Board games and tabletop RPGs are booming right now. They’ve hit the mainstream and regular folks are popping their heads into games nights, board game cafes and friendly local game stores to see exactly what all the fuss is about.
It can be an intimidating world. New players should feel welcomed but, like actually finding a night suitable to continue the Dungeons & Dragons campaign you started six months ago, it’s much easier in theory than in practice.
Luckily, we're here to give you a helping hand with a few things to keep in mind when trying to introduce your friends and family to some of the best family board games out there. Here are our 10 top tips on helping turn newcomers into lifelong players.
1. Choose when and where to play your first session carefully
While a board game night at a store might have the benefits of a massive library and space it does have one huge problem - strangers. Aside from the awkwardness of new players learning a game while meeting new people, you have no control over what the regulars might do or say.
You could counter this by drafting a new player into a full group but it is also worth considering how to make the new player as comfortable as possible. People are a lot more at ease in place they can eat, drink, use the loo in comfort and won’t have their ear chewed off by someone committed to explaining the subtle mechanical changes in how Celerity works in Vampire: The Masquerade.
Taking the board game into a more casual environment like the kitchen table or a quiet pub helps new players a lot. Just don’t crack open Catan at a rave. Catan is not welcomed at raves.
2. Know your audience and don’t push it
You might be able to spring a board game session on the uninitiated at a family event like Christmas and hopefully get your relatives to try something other than Monopoly and a massively out-of-date edition of Trivial Pursuit but those instances are few and far between.
If you have players who are interested in tabletop gaming but yet to move their first meeple, it may sound obvious, but try a board game matching their personality and interests. You should still have a good time - but just because you enjoy punishing mechanics representing the nihilism of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos doesn’t mean everyone will. Bear things like that in mind.
If you can’t easily convince someone to play a board game you should probably avoid it. Even one person playing under duress can sour the memories of a game for other players and they’ll blame the game. The game deserves better.
If you can’t easily convince someone to play a board game you should probably avoid it.
3. Visual appeal and brand recognition are more important than you think
Some games look prettier than others, it’s that simple. New players often haven’t had a chance to form opinions about which gameplay mechanics they like so will be hooked in by visuals and concepts. Go with it.
Once you’ve built their trust up with good-looking but simple beginner board games like Tsuro or Tokaido (any board game you might describe as 'elegant') you can move them to more mechanically-focused and complex strategy board games like Agricola or Scythe - which, to be fair, is still gorgeous but can be overwhelming.
But beware the backfire; Stranger Things Monopoly is still Monopoly and nobody wants that. It’s the same with games non-gamers have heard of; if you are sick to death of Cards Against Humanity, you can use still use it to your advantage and suggest something in a similar vein that utilises a similar core element, like party board games Funemployed or Snake Oil.
4. Start with a short game
Quick board games will be invaluable to you in your quest to convert newbies. You can introduce common mechanisms they will use in bigger board games, get a feel for what your people like, get into the competitive spirit and try a bunch quickly at low risk of alienating the new players.
Classics like Love Letter can get you thinking strategically and I’ve never met a soul that didn’t freak out over Anomia. Fluxx is great because the rules and victory conditions change every turn but be careful you don’t fall into the hole of the playthrough that won’t (or can’t) end.
In fact, you should consider speed with any game you play. A boring game is made infinitely worse by waiting for it to finish, but even games with lots of downtime between players’ turns can let boredom sink in, particularly if the game is low on player interaction.
Being outplayed or a little unlucky feels better than not having a clue what the hell just happened.
5. Tell people how to win (and how not to lose)
This is the ultimate sin but it does happen. When introducing board games to family and friends clearly state the game's objective upfront. Kill the monsters, collect resources, fill the tracker - whatever it is, just say it.
Then tell the players how they achieve that goal. Not just in terms of the mechanics, but with a little strategy advice too. A new player can be willing to play, understand the rules and still end up playing dispassionately because they don’t quite get how what they’re doing changes the game. You need to give them some agency and the sense they are contributing and succeeding. This is particularly important if the game is asymmetrical and you have different victory conditions.
Despite beginner’s luck the chances are your newcomers will still lose - but being outplayed or a little unlucky feels better than not having a clue what the hell just happened.
6. Play something you know well
Don’t set up and then dictate the rules if you can help it. For new first-timers, pick up something you know like the back of your hand, set up and jump in. You’ll already know games run best when someone in the group has played it a couple of times.
Nothing kills excitement faster than listening to someone else dictate rules you have no frame of reference for. Even if you only half-know what you’re doing, get the game rolling as best you can and frequently ask questions yourself. If you need a little help, games that come with player reference sheets can help new players keep on the right track with only a little extra guidance.
You’ll inevitably have to double-check the rules when your new player proposes a scenario or a game-breaking action the designers hadn’t even thought about. But, at least to begin with, it’s helpful to run through a dummy turn, explaining the rules as you go.
A good idea is to let new players go last. It will give them a chance to observe the game in action before they commit to that vital first gambit. Momentum is of the essence and new players aren’t going to remember eight pages of text, so often it’s best to just get on with it.
7. Try co-op games first
Winning against an opponent is great sure, but losing together can still be fun. The bittersweet feeling of losing at Pandemic by one turn, despite the death of fictional millions, is rewarding.
Co-op board games can practically eliminate player downtime as you strategise together. As you strategise together, the rules become clearer, as the rules become clear, the means of winning is more understandable. It’s the triple threat.
The danger here is if you know the game particularly well (and you’re good at it) you must avoid steamrolling your teammates. If your lust for victory is greater than your interest in giving new players a good first experience, you can easily end up making them little more than cardholders. Don’t be a dictator; let them make mistakes and admonish them later.
If your lust for victory is greater than your interest in giving new players a good first experience, you can easily end up making them little more than cardholders.
8. Mistakes happen and time travel is very useful
If co-op games aren’t your preferred flavour or you have a hyper-competitive new player, beginner mistakes allow you to invoke the ancient time-travelling spell “Let’s just say that didn’t happen”.
Undoing a new player’s turn and giving them a helping hand with what they should have (or could have - they might have a plan) done stops them from hamstringing themselves early on and can keep the game relatively competitive while teaching them a little bit more about the game. This is really helpful in trading card games and living card games where the order can make a galaxy of difference.
9. Make it fun!
Make this your mantra and apply it to every other tip. It’s okay to make mistakes, play with house rules, skip over some awful mechanic or not let the rules lawyer play with you and hover over a new player’s shoulder if it maintains the fun. You can go back and amend all those things for future games - for now, just make it fun.
Don't forget: playing is the enjoyable part, not the winning. If winning was the only important thing, you could just call heads or tails on a flipped coin all evening. You’d win half the time, after all.
Don't forget: playing is the enjoyable part, not the winning.
10. Remember board games aren’t for everyone - yet
They say board games are like whiskey; you don’t dislike it, you just haven’t found the right one. On the other hand, there are so many games and not enough time to play them all. Once you’ve had a game with a new player, ask them what they did or didn’t like about it, and what they did or didn’t understand. A few might declare it was all a mistake and that they never want to see another die or meeple as long as they live, but that hardly ever happens.
It can take time and a little bit of effort to get into board games, but more and more people are converting. Once you have some feedback you can reassess your approach, their interest and understanding, and finally ask the all-important question: “Fancy another game?”