How Board Games Helped Me Teach Art

In 2009, I was introduced to a game called Settlers of Catan (since renamed just “Catan”). Leading up to my first game, I didn’t know what to expect. I had been told that it was a fun game by a coworker, while another friend of mine said she enjoyed playing it with her family. Neither of them told me that it would lead to over a decade of immersion into the hobby of board games.

Yet that’s what it did. I was fully hooked. My developing appetite for gaming eventually coincided with a new group of friends that I had gained through church, many of whom loved getting around a table and locking horns or furrowing their brows amid strategy and laughs. We all began to appreciate the ingenuity and creativity of modern games, me foremost. I especially enjoyed researching games in order to bring something new to the table and see what everybody thought. It was addicting. It was expensive.

It was a lot to learn. And a lot to teach.

In contrast to mobile games and modern video games, both of which have incorporated their rules of play into tutorial stages, ramping up the challenge and introducing new rules over time, board games still come with a big manual. In order to even set up a game, the rules need to be assessed. Rules checks happen manually, not automatically, so you must know the ins and outs of every game you are planning to play. As the teacher, an understanding of the rules is essential, but you also must help the other players gain a general understanding. Depending on the game, it can be a lot to absorb and a lot to break down.

When I started designing my own curriculum for teaching and learning oil painting principles, I didn’t really know where to begin. There is a lot involved in painting, most of which relies on an understanding of drawing (an entirely different branch of learning) and some of which can get very advanced or even esoteric. Understanding of art history, knowledge of historical figures in painting and their methods, as well as basic design concepts are all incredibly helpful for artists to paint well. Finding mediums of inspiration, such as books, music, poetry, photography, film, animation, scripture, etc, also plays a large part in creating art. Having good work ethic, good health practices, and good social understanding can be indispensable. The more elements you dive into, the more new elements reveal themselves.

That’s sure more than any incoming freshman needs to explore in an introductory painting class.

When I first started teaching new board games, I made a few mistakes along the way that helped me develop better techniques that kept the interest of my listeners. Not being very helpful, I used to describe games in terms of mechanisms, as eyes would slowly glaze over and players would gradually slide their phones out of their pockets to check the time or see if there was anywhere else to be. I didn’t set the stage.
Players need to know what they’re getting into with the theme, the setting, and the stakes. This is where broad strokes of the subject come into play, before narrower details are revealed through deconstruction. If they can be hooked by the idea or premise presented to them, the rest is just details.

If I start a painting class by explaining how brushes differ from each other and how to mix paint and how to apply paint in layers, I’m getting ahead of myself. These are all really great and interesting subjects, but I’ve buried the lead. The most obvious reason a person would take a painting class is because they like painting. Another reason is that they have seen paintings they like and want to learn more about how to do those things themselves. My job is to keep them excited about painting.

First and foremost, helping them see the big picture holding everything together under its wings, is how they will more gladly explore the nooks and surprises held within. Showing them the overall goal of painting, the rewards and satisfaction that can be found – that’s what keeps a person engaged in learning. Then they may even find the parts to be engaging and will find specific methods that they love and aspects that they don’t desire to pursue. It can become their own.

In teaching games I also found that drawing comparisons to relatable ideas was helpful. Most people have played Monopoly or Life at some point, so if there is a game where players land on a space to take an action, I could draw that comparison. Games that revolved around creating sets of cards could easily be compared to Poker or Rummy, games with dice that could be rolled then rolled again are like Yahtzee, and games that have social deduction and hidden roles could be compared to Mafia or Werewolf. Finding those familiar connections often help to put players at ease about learning.

Music, poetry, writing, etc, are all great comparisons to be made in the world of visual art. Rhythms, symbolism, and textures are all found throughout art mediums. Structure and design are utilized. Having a general framework that then becomes more detailed and intricate is found with each. Songs have a key, a chord progression, and melody. Books have a theme, a story progression, and characters. Paintings have a composition, a subject, and a color palette. There are further specifics that could be unfolded, but you get my drift.

I think the best advice of all when teaching anybody anything, whether it be a game or art, is to know that they will understand it better over time. Everybody has had that experience of playing a game with a veteran player who goes for the kill immediately, when the new players don’t have a firm grasp of the rules. It can forcefully turn the new person off to the whole idea of playing. It’s my conviction that first games with new players should never be super competitive, but should be viewed as “learning games” or practice. When I was a kid, we would do things “for practice” before doing things “for reals” and it helped us get comfortable with what we were doing. Professionals in all fields still do things to warm up or get comfortable and it is no sign of weakness to do so.

Learning can be difficult. It will always be easier if the person who is guiding you is humble enough to be patient, lose the ego, and get on your level for a little while. Evaluation will come naturally, but education must come first.

While I am still growing everyday as an instructor, it is without a doubt a tremendous help to have learned the hard way how not to do things as a teacher with something as trivial as board games. I don’t always have the best methods and still sometimes fumble over these things. Yet I try to stick to the basic principles that I’ve outlined briefly in this blog.

Big ideas first (theme, setting, goal).
Familiar elements (compared to known quantities).
No pressure environment (“losing” doesn’t matter).

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