Polymath Tabletop

Starting Out – The Teaching Games

Once upon a time, there was a 10 year old boy. He had just discovered a game that his friend played called Warhammer Fantasy, and it looked really cool. So he went to the shop his friend bought things from, and bought some models. When he got them home, he realised that the models he bought needed to be assembled and painted. He hadn’t known this and it was a surprise. Nevertheless, he used the rest of his pocket money to buy some paints and glue and soon had his very own models to play with and he was very proud of them.

Some people will find the previous story a bit nostalgic, as it will remind them of how they got into this hobby. Others will find it endearing, as a child finds wonder and excitement in something that we have all come to take for granted. Others will wonder why I’m writing about some kid on a tabletop wargaming blog, but they don’t know how the story ends yet….

The take away from the previous story is that every person is introduced to this hobby in a different way, it might be from a friend or family member, it might be through playing a board or computer game from the same universe or publisher, it might even be through just seeing an interesting display at a shop or convention and going in. But the important thing isn’t how you were introduced to the hobby, it’s what you do next. Some people will dabble, just like the child, buy a small set of models and paints, to see if they enjoy it. Others will go full bore and buy an entire army and paint set before they’ve even read the rules. Some people will borrow models and armies from friends or family, or even friendly shopkeepers, to learn the game they are interested in, before making a single purchase. No matter how a person starts out, there are always a few pitfalls to watch out for, a few things to keep in mind, and a few ideas that will make the whole process easier.

No matter the game or system you are looking at, there will be some required purchases. Most games will require you to have your own models, whether these are borrowed, bought, begged or stolen, it doesn’t matter (well, it matters a little if they are stolen). After that the other standard is dice. Majority of games use a standard die that most people would be familiar with, but some use custom ones. Getting the correct set of dice should be your next focus after the models.

Once you have models and dice, you will need the rules. Some games are moving to a more digital format, and have the rules online for free, others will require you to buy several massive leather bound tomes that demand your soul upon first opening. Either way, the best source of information on what you truly need are the local players. Check with them before buying every rulebook, as some might not be applicable for your chosen army or faction. Once you have models, dice and rules, then you should be pretty much good to go. Depending on the game, you might need tokens, widgets, measuring sticks, objectives, etc, but the large majority of these can be borrowed from an opponent for the duration of the game.

So now you have everything you absolutely need to play, what is the next step? Play games. There are no secret tips or tricks. The next step is playing games, and playing as many games as possible. The idea behind this is twofold. Firstly, it will help you learn the rules and decide if the game is right for you, and secondly, it can help direct you towards your next purchases. After a couple of games, you might find that you really enjoy a certain aspect of the game, and can steer your direction into focusing more on that. The most important thing to remember is this game is a hobby, and if you’re not enjoying it, then you’re doing it wrong. Don’t worry about building the most competitive force with the most expensive models. Learn the rules, learn the army, learn the game. Once you know what you want, then you can deep dive into it.

Looking back to the kid in the earlier story. He went into a games store and bought the models he thought were the coolest. It didn’t matter that they weren’t the most competitive, but he thought they were awesome. After he got them assembled, painted, and read the rules, he realised he needed a hero character, so that was his next purchase. Once he had that model as well, he had enough to play games and learn the game. It might have only been 2 units and a character, but it was enough. And then began the next stage of his hobby.

Your first game will likely be against either someone dedicated to teaching new players, or the person who got you interested in the hobby. Either way, there are only two outcomes that you should be trying to achieve; get a basic understanding of the game, and to have fun. If you don’t achieve these goals, then there is a decent chance that you won’t be coming back. Some games can be a lot more difficult to achieve this than others, and that can make it difficult for the community to grow. It might be the rules have quite harsh win conditions, or the new player has chosen models that don’t work together as well as they could. Whatever the reason, that first game is often the most important game of them all, and a skilled teacher can make all the difference.

I’ve said before “You should lose any game you are trying to teach”. This intent is two-fold, firstly, the new player should win their first game. This gives them a warm fuzzy feeling and will boost their enjoyment of the game, no-one really enjoys losing, so a win first up is needed. Secondly, I see it as a barrier for people to teach the game. You should know the game so well that you can throw it in an exciting manner, but still trick the new player into thinking they beat you. This could be as simple as using ineffective models compared to the new player, or overlooking some of your own special rules. Either way, once you’ve lost a couple of games, then you can start ramping up and getting back to playing properly, but smashing someone who is brand new is a foolproof way to kill the community.

The best example of this that I have experienced was teaching a new player to play Warmachine. Now, Warmachine is a very complicated game, it has multiple win conditions, a set order for activating certain models, and can easily overwhelm a new player with options. This leads to a state of “Analysis Paralysis”, where they try and think everything through before doing anything and just shut down.

To counter this, I taught people using a reduced ruleset. Straight away, we didn’t use certain types of models, these models had different rules compared to others, so removing them means there are less things to think about. I also removed several win conditions, or changed them slightly to be more in line with the remaining ones. This meant that I could focus on teaching the core rules to start with, then expanding over time. 

Overall, I planned on about 10 teaching games, with each game introducing more rules at a reasonable pace. The other thing was to naturally include models that benefited from these new rules. For example, the first couple of games didn’t include any models with an area-of-effect attack. That rule, and models with that rule, were introduced in game 3. This means that new players are always learning more about the game, but it is coming up in a very organic way. After game 6-7, they are using almost the entire set of core rules, and only have the unique rules for particular model types left to learn. 

Over the course of the 10 games, I lost all of them. My more experienced friends who watched were all able to see exactly what I was doing in the way I was teaching, and successfully threw these games to build the confidence of the new player. After I had finished teaching him, my friends overheard him talking trash about how bad I was at the game, and he didn’t know why everyone thought I was a decent player. My mate suggested he ask me for a game “without the kid gloves on”, to understand what they meant. After that game, which my mate described as “more akin to an execution than a battle”, he realised that I threw those teaching games to build his skills and confidence. After another couple of months of playing, he was a skilled enough player to attend tournaments and expect to do well. But without those early wins, he said he wouldn’t have preserved to become a better player.

If I had won all those teaching games, there is very little chance that player would have continued with the game, and if there are no new players in a gaming community, then you have a serious problem. It is in everyone’s best interest to encourage new players, help them with rules questions, give them advice on lists or tactics. Getting new people into the hobby is fantastic, as every new player is a potential new opponent or friend to enjoy this wonderful hobby with.

Now, that 10 year old we were talking about has just walked into his local game store to learn how to play. And nothing. No-one was interested in helping this kid learn the game, they all were playing their own games and didn’t want to waste their time. Now this is unfortunate for the kid, as he left after a while of watching other people enjoy the game that he wanted to play. He was quite dejected, so he started thinking that this game wasn’t for him. Luckily for him, his parents regularly took him to the local library, and he stumbled onto an old copy of a White Dwarf (a gaming magazine from Games Workshop), since no-one was going to help him learn how to play, he decided he was just going to teach himself, and read every copy of White Dwarf that the library had. About five years later, he went to his first tournament, but that is another story.

Now, most people will have been able to guess that the kid in the story was me. I did not have a good introduction to the hobby, primarily due to my age. No-one really wants to teach children to play, especially as most people have fairly limited time set aside for our hobbies, and teaching someone to play eats into that alot. So I don’t hold it against any of the players for not teaching me on that day. I know that I wouldn’t be stepping up if a kid walked in and I was asked to teach them. But that begs the question, who should be stepping up? I know some shops that have run organised teaching days, but these are few and far between. It’s a hard sell to get experienced players to give up their free time to teach people, especially when they could be playing their own games instead. So, does it fall on shop staff? It is in their best interest to get more people into the game, but a teaching game can take a while, and that’s time they aren’t serving/restocking/selling, so that makes it difficult as well. 

The issue is, it shouldn’t be any one person’s responsibility to teach new players. Sure, gaming stores and staff should be taking the lead, as it is in their financial interest to grow the hobby and the game, especially as there is usually a large range of stock that is targeted towards new players. But this will undoubtedly fail without support of the community. Without getting veteran players involved, the chore of teaching becomes that much harder. If a new player can watch several people having a great time, then it will become easier for them to weather the ups and downs of learning the game.

But when it comes down to it, it’s not really any one person’s responsibility to teach new players, it’s a job that needs to be shared throughout the community. It’s the same with organising and running events, people will get burnt out if they do all the “less fun” aspects of the hobby, so communities need to rotate around and share the workload. If everyone chips in, then it gets easier for everyone. I’ve seen multiple communities fall apart because they are not trying to grow their community. Content with the size and people they have, they slack off on promoting it, and most of the time, the community ends up dying. Whether due to issues in the community or just real life getting in the way, hobby groups always need new people and fresh blood to stay strong.

So the next time you see a new player browsing the gaming area, or watching one of your games, talk to them. They might just be bored and wandering through, or they might have an army at home, but don’t have the confidence to bring it down. They might be on the precipice and a fun chat with another hobbyist is exactly what they need. At the end of the day, a conversation isn’t going to kill you and it might be exactly what a new player needs.

Until Next Time,


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