Buried in rule-books

Design Theory – To write a good rule-book, follow the rules.

A good rule book can make the heart of any game designer beat faster. Keeping rules clear and to the point however is a difficult task. Nevertheless, the greats of the industry such as Fantasy Flight Games have upped their level of teaching their games. But what makes a good rule-book great?

You won’t always personally be around to teach and explain your game, so your rules or rule-book will serve as the gateway to your game. You want your reader to easily understand and grasp the concepts of your game so they can have the experience you designed for them. This arguably makes your rule-book one of the most important elements of your game. If your player doesn’t make it through your rules because they are poorly written they can’t play your game!

A rule-book is a strange thing. It doesn’t only teach your game but also serves as a reference. So it needs to be clear, engaging, and structured. Taking all I have learned from writing design documents and rules, and the greats of the industry, I tried to look at what makes a good rule-book great. To write good rules you need to follow the rules.

Picture from Pub Meeple – http://www.pubmeeple.com/review-star-wars-rebellion/
A moment for Clarity

Because clarity is at the heart of getting any point across, it is the most important rule of all. Keeping your rules clear and to the point might seem like an obvious thing to bring up, but I have seen many instances where this goes wrong.  Now, keeping it “clear and to the point” is a broad concept so let me break it down.

You should always assume your reader is unfamiliar with your game and has never read your rules before. Therefore, every concept, rule, and exception is a new one. To prevent confusion and the need for your reader to backtrack or skip ahead, try not to explain more then one concept in one section. Keep in mind a “concept” does not necessarily mean one rule. Think of a concept as “movement” or “actions” etc.

Consistency is key. Before you start writing your rules, write down a full list with your terminology. This ensures you keep referring to the different elements of your game with consistency throughout your rule book. In the end this also ensures each player has the same vocabulary, making it easier to talk about your game and reference the rules.

Your rules are not your story. I love adding flavor to a game, but your rules are not the place to do so. Especially when your rule-book also serves as a reference you don’t want players to read through pages of fluff and descriptive story to get to the essence of a rule. Try and write your rules, using normal language and in plain english (or any other language). This by any means doesn’t mean your rule-book has to be boring. You could (and should!) incorporate story elements, like comics or short stories in between you rules. When you do try and make them distinctive and easily (visually) separable from your actual rules.

Frame that game

To help your reader better interpret and understand what they are about to read you should provide your readers with a frame of reference or context. Before you start spewing rules briefly explaining the setting, genre and story of your game. Simply put, tell them about your game and what they can expect when playing it. This wil help your reader form a mental picture of what your game is, and what its about. Is it a game about an epic war between two huge armies or a game about buying and selling vegetables. Drawing on a readers own understanding of your subjects can help them grasp more complex concepts with more ease. Reading about hyper jumps and lasers should make much more sense when you know you are reading about a science fiction game.

However, be cautious to make any assumptions based on the information you provide. You should always assume your reader is unfamiliar with your game, your games genre and has never read your rules before. Don’t get to hung up on comments from gamers complaining they already know half of the things you explain. You are not just making your rule-book for the avid gamer, but also for new players!

Structured Mess

To help a reader understand your rules it’s a good idea to start zoomed out, looking at your game on a macro level, providing topics and concepts one by one. Where possible try to capture what would be needed to teach it in it’s most basic form. Right away you can omit thing like rare exceptions, and complex alternative situations. After the birds eye view you can zoom in and explain the details and exceptions. Doing so, just like framing your game, will help your reader grasp more complex detailed rules with more ease because they have a basic understanding of the broader concepts.

But what do you explain first? What can help is looking at your game in terms of player actions. What is the first thing they do? Usually, setting up the game. Start there. What are the next steps a player has to take? What is the action they will most likely do first? Move a figure? Roll a dice? Draw cards? List all these steps and try to group them logically by type. For instance keeping different “actions” a player can take together. You are then likely to have a pretty good flow of how to structure your rules.

Teaching your Game

A rule-book is a list of all your rules, but how they combine and interact with each other to form your game can be hard for some people to imagine. Often I catch myself saying, “We’ll just play it and you’ll get it”, or “I’ll go first and show you what to do” when explaining a game. And for a good reason. We humans are designed to learn from mimicking, coping and imitating behavior and actions. This is off-course why we love watching video’s of games being played and teaching us how they are played. So how can we make our rule-book a teacher and not just a list of rules?

The first step is, like in the rule-book from Cephalofair Games’ Gloomhaven, to use “Examples of Play”. An example of play is an step-by-step description, often augmented with images, of how a certain element, phases or mechanic plays out in your game. In a way examples of play work the same as someone showing you how a games work. They often omit why something is done and focus more on how something is done. Off course the why should be clearly explained in the rules.

Example turn from the Warhammer 40K rules PDF
Learn to Play

But you can take an example of play one step further. A good trend are the separate “learn to play” and “rule reference” books. Something Fantasy Flight Games executes very well. A learn to play book takes a player by the hand guiding them through their very first play through. Sometimes even listing what actions to take and how to perform them. Again Fantasy Flight Games included a Learn to Play book with their most recent release of the new miniature wargame Star Wars Legion. In the book they really focused on conveying the true basics of the game, before adding more complicated rules. Leaving out rules (such as line of sight) many other wargames would consider most basic. The book provided an easy and accessible way of playing the game which was just as enjoyable as the full game, but much easier to get into!

If this bold move teaches us anything it is to not be afraid to omit what seem important concepts or elements if it helps to teach your game. Rather then drown readers in complicated rules and systems taking them ages to get going, start simple and add rules later. Remember, guiding a players first steps (for instance by using a learn to play) will ensure players have a good first experience with your game. Always get them playing as soon as possible!

Show don’t tell

Some elements of your game can be hard to explain, but are easy to visualise. Try using images whenever you can. Images can greatly improve the clarity of your rules and honestly make a rule-book look a whole lot more interesting. As a rule of thumb, if you catch yourself visually describing an element of your game, consider showing an image of it instead. Use annotations and explanations where appropriate to elaborate on any images. Keep in mind images also make for easy references. Referencing an image is much easier then reading a whole section trying to figure out where a specific thing is located on a component.

And don’t forget the visual component list… A basic but whenever you can, show a list of your components and their names. Whenever a player is looking for the “flumple” token, he or she will know what it looks like.

Test it out!

Don’t just test your game, also test your rules. The only way to test if your rules are clear is to let someone with no experience of your game read them! Get some test readers by posting your rules on forums like Board Game Geek. Setup a test session where you let people read your rules and explain them back to you or play your game. Then observe what concepts or actions are unclear. Don’t be afraid to re-write!

Let your game teach your game?

This whole article has been focused on writing rules and thus teaching your game with a rule-book. Another interesting approach is letting your game teach your game. In the videogame industry this is off course already widely implemented leading to the death of the instruction booklet. Nowadays each videogame features some sort of tutorial, tutorial world, or learn by doing feature. In my next article I’ll give my views on how this can be achieved for tabletop games!


For now thank you for reading and let me know in the comments what your tips would have for designers struggling with their rules!


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