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Explaining the rules of a board game to a new player—especially someone who doesn’t really play board games often—might just be the worst aspect of this hobby. At best, you can expect an awkward few minutes as you stumble through words and hope something solid makes it way into their understanding. Nothing ruins a board game faster than poorly explained rules.
As one of the few board game enthusiasts in my social circle, I’m usually the one researching new titles, learning how they play, and introducing them to my friends whenever we get together. I still struggle with rule explanations every once in a while, but I’ve refined the process over the years and it seems like whatever I’m doing works well enough.
If you find yourself frustrated and unsure how to teach board game rules to others, check out this five-step process that I use. I hope it helps.
Important: Always engage with the board and pieces as you explain, as it helps reinforce what you’re saying. This is especially useful for players who are visual or hands-on learners, so don’t just slam them with a verbal wall of text!
Step 1: Start With the Main Objective
There’s nothing more important or essential than knowing the main objective of a game. It provides the context necessary to understand why players are playing this game and what the whole point is. Without that context, the little details and mechanics don’t matter; nothing will make sense until they know what they’re trying to do. Always lead with the main objective.
The main objective of Onitama is “to capture the opponent’s Master or move your Master onto the opponent’s Shrine.” You might have questions as to what a “Master” is, or what a “Shrine” is, or how you’re supposed to move your Master—but at least you now understand the grand point, and because you know what the end goal is, now it makes sense for me to explain those details.
Step 2: Describe the Board and Pieces
Before diving into the game’s mechanics, I find it helpful to first lay out all the components that’ll be used during the game and give players a broad view of what the game will look like as its played. If there’s a board, explain what each element does; if there are pieces or card decks, explain how they fit in relation to the main objective. This helps to solidify the bigger picture, which will then help to clarify smaller details later. (All of this should be done after the board setup is complete.)
The board in Onitama is a 5×5 grid, and players start with 1 Master piece and 4 Student pieces on opposite sides. Each player’s Shrines are designated on the board itself, and each player’s Master starts on their Shrine. The only other components to know about in Onitama are the movement cards, of which there are 16 and each one is unique. However, in each game, only 5 of the 16 movement cards are used, picked randomly. The game starts with both players possessing 2 movement cards, with 1 shared neutral movement card.
Step 3: Outline Player Actions
Once they know what they’re trying to do and what all the different pieces look like, they’re ready to learn how they’re supposed to reach that end goal. This is the time to explain what each player can do on their turn: what actions are available to them, and what are the costs and consequences of each action. It’s important to go through each action from start to finish; avoid the temptation to hop around—even to say “…unless you do this…”—because that’s liable to cause confusion.
In Onitama, players only have one action per turn: move one of their pieces by playing a movement card. All movement cards remain face-up and visible at all times. Each movement card depicts how a piece can be moved, and the player gets to choose which piece—any piece—to move according to that movement card’s depiction. Then, the played movement card is swapped with the shared neutral movement card. This means that over the course of the game, both players will constantly exchange all 5 movement cards, but only possess 2 of them at any time.
Step 4: Save Special Rules and Exceptions for Last
Once players understand the main objective and how to get there from start to finish, that’s when you start introducing the smaller details and rules—if you need to introduce them at all. Sometimes it’s best to stop at the fundamentals and only bring up special rules and exceptions as they happen in the game. It’s more important that they have a solid grasp of the primary game flow than to be mentally bogged down by too much information.
Onitama doesn’t have any special rules that I can think of, except to say that you can’t move outside the board (obvious) and if you can’t make a legal move with any piece, you still have to play and swap a movement card (not as obvious). In The Resistance, one of the special rules would be: “If five mission team proposals are vetoed in a row, that mission counts as a win for the Spies.” In The Mind, I’d leave the explanation for shurikens ’til the end.
Step 5: Walk Through a Sample Turn
Before you start a proper first game, you should run through a sample turn to really drive home the way the game is played. Up until now, you’ve likely explained the game in disjointed bits and pieces, so this is the prime opportunity to bring them all together and show how the various rules play off of each other. This is also the best time to field questions, if the players have any. With a complete turn under your belt, everyone should be at least somewhat confident that they understand how to play!
How Do You Teach Board Game Rules?
Maybe there’s a better way to do it than this. If so, please let me know! I’d love to improve on my teaching of rules so future game nights can go even smoother. Or, share your worst rules teaching experience with me in the comments!