Ruling the Roost

  (image by Country Craft House)

(image by Country Craft House)

This post is about boardgame rulebooks. The following represents my opinions on the subject – the elements I consider to be necessary for a rulebook to be good, and the things that I consider to be mistakes that are commonly made in writing them. This article describes the process that I use when creating rulebooks for my own games, and my reasons for doing so. Although I cite specific examples of design elements that I agree and disagree with, I do not do so to disparage any other’s work. You may not agree with my opinions, but I welcome comments, other examples, and suggestions for improvements.

Writing a rulebook is hard. You need to play the part of designer, technical writer, editor, teacher, and reference encyclopedia while ensuring that the end product is clear, easy to read, easy to understand, un-repetitive, clear, and absolutely most importantly without a doubt... short.

A rulebook must serve the needs of all audiences who may read it, from someone who is trying to learn the game without the benefit of a teacher, to someone browsing to see if they might be interested in the game, to an experienced player who simply needs a quick clarification on a rule. This is where a lot of rulebooks break down, they are written by people who understand the game intimately and end up either overexplaining or leaving critical information unsaid.

The ultimate goal of a rulebook should be to provide the information the reader requires, at the moment that they need it, and at the level of detail that they need it at. A rulebook needs just as much playtesting as the game itself to ensure that when you walk dusting your hands at a job well done, a player can pick up the book and experience the game in a way that you have worked so hard to build.

Purpose

The purpose of a rulebook is overwhelmingly mechanical, its primary objective is to clearly communicate the rules of the game. At no point should the theme or trappings of the game interfere with that. With this in mind, a rulebook can be broken up into three distinct sections:

  1. Introduce the game
  2. Teach a new player how to play the game
  3. Serve as a reference and arbiter for specific game rules and questions, and clarify ambiguity.

This article will deal with each of these sections individually. A simple game or one with very few or simple rules may blend these sections seamlessly. However, in the overriding interest of clarity, it may be more effective to start by writing each section as a separate document and combining them later. In the end, a stilted, awkward rulebook with poor consistency between sections that is still clear, organized, and unambiguous serves its purpose far better than the most elegant prose that contradicts itself or leaves out important information entirely.

Section 1: Introduce the Game

First Task: Sell the game.

The rulebook introduction is your chance to sell the game. And you do need to sell it. Although your game may have already been purchased by someone, a good rulebook intro is the difference between a game that is sold and a game that gets played.

Imagine sitting down at a table with your friends, and one of them pulls out a new game that none of you have ever played before. The box looks shiny and cool (which gets you to the table), but what is the first thing you do?

Ed. -- Ok, ok - I agree. The first thing I do is load up YouTube and search for the game on Watch It Played. But let's assume that we are a group that doesn't do that, or (heaven forbid!) they don't have an episode for this game yet.

You open the box, take a moment to marvel at the bits and pieces inside, and grab the rulebook. At this point the game is at the table, but the players are not yet invested in it. They can still push it aside or play something else they already know without losing any time. Chances are the new players around the table haven't necessarily been sold on playing it yet. A confusing, unclear, poorly written, off-putting, or even wall-of-text rulebook can easily lead a player to simply drop it and say "I'm out!".

So how do you sell the game and change "Let's take a look at this one" into "Alright! Let's play!"?

Selling the Game

The Elevator Pitch

The classic scenario is this: You get on an elevator and a potential customer gets on with you. You have the length of the elevator ride (about 30-seconds) to convince them to buy what you are selling. Go!

In a short paragraph or two you need to pitch the game by stating:

  1. What the game is (describe it in 1 sentence)
  2. What the game is about (the theme, purpose, or inspiration)
  3. What the objective is (the thing a player should focus on doing while playing)
  4. A compelling reason for the player to care (the pitch, why is this game interesting, unique, creative, or fun?)

The order of these elements is not important, but a good intro will have all of them included clearly and concisely. This introduction will serve as the player's base understanding of the game that all future rules will be built on top of. Those later rules will be interpreted based on the foundation that you set for them.

Failing to write a good introduction will leave the reader confused and lost until they are able to glean an understanding of these elements from the rulebook. If these base items are scattered about, the reader will be inclined to disregard the information they read as inconsequential until they 'get it'. The result is a book that requires a player to read it multiple times before they understand how to play, and in doing so they may skip or miss important parts. Missing rules leads to confusing or frustrated gameplay, which leads to a poor impression of your game that may result in it not getting a second play.

Theme Carefully

As much as you might desire to wax poetic and paint grand visions of railroad barons, marching armies, or a journey along the silk road in your player’s minds, remember this: a player might (might!) read it once and then skip it forevermore. If they are big into thematic gaming, they will want to be the ruler of that island nation, not necessarily read prose about how they will get to play that role. Help them be the role.

  1. Set the scene, but avoid combining purely thematic description with objective and quantifiable game rules.
  2. Clearly identify and visually distinguish thematic description to make it easy to recognize and skip.
  3. Use consistent terminology throughout - if you are buying trains and claiming routes, then use those terms - but avoid dramatic embellishment when instructing a player to place a train on the board.

As with any rules, these may be bent or broken if the subject matter warrants it. A fine example would be Elminster's Letter to the Reader that serves as the introduction to the 3rd Edition D&D Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. Role-playing games by their nature are intensely thematic, the theme and the story IS the game. Elminster’s letter immediately sets the tone of an FR game while still achieving the goals of explaining what the game is about, what the game's objective is, how the rules can be used, and all the while sparking the reader's imagination. Most tabletop games do not need this level of treatment.

For a perfect example of how to write a great introduction I highly recommend you check out Vlaada Chvatil's Dungeon Petz Rulebook. The introduction is the front cover of the book which is colourful, creative, and engaging. It has a block of thematic text that separated from the rules by spacing, layout, font, and justification. The mechanical introduction briefly lays out the key elements of the game, how it plays, and what the objective is in a manner that can be grasped immediately and forms a solid foundation for the rules to follow.

If you do have an intricate theme with a grand story to tell, consider including a separate booklet to present this narrative. Cluttering the mechanics of the game by integrating flavour text will present a greater challenge for the reader to extract the necessary information, whereas a separate booklet will allow them to immerse themselves in the story if they wish to do so, and easily skip it if they do not.

2. Teaching a New Player

Once you have crafted the perfect introduction, your players should already have a reasonable grasp of what they are trying to achieve. Now it is time to start teaching them how to play it.

Although there is no prescription for how any game should be taught, there are a few things that are helpful to include.

A Components List - Present all game components in a logical fashion and order in which a player will need to know about them (components for setup first, optional or less frequently used components later). Include pictures of each component, and a brief statement about its purpose. If there are any 'advanced' components, or components that only come into play later in the game, separate them from the 'core' components and it’s a good idea to include a note that they can be safely ignored by the player for now - they will be explained later when they are needed. Limiting the amount of information that a new player needs to digest immediately will make their learning curve easier.

Setup Instructions - Give step by step instructions on how to setup the game for play, whatever is necessary to take the players from a game in the box to starting their first turn. Include pictures, and show any placeholder locations – such as discard piles - that the players should reserve space for. If there are any pre-game decisions the players need to make (such as placing settlements in Catan) include these at the end of the Setup Instructions in their own marked section as the last thing to be done before starting the game.

Beginner Mode – Does your game have a ‘light’ or ‘simplified’ version of the game for beginners? If it does, then use the Turn-by-Turn Walkthrough section to explain the ‘beginner mode’. Make sure to prominently tell the reader that this is the ‘beginner mode’ and give them a recommendation for when/what familiarity level they should have before transitioning into the ‘advanced mode’. If your game does not have a ‘beginner mode’, then proceed by using the Turn-by-Turn Walkthrough to present the core concepts of the game, and leave any optional or late-game concepts for the subsequent Full Game section of the rules.

Turn-by-turn Walkthrough – The walkthrough should be the bulk of your instructional material and should present a sample game that explains each potential action or decision a player can make and the flow of each turn and each round. Explain any phases of gameplay that occur and any changes that might come into play between rounds. Explain how and when progress is made towards the win condition, and what those conditions are. Explain the endgame, how to win, and how ties are decided. By using a walkthrough approach, players can learn by following along, examining the components, and understand what taking a turn feels like before choosing to experiment with variations on what they can do.

When writing these instructions, you may come to a point where a player action may indirect effects on the game, effects whose purpose may not be immediately obvious. When writing your walkthrough, it helps to acknowledge these indirect effects by relating them back to concepts that have already been explained to the player. Do your best to explain the purpose or reason for taking these actions and how they affect the player’s chance of winning or what they might be trying to accomplish by doing so – but try to avoid explaining outright the strategic possibilities. Give the player enough information to make a reasonable, fact-based decision on what to do at a tactical level, but let the player discover strategies and combos that are possible on their own.

Full Game - If you presented a ‘beginner mode’ that limited components, actions, or rules, explain the difference between ‘beginner mode’ and the full game by walking through any additions or changes, and when and where they apply. Once the players have a grasp of the basic structure of the game and how it plays, it will be easier for them to apply additional and more advance concepts to build upon that knowledge. If your game does not have a ‘beginner mode’, then use this section to outline any optional or late-game concepts that you did not cover in the Turn-by-turn Walkthrough.

3. Reference Material

During your extensive playtesting process for your game, I am sure that you have been taking copious notes and recording every question ever asked, right? Right? Ok, I don't either, but I should, and so should you! Every question that a playtester asks is a good one, and your final product should include answers to every single one of them. Many of them you will probably have already addressed in the walkthrough, but any left that you haven’t covered need to be answered in some fashion here.

There are many ways to structure your reference section, but please, please, avoid structuring it like a Q&A. Q&As can be good for answering specific problems or questions, but there is usually a more natural way to address those. A printed-on-paper Q&A will either end up being too short (and will inevitably fail to address the question that a player has) or it will be too long to be able to search easily.

If a player is reviewing the reference section of your rulebook, they are typically looking for a specific piece of information or an answer to a specific question. Organize your reference information in a format that is quick to scan and easy to locate. Here are a few sections that I like to see in a rulebook reference section:

Quick Reference - A short bullet point style list of important information that a player needs to learn. This may be actions they can take in a turn, resource costs, or the sequence of events in a turn. A significant number of games choose to provide printed quick reference cards for each player – but from experience, most of these cards end up being left in the box after a couple of plays. If you make sure this information is included in your game rules in a location that is quick and easy to find (the back cover is usually a good place) then individual quick reference cards are usually not required.

Glossary - Review your game rules for any named object or concept, if we use Ticket to Ride as an example these terms would include things like "Train Card", "Engine", "Ticket", or "Longest Route". These are thematic named objects and concepts that have a specific definition and are typically capitalized. Include these in a glossary with a quick definition, explanation, and (if possible) a picture. It is also helpful to bold these terms in your rules when they are first introduced to indicate they are key terms.

You can safely leave out generic or commonly used boardgame terms such as "Discard", "Hand", "Deck", or "Draw Pile" unless they are used in a unique fashion in your game, or a distinction needs to be made because there is more than one (ie, the "Treasure Draw Pile" vs the "Door Draw Pile" in Munchkin).

Appendix - Many games have cards involved in some way, and they usually have different types and varieties of cards in a deck. An Appendix is a good way to explain differences in usage, rules, or specific clarifications around variations in specific components and it provides the quickest way for a player to locate and clarify the usage of a specific component.

Don't be afraid to repeat concepts from the walkthrough in the reference section if they are important. An experienced player who needs a quick reminder may prefer to jump to the reference section rather than read through the more extensive and expanded step-by-step guide if they need a refresher on a few of the basic details. If you do duplicate information here, present it in a different, more concise fashion that matches the structure and tone of the rest of your reference section.

Final Thoughts

A few additional thoughts on creating the perfect rulebook for your game.

Playtest your rules as assiduously as you playtest your game. Leave your game and rules with a group of new players while you observe (but do not help them!). Take notes, afterwards ask them which parts were good, which were bad, what they had problems or challenges with, and if they have any questions about the game. Then revise your rules based on this feedback. Do it again. Playtest with people who have played your game a few times before - watch to see if and how they use the rules, and the kinds of things they go looking for. Then revise your rules to make those things clearly marked and explained.

Follow general accessibility practices - use pictures instead of or to compliment the words where you can, print colour words (like RED) in the colour that they are referring to. Use a large enough font to be easily read (14pt is great), and even larger text for common reference information so players can see it from across the table. Use high-contrast simple fonts, and do not place text on top of images.

Avoid in-jokes in your rules (and in general). Do not intentionally include obscure, unexplained, or ambiguous statements - especially ones that appear to have meaning - but do not provide an explanation (Surplus of Popes - I'm looking at you!). They may be funny or seem like a cool wink and nod at a specific group of people, but for anyone who does not get the reference (or realize there is a reference being made at all), this produces a "burn down the house" level of frustration.

In the end, a rulebook is a technical document. It needs to remain focused on its purpose, and present it as clearly, and logically as possible. In many ways a rulebook is very similar to writing a proposal document, a statement of work, or a set of business requirements. There are many resources available online that provide help with technical writing.

Good luck, and happy writing!