There are people who go cold at the sight of a board game rulebook and will do anything to avoid reading it. There are others who love them and can be found curled up on a sofa, happily reading rulebooks for games they have no intention of playing any time soon. Most of us are somewhere in between… it’s a necessary annoyance that we must navigate to actually play the game. 

Rulebooks are as diverse as the games they teach. They can be as short as a page (or less) or run to many hundreds of pages (this is not an exaggeration). Some contain page upon page of dense text in small font, others are visions of modern desktop publishing with beautiful images giving examples of play. And of course, some rulebooks are really well written and others are poorly structured and hard to understand. 

What’s in a rule book?

Most rulebooks follow a similar format, though there are (of course) exceptions. 

  • Overview: Usually explaining the setting of the game and setting up your role within it. 
  • Components: A list of components, hopefully with pictures to help you identify them.
  • Set up: How to get ready for a game – which bits go where, what each player needs etc.
  • How to play: Explaining how each phase, round and/or turn works and what actions & reactions can take place. 
  • End game: What triggers the end of the game.
  • Scoring or victory conditions: How you get points (this may be earlier on). 
  • Reference pages: What individual cards or tokens mean. 
  • Variations: The solo game, advanced game and any other variants. (Not in all rulebooks).

Ten Tips for Learning Games

The more rulebooks you read, the easier it will become to teach yourself a game in this way. But if you’re struggling to get your head around them, here are some tips that might help…

Tip 1: Learn the game on your own, well in advance of teaching it to anyone else. Give yourself enough (ideally uninterrupted) time to properly learn the game. Clear an hour or two in your diary, find a good table in a quiet space and get comfy. 

Tip 2: Don’t just read the instructions, do them. Set up the game on the table. I usually set the game up for the minimum player count for the main game. So if it’s a 2-4 player game with a solo variant that alters the game, I’d set up for 2 players (unless the intention is that you play on your own and don’t teach anyone else). 

Tip 3: Make sure you get familiar with the names of all the components. If there is just one set of cards, a few dice and the board, that’s going to be easy, but if there are multiple decks of cards, several different tokens and a range of custom dice, it’s more complicated. If you need to, use post-it notes near components on the table to remind yourself what they are called. This will help you as you read about how the components are used and interact with each other.

Tip 4: Don’t skip the overview. It won’t tell you how to play, but it will often explain why you are doing what you are doing. The overview usually gives an indication of the end goal or victory condition, which helps to get the mechanics of how you play the game into context. 

Tip 5: Watch a quick ‘How to Play’ video before you tackle the ‘How to Play’ section of the rule book. Search YouTube by by typing in “How to play Wingspan” for example. Or go directly to the Watch It Played channel run by Rodney Smith where you’re almost certain to find your game. Rodney specialises in creating videos that teach board games clearly and visually so that you don’t have to rely solely on the rulebook. When you’ve watched the video, carry on with the rulebook. You’ll already have an idea of how to play, which will make the rulebook easier to digest. When you’ve finished, re-watch the video if you need to. (How to Play videos for Dark Imp games can be found here).

Tip 6: Get to grips with scoring and victory conditions. Make sure you really understand how to win and how the points are tallied. Many modern board games give players multiple ways of scoring points (known as a ‘point salad’ game) or multiple routes to victory. Many ‘point salad’ games come with a sectioned custom score pad, where scores for different areas are placed on different rows. This acts as a useful reference guide for learning and then teaching the game to others. 

Tip 7: Get familiar with the player aids. The player aids, which are cards or smallish sheets of paper, will give you a quick rules reminder. They may outline the actions available to you or give an overview of the phases of each round. Player aids will usually explain the iconography used in the game and reduce your need to refer back to the rulebook during a game.

Tip 8: Now play the game yourself… on your own. Play it as multiple players. My granny used to play Scrabble on her own – left hand vs right hand – and I uphold the same tradition. If it’s a simple game, playing just a round or two will be enough, but if the game is more complex or if the gameplay significantly changes the further you progress, you may find it useful to play through a whole game. It really helps to consolidate the learning. It’s easier to retain the rules if you’ve actually played the game, rather than just watched someone else play, or read about playing. Of course, it’s not easy to do this if there is an element of speed, bluffing or hidden information.

Tip 9: If you’re still struggling, search for a ‘playthrough’ video, where someone else is playing through a whole game so you can really get a feel for how it works. Play along at the same time and pause the videos as you make your own decisions. 

Tip 10: Come back to the rulebook after your first or second games with other people. You’ve almost certainly got a few small rules wrong and now you can double-check to catch anything you missed. This is also a good time to look at an advanced variant or solo version (if these are available).

As a last resort… 

If you really can’t stand to read a rule book and the videos aren’t helping, then find someone who is happy to learn and get them to teach it to you. 

Ready to teach the game to others?

Check out this video on how to teach new games to your family