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

Why Now is the Best Time For You to Get Into Board Games – Especially If You’re Introverted

Hi, I’m glad you’re here! The two times to get into board games are either now or later – culturally speaking we’re experiencing a pretty big wave here, so rather than it being a question of if you’re going to love them, it’s more like when. Here’s 3 reasons why you should get into board games now. These tips are applicable for people who are extraverted as well, but they’re especially nice if socializing is normally a draining experience for you!

Let yourself have a healthy, budget-friendly, social, relaxing and fun hobby

(That hobby is board games)

It’s an easy and low-stress way to socialize.

Compared to other forms of social time, board games offer a way to be together without needing to purchase alcohol or dress up.

You also don’t need to scrape for conversation, or feel as much fear about some awkward topic being brought up – which can be a lifesaver for certain family dynamics.

Because the board game is the prevalent object at the table, you can freely focus foremost on the game, and it’s not awkward if nobody has anything to say – you’re all playing a game, after all. Even better, the events of your game can provide great common ground for conversation topics during the game or after you’re done. This means you have a great icebreaker with co-workers, new friends or family visitors.

It’s only recently that board games have been going through this boom in popularity, meaning it’s more likely than ever that you’ll find a group of like-minded individuals looking for the same thing!

It’s a healthy and budget-friendly activity to spend time on.

There will always be people who spend too much on their hobbies, especially when they start (check back soon for a budget starter guide!) but board games really hit all the boxes:

  • Lowkey social time, so you can keep your social bars up without the stress of being at a bar or club – stay connected with social groups and family!
  • After your initial investment, each game night is free (four people at a restauraunt is the same cost as 1-3 board games that you’ll enjoy for years!)
  • Playing board games as a hobby involves no social obligation to eat out or drink. Of course good friend groups don’t pressure you either way, but it’s also not exactly fun when the point of the hangout is to do something you’re abstaining from.

The sooner you start, the sooner you can start reaching your dietary and financial goals!

No matter who you are, there’s a game for you.

It dosn’t matter if you’ve never played games before, or if you’re just getting into it now, or if you’re bad at math, or only good at jokes, or if you prefer randomness, or if you only like knitting-related activities, or games that involve throwing burritos, or you wish games were capped at 5 minutes. There is always a board game that is perfect for you – it’s just a matter of finding it!

In 2020, board game designers have started putting out games for everyone, regardless of experience or strategic inclination or social energy. There’s even a ton of one-player games out there now, so you can feel safe about getting a few games knowing that at the worst you can develop your skills playing solo.

So let’s get started!

I’m about to start typing out a list of the top board games to start with, but until then, my personal top 4 list includes:

  • Sushi Go, or Sushi Go Party – great for all ages
  • Settlers of Catan, if you already know people who play it
  • Ticket to Ride, if you want a gentle learning curve
  • Century: Golem Edition if shiny gemstones and cute pictures of golems doing community services sounds ideal

If you already have friends or family who are into boardgames, you should send them a message and ask about any of the above games! Good playgroups will definitely be excited to get a new player on board. You’ll be glad that you got into board games now instead of later, and that you got to join an awesome community when you did.

And share the board game that you end up playing, I want to know!


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*Note: I use the term “boardgames” and “board games” interchangeably, based on my mood. Linguistically speaking I’m inclined to posit that I conceptualize the genre as ‘boardgames’ and each individual game is a ‘board game’, but I haven’t reflected all too much on my habituations.

About Me

Hey, nice to meet you! You can call me Sage. I’m a board game designer: I generally work on projects with academic institutions to tranform research findings into board games and videogames. I also teach English online.

I’ve been doing board game design – and playing board games – ever since first grade, when my parents banned me and my sibling from playing Pokemon. Because I wasn’t allowed to get into the trading card game craze, I was “forced” to create my own rip-off trading card game. It wasn’t the most innovative game ever, but there was something beautiful in the feeling of system-crafting that’s stayed ever since.

I’ve long since been unbanned from Pokemon (probaby) but I never really stopped making games and writing about them.

Currently, in addition to being a game designer, I am a Masters student at the University of Waterloo in the Experimental Digital Media program. My research involves board games as much as possible, which has been surprisingly easy in this degree.

It would be remiss to not talk about my own personal favourite board games: it’s always changing, but right now Lords of Waterdeep, Terraforming Mars and Viticulture are my top games. This means my bias is always a little bit towards Euro games, or games that involve building up resources over time. It just feels really nice to watch my little engines start working on their own!

Anyway, what I’d rather talk about is you! What brings you here, and what board games are you interested in? Leave a comment and say hi!