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The Dad Game: Learning a new game without the angst

Saturday, May 10, 2014 - 12:01 am

There's something magical about that moment when you bring home a cool new game from your friendly local game store.

It's exciting. There's a marvelous anticipation in the air. You can almost feel the fun that you and your family will have when the game hits your table.

Of course, there's also a gap between the anticipation and the actual fun. We call that gap “learning how to play.”

And depending on how you do it, that gap can be an adventure unto itself or a descent into the Pit of Despair.

Nobody wants to end up frustrated and irked with a new-game-gone-wrong, so let's break this process down and take a step-by-step jaunt through the gentle art of learning to play your new game.

It's time to unpack

Learning a game naturally breaks into several steps.

The first involves unpacking the game, punching out the pieces, organizing the bits (that's the technical term for a game's wooden or plastic playing pieces), and laying everything out on the table where you can see it.

This easy ritual simplifies your life and almost automatically lowers your frustration. It's especially important if you're new to European board games, because sometimes the amount of stuff in the box can feel overwhelming.

Do this step a few nights before you plan to teach and play the game with your family. You need some time to look at the game by yourself without any distractions or little fingers swiping shiny things (because that kind of thing regularly happened at my house when the kids were little).

Don't try to unwrap and learn a game from scratch during your family game night. That will just annoy everybody (including you), and lead to enough frustration, angst, and ennui to potentially start a small-scale revolt. In short, it won't be fun.

Find the rules

With the game's parts laid out in front of you, it's time to pick up the rules.

Some European games include materials in multiple languages, so you may have to sort through several copies of the rules or flip through a bound rules booklet to find the version written in English.

With the rules in hand, locate the section that explains the game's overall idea. This may be a simple paragraph of text at the beginning of the rules, or a specific section with a heading like “What The Game Is About.” This gives you a frame for learning everything else about the game.

It may seem like I'm making a big deal out of nothing here, but this step is really important because it build the framework for understanding everything else about the game. As adults, we learn best when we have a rough idea of where we're going. Trust me on this one.

Meet the pieces

Next, take a quick inventory of the game's pieces and parts. Most games give you an exhaustive list of components covering everything that comes in the box.

Sort the different cards, tokens, pieces, and so on to make sure your game is complete.

While you do this, pay attention to the names that the rules gives for different pieces or decks of cards. Once you know the parts, you're better prepared to learn how the game works.

Find the goals

Game rules always include a section on how to win. Depending on the designer and the editor, this tidbit of information either starts or ends the rules.

Once you find the “How to Win” section, read it. Knowing the goal of the game as you read the rest of the rules adds another piece to the framework we started building in the “What This Game Is About” section.

Most European games operate by victory points. You might track these with victory point counters or with a token that you move along a section of the board.

(This is also why you took a moment to inventory the game's pieces and parts before doing anything else. Few things are as frustrating as trying to learn a game when you're missing some pieces.)

At this point, you know where you're going and you met all of the counters and bits that will help you get there. Next time, we'll dive into learning the rules themselves.

Fort Wayne resident John Kaufeld is a best-selling author, speaker and dad. He enjoys playing games with his family and letting others know about them. You can email him at and read more of his work at This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.