How to Teach A Game
It's a given. If you own games and want people to play them with you, you are going to have to teach people how to play. It can be a daunting task; you may think that you have to know everything, or if you make a mistake, people will hate you and never want to play with you again. None of these things are true. In fact, it can be a fun and rewarding experience. Here are my tips on teaching games that will help you and your group get playing faster and, hopefully, want to play again.
1. Be excited about the game you are about to teach
It seems obvious, but if you don't have any passion for the game, that is going to come across. When the players first sit down, they are looking at a board, tokens, cards, and whatnot that have no meaning whatsoever to them. If you are bringing a sense of excitement to the table, that will show and let them know that you are committed to having a good time, and you are not going to leave them hanging.
2. Read the rulebook
Well, duh. I go into it more in this post on how to read a rulebook. The gist is that you don't need to memorize it, but want to know it well enough to find an answer quickly to a rules question. It's perfectly ok to say “I don’t know” and look up stuff as you are playing. Players are goin to ask questions and likely not the ones you would expect.
3. Lead with how to win, everything should tie into that
In a rules instruction, nothing causes confusion as much as not explaining what the damn point is of it all. Moving a cube here or playing a card here doesn't make any sense unless players understand why they would want to do that. That can be tricky, especially with eurogames that use a lot of icons or others that have a lot of interconnected actions. There are going to be situations in games that have a lot of synergy in mechanisms that will difficult to explain. For example, if a game begins with a draft, players won't know what to look for in the cards to make an informed choice. You might want to show an open hand and explain why they would want a particular card, or maybe set up cards beforehand.
So, everything should be framed in context to winning. Saying, "I do X to get Y for Z to happen because Z is the way to get points to win." As all the threads are connected, player will get to the “aha! I got it” moment faster.
4. Only explain what's necessary to get started
Rules explanations should not be more than five minutes of instruction, never go over 10. You are going to lose attention spans, and people cannot retain that much information going forward. Even if it's Twilight Freaking Imperium, you gotta trim it down. So it is up to you to be able to nail down the most essential aspects to jump in and not overwhelm your players.
A good example is the combat in Eclipse. Any conflict between players is likely not going to happen for a few rounds. So briefly explain how combat works theoretically and get into the mechanics when a dispute breaks out, not before. By then, players' brains will have the room to receive more instructions.
Cheat sheets are great. Some games include them. I sometimes have made them myself or use these game aids from Universal Head. Be careful, though. Hand out cheat sheets after your initial explanation. If you hand them out right away, I guarantee players will read them and not pay attention to you. This goes with all the components, really. The more stuff you give them that has words on it, the more they will be distracted by it. Only give them what they need to get started.
Cooperative games are a breeze in this regard because you can literally teach as you play. Just tell everyone the basics and guide as you play the first round.
5. Fill in the blanks, coach the first round. Be the first player.
Once you start, go slowly and narrate your actions. I've discovered when I do that, other players will follow your lead and verbalize their actions as well. That will help you to coach and catch mistakes (even your own). If you need a do-over and start over again, by all means.
Also, explain why you are doing the things you are doing from a strategic standpoint. "I'm placing X here because I need Y next turn" or something like that. Then quit explaining in the next few rounds, let them figure out why on their own.
6. Don't steamroll new players in competitive games. Don't alpha in co-ops.
It may be tempting to use that "go-to" strategy in a game you have played many times, but I recommend using a different approach or play a different style than you are used to and make it a level playing field for all. Also, don't be an alpha player in cooperative games and tell everyone what to do. There may be an obvious move, but allow others to see it first; point it out only if no one gets it. Teach the rules, but don't teach the strategies. Let them figure it out.
7. Have fun, but prepare to lose.
I usually lose “teaching games”. My focus is on making sure that people are getting it, so I'm not concentrating as much on my own play. I also make mistakes, but that's an excellent opportunity to point out what you did and explain it. You don't have to be perfect at it. Accept the loss! And have fun. This is why we are playing games in the first place!