How to Learn New Board Games

It’s another fine day!

So let’s say you just got a new board game, or maybe your friend mentioned that you’re going to play Carcassone or Wingspan today, and you have no idea what you’re supposed to do. If you’d like to know how to learn new board games, this is the article.

Luckily for us in our modern day, there are a lot of approaches you can take to make your first board game experience something fun and awe-inspiring rather than confusing and anxiety-inducing.

Let’s go over each of the methods that exist, and you’ll get my personal thoughts on each one as we go.

A: The Friend

Assuming that on the night of a board game you choose to do nothing at all, the default thing that’ll happen is your friend will unpack the game and just start telling you how to play. You can totally learn a new board game this way.

That’s why this is the first item on the list, and not the rulebook. Technically, the ‘default’ thing that’s going to happen is your friend will talk to you, assuming they already know how to play.

It’s not actually the worst thing to have a game described to you from a friend, though your mileage can definitely vary depending on what your friend is like, and especially if you know that friend well enough to ask questions or not.

The advantages to having a friend explain a board game to you are the following:

  • Your friend will likely already set up the game for you, skipping over confusing parts of the explanation that another medium would have to trudge through.

    This can shave off a lot of time and confusion, because when it gets time to learn how to actually play the game, you’ll already have the board or cards physically there to stare at and play with.
  • If your friend knows what they’re doing, they’ll tell you what is important and what is not.

    This means you won’t be scratching your head over some random mechanic that in practice never matters very much once you start playing.
  • You can sometimes play as you go. For some people, this is anxiety-inducing in itself… but it also means that if you’re the type to learn by observing or ‘doing’, you can let your friend just make decisions for you with your hands open until you get the hang of it.
  • You can ask questions. Assuming your friend is actually a good friend, when you run into something that you’re not sure about, you can just ask instead of trying to figure out where some rule might be written.

As you can see, the benefits of doing nothing are pretty decent, and there’s nothing wrong with knowing nothing about a game when it hits the table. However, there are a few downsides to watch out for:

  • Your friend can’t explain the game to you if they also don’t know how to play.
  • Really complex games are difficult to remember all at once, so your friend might miss really important things.
  • Your friend might not be a great speaker or teacher. After trying to learn a game from them once, you’ll probably know if this is the case or not.

So what’s next? I suppose the logical step would be to look at the actual rulebook for the game. Most games have their digital rulebook uploaded somewhere online, so even if the game isn’t at your house or something, you can still check it out on your phone or computer.

B: The Rulebook

The rulebook is what you may be most familiar with, so I’m not going to spend too much time describing how it works. One thing I can say is that while the community of board games has evolved and grown over the years… the quality of rulebooks have really not improved that much.

Boardgame rulebooks are still moderately confusing for many games, maybe because games themselves have grown more complex over the years? A few games, like Sushi Go!, Century and Lords of Waterdeep are some games off the top of my head with pretty good rulebooks, but they’re also not as complex. Let’s go over pros and cons though!

  • You get the comprehensive experience – nothing is left out, so if you feel like you need to know everything in perfect detail, this is your best shot.
  • The explanation from a rulebook may be overwhelming, but at least it’s clear – your friend can sometimes be wrong when explaining a rule, so you can double check with your own rulebook cruise.
  • Edge cases and weird scenarios are sometimes covered in the Appendix, which means even if you learn how to play from another source, you will be referring to the rulebook at some point, which can increase your general understanding.
  • You can get into the mood of the game a little bit, if the rulebook includes lore.

The downsides of learning a board game from the rulebook are pretty self-apparent:

  • It can be overwhelming to learn everything all at once, including setup, component explanations, etc.
  • If there is a specific thing you’re not sure about, it’s not a guarantee the rulebook will explain your specific question.
  • If you are not a strong reader in the language of the rulebook, you may have a pretty bad time, especially since rules language tends to be exacting.
  • The rulebook doesn’t always let you know what matters in terms of playing or winning, meaning they might expect you to just remember everything at once.

C: Videos

One of the more recent and fun additions to the “learning stuff” family, videos (i.e. YouTube) are probably the best of all worlds. Sage tip: I prefer to watch them on 1.5x to 1.75x speed! If you suddenly forget every other way to learn a new board game, videos are realistically your best bet.

  • Videos have visuals of products and they show people moving pieces in action.
  • Generally, the more popular YouTubers have in-depth and clear explanations that are really easy to follow.
  • You can rewatch and rewind an explanation as many times as you need to.
  • If you’re not much of a reader and you don’t have a nearby friend to teach you, this is basically the only non-text way to learn!

In a way, the strength of video tutorials is that they combine the human part of clear visual examples and the (inhuman?) part of concise, replayable directions. Yay!

But, there are still cons, which include the following:

  • The quality of the video scales very much on production value, including camera work, microphone quality and the charisma of the speaker.
  • If you’re a fast reader, you might find the video to actually be fairly slow as the person belabours a point that you had already figured out.
  • Not all games have a video tutorial, or they may just be an overview.

D: Random Websites

Maybe I should have a better title than “Random Websites” but that’s essentially accurate – I sometimes google “Spirit Island Rules” and get an entirely new website compared to when I googled “Terraforming Mars Rules”. At first, the idea of browsing random Googled websites sounds bad, but there are actually several funny benefits:

  • Unlike rulebooks, which often has double duty of teaching the rules and being a ‘judge’ in edge case scenarios, websites can explain the rules in a more conversational tone that is easier to understand.
  • Websites can be updated and are often aware of which points are confusing for a large audience. Unlike your friend or the official rulebook which has a smaller sample size, a website might be written with knowledge of the most commonly-broken rules.
  • If you’re Googling board game rules, you can trust the search engine optimization that you’re looking at the best-written ruleset out of all of the ones written on the internet.

In my opinion, random websites really come out on top when you’re looking at a game for the first time – while you may miss out on a few specific points, you’ll at least get a good large-scale idea of how to play a game.

Some cons:

  • The site you’re looking at might be for a different edition of the game with different rules.
  • It’s sometimes a little incomplete, meaning you might need to also consult a friend, video or rulebook to feel comfortable playing.

The Sage Advice

Choose two! I personally like to scan through a youtube video at double speed, probably from Watch It Played, and then I’ll either ask my friend to go over some rules, or I’ll read up a random set of rules from Google.

What you should know is this: there are options out there for learning rules, and by knowing what works best for you, your ‘first game’ experience can become like 5x better.

How do you like to learn games?

Warm regards,

Sage Atienza

Published by Sage Atienza

Board game designer, English tutor, graphic designer, writer and researcher.

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