Table Manners: Of Questions & Rules

William T. Thrasher


If there is one think that qualifies us as gamers it is this; We gather and we game. And yet, dispute years of experience with gaming and gamers, many participants in this hobby have no sense of etiquette when it comes to other players. While this hobby has been around for decades, it often seems like no structured guidelines for etiquette have ever developed beyond the tried and true axiom, "Don't touch another man's dice." My own experience has shown me that many bad habits hang like a cloud over the gaming table. With Table Manners, we shall explore those habits and seek to rectify them.

Between role-playing games, tactical board games, and card games, we are surrounded by a storm of rules ranging from the deceptively simple (Settlers of Catan) to the needlessly complex (the ballistics treatise that is Phoenix Command). Every new game comes with a learning curve and the expectation that the rules will be learned and taught by the players. It is in trying to live up to that expectation that we run headlong past utopia and stumble into dystopian miasma.

Imagine the scene. Six people have gathered to play Twilight Imperium. Only two of the players have ever played before, and only one of them has read the entire rule book and errata. The galaxy is mapped out, and as the game enters it's third turn one of the players mobilizes his invasion force towards another players fortified colony. A skirmish is about to ensue on the board when the defending players asks a question about the rules governing his Planet Defense System. Immediately four voices ring out, each competing with each other to provide a different answer to the question. Answers, mind you, that are coming from people who have only played the game for two full turns.

Anyone with experience in table top gaming has seen this scene replayed countless times while playing countless games.  But the scene is born out of players trying to help players, and players who believe that if they know any rule, they must know all the rules. Competing with other players to answer a rules quires helpful in a thoroughly unhelpful way. When a player gets multiple answers from multiple people on a single rules question it creates confusion, slows down play, and necessitates taking time to quiet everyone down and look the rule up in the book. But confusion will remain. Human memory is a slippery thing. Misquoted our outright incorrect rules barked in response to the question will linger in the player's mind. If you have to look a rule up once, your going to end up looking it up three more times.

How do we counter this? My own guideline in simple. Whenever there are new or inexperienced players at the table I make it clear that if a rules question is asked, let only one person at the table answer it. That person should either be the owner of the game being played, the host of the game (when playing in a private residence), and/or the participant who has the most experience in the game. Most of the time this turns out to be the same person, and it works. Play proceeds more smoothly, fewer rules must be looked up, and voices can be saved for good natured ribbing.

Who is the most qualified person to answer rules questions? Find that person and let everyone know who it is. And make sure they don't mind.