Game Design

How I Learn New Games

Gnome Stew - 25 January 2019 - 5:00am

January is the time of the year when I am often learning a new game to run for my home group. This time around, we are gearing up for Spire by Grant Howitt & Chris Taylor. When it comes to learning a new game, especially a bigger game, I have a method for how to learn it. It’s not really a deliberate method, though it may bear some thought on to how to make this into a more structured process. But, I wanted to share with you, as I am in the middle of this process right now.

Class Is In Session

When it comes to learning a new game, I am looking to learn more than just the rules of the game. Don’t get me wrong, the rules are critical, but they are not the only part of the game that you have to learn if you want to be able to run the game effectively. When you are learning a new game you are really learning the following things:

  1. Rules – mechanics and procedures.
  2. Setting – the world(s) where the game takes place, the cultures, etc.
  3. Genre – the relevant tropes, and trappings for the type of game you are playing.

When you are starting to learn a new game, you can start by figuring out the difficulty for each of these areas, relative to your own skills and experience, and then prioritize them in terms of what you need to learn. If you are running a game in a setting you know, then setting will be easier, or if you have run a number of Powered by the Apocalypse games and you are running another PbtA game, you are going to be more familiar with the mechanics.

If we now look at Spire, starting with the description:

You are a dark elf. Your home, the towering city of Spire, was occupied by the high elves two hundred years ago. Now, you have joined a secret organization known as the Ministry, a paramilitary cult with a single aim – to overthrow the cruel high elves and restore the drow as the rightful rulers of the city.

What – or who – will you sacrifice to achieve your aims? Will you evade the attention of the authorities, or end up shot in the street like so many before you?

So, picking up the book here is what I know. The mechanics are new so they are unknown to me, but Grant’s style tends to be lighter – so that is a plus. The setting is new and novel, so that is something I don’t know about, and I suspect learning this new world will be the heavy lift for me. The genre is fantasy and resistance/revolution. I am pretty solid on fantasy tropes, and resistance/revolution is one of my favorite genres, so I know that this will be the easiest part of the game for me.

So picking up the book I have two questions I want to find out:

  1. How complicated are the mechanics?
  2. How intricate is the setting? (That is to say, how much of the setting do I have to memorize to effectively run the game).

With those questions in my mind, I can then start reading the game and directing my focus as I read to answer these questions.

Learning Methods

When I am learning a new game, I often rely on more than just the game to help myself get up to speed. The game itself is key, but there are other things I can tap into to help me get oriented and acclimated.


When it comes to the rules of the game I use the following sources:

  • The Core Book – First and foremost, the mechanics of the game as written by the designer. This is the first source for learning the game.
  • Actual Plays – Listening to APs are a great way to learn the game, but many APs cut corners on the rules or edit some of the dryer parts out, so they are a good way to get a general feel, but will never replace the Rules.
  • Making Cheat Sheets – If a game lacks cheat sheets, then making your own is a great way to solidify the game in your head.
  • The Core Book – Again, the core book is going to be the main source of the setting and the first place you should look. Most will have chapters dedicated to the setting for their game.
  • Supplements – Many larger games have separate setting supplements. These are, of course, great sources for info, but may be more than you need for getting your game started. Often when I am starting a game I skip these until I am sure the game is going to take off.
  • Adventures – I am 50/50 on running published adventures, but I will always read them for more setting info.
  • Other related media – If a setting has fiction, comics, or movies, these are a great source for more setting info as well. You want to balance the knowledge gained and getting trapped in canon.
Genre  …the core book does not always spell out what the tropes and important genre elements are. Share8Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
  • The Core Book – Now here is where the core book does not always spell out what the tropes and important genre elements are. Some games do this specifically and others expect you to pull it from the setting material.
  • Other related media – you will have to pull the info for the genre out of this material, as it is never spelled out. But if you consume enough of this media, you will start to see the tropes and other conventions. A number of games will have an Appendix N or other lists of media inspirations that you can use to do your research.
  • TV Tropes – This gold mine and time sink is the best place to look at tropes for any genre or media. Be warned, you will get lost in reading when you go here. Set a timer before you click.
Getting Your Learn On

When you are polygamerous, learning games is something you have to do all the time, and I wind up learning a few games a year. The faster you can learn them the more games you can play. Learning a game, and being prepared to run it, is no small task – and having an efficient method for learning and getting a game ready to play is a valuable tool for any GM to have.

Over the years, I have cobbled together this method above, but it is one that works for me quite well. What about you? Do you have a method for learning new games?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

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Download: Gnomecast #58 – Meet a New Gnome: Jen Adcock

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Follow Jen at @JenKatWrites on Twitter, check out her website First Sight Second Thoughts, and support her on Patreon at

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter, or find her in the Misdirected Mark Google+ Community.

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