and looser style than Watch it Played, so don’t expect as clear a step-by-step. But Rahdo adds a thoughtful review and typically offers a longer play through video with his wife.
- Dice Tower. The Dice Tower is the by far the most highly trafficked site for board game reviews. While their reviews will feature an overview of the rules and mechanics of the games, The Dice Tower simply cranks out videos at record speed, so they often don’t have the depth and detail of the above two. The plus is that they cover literally everything.
- Gaming Rules. This is a newer channel and I’ve only used it a couple times. But what I watched, I enjoyed.
STEP #3: Set up the game and play through a few sample turns solo. I’ll often set up a game after dinner with no real intention of playing it with others. I’m simply setting it up to be able to get a feel for the rules via playing a couple turns through by myself.
Listen, board games are fun. It’s enjoyable just to be able to punch out the pieces and get the board arranged. That’s the nerdiness in us. But then playing through a couple turns really helps to cement the game in our noodles. (Pro Tip: Set it up and physically play it through as you have one of the above tutorial videos on the background.)
Games have too many fiddly rules that won’t stick with you if you just read through the rulebook. Plus, setting it up and playing helps you understand not just the what, but the why.
STEP #4: Scratch out a player aid if the game doesn’t include one. Publishers have gotten smarter about producing little cards that summarize the key actions for players. Board games aren’t Monopoly anymore, thank Zeus.
But if a game doesn’t have player aids, it’s helpful to make your own. I’m talking about nothing more that scripting out a few key rules on an index card.
STEP #5: In the absence of 1-4, put the game on the shelf and wait for #1. If a game is simply too complicated or obtuse to be learned from the rulebook alone after a good, honest try, and if there are no video tutorials available and no one you know can teach you the game, then just shelf it.
Life is too short to waste our precious brain matter by beating our heads against a cardboard box. Just move along to something else, the options are out there.
Luckily, this is rare. Board game publishers want new players in the hobby and they know that first learning a new game is the biggest hurdle that’s keeping players away. So they are working hard to make games accessible, clearer, and more elegantly designed.
So learning to play a new board game is getting easier and easier. And I hope the above tips are helpful as well.