By far the most common question asked on every board game forum I’ve ever been a part of is some variation of “How do I get people to play board games?” Clearly a lot of people struggle to get their friends and family members into the wonderful hobby of designer board games. Board games are a ton of fun, so surely it shouldn’t be so hard right?! Sadly, skill and experience with board games doesn’t really transfer into skill at introducing people to the hobby. If you’re having trouble growing your gaming group, getting your spouse to join you at the table, or convincing some of your friends that boardgames are more than just Monopoly, I’m here to help.
1 – No distractions!
Before you even pick out the games to play, you’ve got to ensure that where you’re playing is conducive to a quality board gaming experience. Free of distractions (excessive background noise, cell phones, etc.), well-lit, and properly organized. If you’re an experienced player, you likely do all these things already, but it’s easy to forget them in your excitement to introduce new players to the hobby. If your new players are constantly distracted, struggling to read the cards, or have to pause every time you have to fetch something you forgot, they’re going to get frustrated quickly. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.
2 – The right mix of people is crucial!
An introduction game session can very quickly go up in flames based on who’s at the table. I have two basic rules I follow when introducing new players. First, if other experienced players are going to be joining us, they have to understand that the session is going to be focused on ensuring the new players have a good time. Don’t invite the hyper-competitive friend of yours, don’t invite the guy who’s an absolute stickler for the rules who delights in calling out people when they make mistakes. At the same time, you shouldn’t suddenly show up to your regular game night with a new player when everyone else is expecting a serious game night.
Secondly, although I don’t generally concern myself with the ratio of experienced and new players at the table, I make an exception if I’m going to be the only experienced player. Unless you’re playing a social game, or one highly dependent on luck, it’s best to sit out and help the new players rather than playing with them. The more complex the game (whether mechanically or strategically), the more important this is. Even for two-player games, it’s far better for you to sit on the sidelines as two new players play the game rather than force one to play against you. If you aren’t willing to sit out, or don’t have enough players for the game if you do sit out, following the rest of the guidelines as closely as possible to make up for it.
3 – Know the rules!
You absolutely need to know the rulebook in and out. First time board gamers aren’t used to waiting while you thumb the rulebook looking for that one obscure rule that you swear “never comes up!” If their first impression of board games is 5 minutes of downtime every other turn, they won’t be coming back to the table any time soon. If you do happen to need to look up a rule, do your best to keep the game going with your best recollection of the rule and then look it up when it’s not your turn. Most new players are going to be more interested in keeping the game going than playing it perfectly.
4 – Know how to teach people games
This is a skill worth developing even beyond your sessions with new players. Most people teach games in order of play (most rulebooks are written that way these days too). That will work fine with most experienced players, but there are a few other ways to teach games. I’ve found teaching games from finish to start works best. Start by introducing the theme, how to win the game, and then work backwards from there. This allows you to finish with describing what they’ll be doing on their first turn so it’s fresh on their mind. Since they already having an idea of the endgame and victory conditions, they have context for the actions they’ll be taking each turn. This will help cut down on questions like “Why/When do I want to do this action?” and “What is an X?” Use that as a template, and modify it according to the specific game you’re explaining.
After explaining the rules, I prefer to give a brief overview of possible strategies. You don’t need to bury new players with excess information, but they should have an idea at least of some optimal moves. It’s quite disheartening for a new player to spend an hour making a series of terrible moves when one sentence from you in the beginning would have prevented that. At the same time, you don’t want to play for them either. No one likes having their decisions made for them. Enough info that they know what decisions they can make (and what they should consider when making those decisions), but don’t tell them what decision to make every time.
Save the explanations of weird edge-cases, uncommon plays, and other infrequent occurrences until after a turn or two. Until they have an idea of how the game plays each turn, explaining that one uncommon thing that may not even happen will only serve to confuse them. If you’re going to take advantage of one of those aforementioned edge-cases though, it is imperative that your players know about it well before you actually do it. Introducing a rule and then immediately using it to gain a bunch of points will look like cheating to new players (and frankly it practically is cheating). You already have the advantage of years of board gaming experience, as well as experience in the current game, you don’t need to compound that by taking advantage of rules other players didn’t even know about.
It’s worth noting that some people prefer to skip all those things completely when teaching new players as explaining all those extra things can easily overload a new player with too much information. Feel free to do so as long as you aren’t benefiting as a result. In my experience though, that one event that almost never comes up will invariably happen when I’m teaching the game, or I’ll be in a situation where my only viable action is the one thing I didn’t cover. Do what you think is best, see how it works, and adjust accordingly.
5 – Having the right attitude
This applies to both you and your new players. For you, your focus needs to be on them having a good time, not just on winning. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to win, but if your enjoyment of the night is tied to emerging victorious against a group of first timers, you’re doing it wrong. Although I don’t generally handicap myself when playing against new players, I’ll often use the opportunity to explore other strategies, rather than the ones that I know I can make work. Additionally, I give new players a lot of leeway when it comes to taking moves back, whereas I won’t do that myself (or allow other experienced players to do it either). Prolific designer Reiner Knizia sums it up well, “When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.”
For many new players, a lot of the reluctance to play board games comes from not knowing what to expect, and a fear of seeming unintelligent. They assume that since board games are generally competitive affairs, that they’ll be brutal, cut-throat experiences (although to be fair, some games are). They’re afraid of being judged harshly for losing, while the winner gets to brag and taunt them. They’re afraid of making stupid mistakes in front of their friends and family. It’s rare to hear them say that (they may not even realize it themselves), but for many reluctant players those are their reasons for not wanting to play.
I don’t recommend addressing those concerns directly, like “It’s totally cool, we won’t think you’re dumb when you screw up!” but in a roundabout sort of way. Stress that the goal is to have fun, not just to win (especially when playing with new players). When they inevitably make mistakes, don’t be harsh on them. Don’t taunt them as you exploit some strategic blunder they just made (you probably should have pointed out their error when they were making it and given them a chance to reconsider), and don’t laugh when they get some basic rule wrong. We were all beginners once, so be understanding of their mistakes as you likely made the same sort of errors when you were starting too. Likewise, praise their skillful moves, and if they are picking up the rules and mechanics quickly, let them know!
6 – Picking the right game
The “right game” is going to be highly variable based on the types of people you’re playing with. In general, you want to select games that have straightforward, easy to understand gameplay mechanics. You want a game with enough strategic depth to be interesting to new players, but not so much that they don’t have a chance to win against skilled players. Beyond those two guidelines, there really isn’t a single game, or even type of game that will work for every person, so it’s important to have an idea of what would appeal to them and what they can handle. If you have a board game that happens to have a theme that would interest them, perfect! If they’ve got past experience with RPGs, CCGs, or even certain genres of videogames, you can likely up the complexity a bit. If they’re the competitive type, pick games that cater to that. Targeted attacks, leader bashing, and possibly even player elimination are all mechanics likely to appeal to them. On the other hand, games with rubber-banding, no targeted attacks, and co-op games (skip the betrayer variant the first time though) will work well for players that aren’t naturally competitive. Each genre has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and will be best for different types of people.
Party games: These are absolutely the easiest type of game for new players. Their simple rules, shorter play length, focus on social interaction, and built-in humor combine to make them very appealing to new players. Sadly, these sorts of games aren’t always ideal for getting people into the hobby as whole. It’s not uncommon to meet people who “don’t really play games,” yet play Cards Against Humanity once a week. If you’re starting here, ensure the next game on the list share some similarities, especially social interaction. Although Apple To Apples, Dixit, and Cards Against Humanity are all great, I prefer Say Anything! as its use of a dry erase board for each player, rather than a hand of cards, allows for much greater creativity and personalization.
Dice games: With their high degree of luck and short play time required, dice games are great for new players. Avoid ones with little player interaction (Yahtzee-clones), and focus on ones that also incorporate mechanics common in other games. Bang: The Dice Game is my number one pick here, as it has variable player powers and hidden roles.
Euro games: These games are often designed in such a way to minimize player frustration. Targeted attacks and player elimination are rare as a result, whereas hidden scores, quick turns, and rubber-banding are much more common. Euro games tend to have light, and often dry themes, which may not do a great job of drawing new players in, and if your players are looking for aggressive combat, most Euros are lacking in that regard. As before, ones with a good amount of player interaction will work best for new players. As long as your players don’t need a strong theme, most popular Euros will work though. Settlers of Catan is good (seeing as it spearheaded the explosion of popularity of designer board games), and Lords of Waterdeep is great if your players want a stronger theme. My favourite Euro for new players is an older game, Adel Verpflichtet (aka Hoity Toity), but as far as I can tell it is currently out of print.
Thematic games: Generally dripping with theme, it’s easy to see the appeal of a thematic game at a glance. “You know that thing you like? There’s a game about it!” Many thematic games can be fiddly, over-complicated, or be replete with mechanics that will turn off casual players. If a new player gets eliminated half-way through their first board game, instead of taking it on the chin, they may instead think “I just wasted half an hour just to lose while everyone else gets to keep playing without me.” Pick games that minimize those moments of frustration. Be kind with targeted attacks, picking experienced players when it’s an arbitrary choice, and justify targeting a new player when it’s the right move. And don’t complain when the new players gang up on you (maybe even encourage it if you’re winning). My personal favourites here are Tales of the Arabian Nights and Pirate’s Cove. As a paragraph game, enjoyment of Tales of the Arabian Nights comes predominantly from experiencing an interesting story, rather than just winning. Pirate’s Cove has a popular theme, combat (with semi-targeted attacks), enough luck that new players have a chance, but not so much to ruin the game for more experienced players.
Follow these guidelines and you should have much more success when introducing new people to the hobby. Tailor your game selections based on who you have joining you at the table. If your collection is lacking in diversity of gameplay mechanics, complexity, etc., consider expanding it a bit. New players may not like the same things you do, after all. Hit the comments below and share your success and horror stories about introducing people to board games, as well as sharing what games you prefer to play with beginners.