Playing By The Rules

Picture it – you’ve bought a new game. You tear the shrink off like a born-again kid at Christmas and wait for what feels like an eternity, for the box vacuum to slowly release its precious cargo. Then you have the instant gratification of poring over punchboards, plastic monsters, and a thousand little wooden cubes. What about that flappy, papery thing you threw to one side? You know – the rulebook. How many of you have that mini rollercoaster of emotion of “Yay, a new game, these bits are so cool! Oh, I need to read the rules now…”?

I want to tell you why your rulebooks should be the best, most exciting thing when you open the box. I want to explain what goes well when a rulebook is good, and just how bad it can be when a game’s rules are poorly written. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for your games’ rules.

After all…

The rulebook IS the game

When you take the time to think about it, you start to realise just how vital a game’s rules are. Without the rules, all you’re left with is a box full of tokens and pieces. You could try to make a game out of it, but it would be impossible to play the same game the designer created. The rules take the pieces in the box, and tell you what to do with them in order to have some fun.

This is another point in the proceedings where it’s worth taking a moment to actively think about that. While some of the things you do in the game might be intuitive, it’s down to the designers and their rules editors to make sure you know what to do with the box of bits once it lands on your doorstep. They’ve got a few pages, a few pictures, and a few thousand words to explain every single thing that happens in the game.

Back to basics

In a simple game, explaining the rules should be relatively easy. If I asked you to write the rules for Snakes & Ladders (Chutes & Ladders), you might think it’s simple, and it might look something like this:

  1. Place both pawns on space 1 of the board.
  2. Players take turns rolling the dice. Move your pawn along as many spaces as the number you rolled on the dice.
  3. If you land on the bottom of a ladder, move your pawn to the space at the top of the ladder.
  4. If you land on a snake’s head, move your pawn to the space at the end of the snake’s tail.
  5. The first player to space 100 wins!

Great, you know how to play Snakes & Ladders now. As the designer I can put those rules in the box and breathe a sigh of relief, confident you know how to enjoy my vision. But now put yourself in the place of the customer. You read the rules and try to play, but you’ve got questions:

  • What’s a pawn? There’s no picture included, I don’t know what it is.
  • Who goes first? How do we decide?
  • How many games are we meant to play? Just one, or did you intend we play a best-of-three?
  • What happens if I’m on space 98 and I roll a three? Do I need to roll the exact number? What happens if I go over?

These might seem like exaggerated examples, but they’re all valid questions. If you’re designing a game for families and you don’t explain everything in terms that non-gamers can understand, you’re asking for trouble. We’re only looking at Snakes & Ladders here, a game with no player agency. The entire game is based on random dice rolls, and no decisions can ever change the outcome. Even with such a simple premise we’ve got questions, and where we’ve got questions, we’ve got problems.

Putting on weight

If it’s that tricky to write the rules for a game as simple as Snakes & Ladders, imagine starting from scratch with something as complicated as a war or Euro game. Think about a game like Root, or Scythe. Both games are excellent, and a lot of fun, but that’s only true because the rules are cohesive, consistent, and they both have great rulebooks.

Root includes an extra book which sets the game up in the middle of a preset four-player game. Each player passes the book around, performs the moves written in the book, and reads descriptive text out to the rest of the group. This way everyone gets a gentle introduction into what is essentially a war game, a genre (in)famous for tricky rules. I believe that the Root walkthrough book was instrumental in helping make the game the success that it is. The cute artwork and forest setting is a comfort blanket, draped on top of a game which could have been impenetrable for many. The way the game takes you by the hand and welcomes you into its arboreal embrace is fantastic.

As games become more complicated and try to pack in more content, it’s becoming critical that rulebooks manage to hold the players’ hands through the learning process. With the numbers of board games released each year growing by thousands, there’s a lot of cardboard trying to grab your attention, and the quality of the rulebook can mean the difference between a smash hit and a damp squib.

Who are you? The rules police?

There are some people reading this now thinking “that’s nonsense, a good game is always easy to learn, who do you think you are, beardy?”. It’s a fair point. I’m just a bloke with a funny accent and a love of games, and so in the interest of putting some kind of credibility into this article, I sought some professional insight.

Paul Grogan, of Gaming Rules!, is -among other things – a professional rule book editor. When you consider he works on rule books for games by Vital Lacerda – the modern day king of very heavy board games – it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about making a game understandable. I caught up with him and asked some of the burning questions I had.

A chat with Paul Grogan

Me: Hi Paul, thanks for giving me a few minutes of your time. First things first, what does it take to elevate a rulebook from average, to excellent?

Paul: Good structure first. It should have the right rules, in the right place. A good introduction, taking a high level overview of the game and drilling down into detail when it’s needed. There needs to be a detailed components list with images.

Me: So when it comes to actually writing the rules, what would you say is the most difficult thing?

Paul: Most difficult thing: Gosh… its bloody hard. Harder than most people think. Making a good rulebook requires a good team and good people. It takes a lot of time, effort, checking and rechecking. It’s difficult to say what the “hardest” part is.

Me: It sounds like there are a few different places it can go wrong. Can you think of any examples that spring to mind where a poor rulebook has had a detrimental effect on a game’s success? What do you think went wrong with the rulebooks?

Paul: There are a number of examples of how a poor rulebook killed a game. First Martians, Batman Gotham City Chronicles, and many more. Why were they bad? A combination of things. Structure is the biggest one, hard to find rules that an index cannot fix, over-complicated explanation of some rules.

Me: When a publisher or designer comes to you with a draft rulebook, when you start work on it, what are some of the red flags you’re looking to correct?

Paul: A lack of examples, lack of images, and a lack of blind playtesting, where situations occur which are not in the rulebook. Rules hidden only in examples is another one.

Me: That’s all really interesting, thanks for your time, Paul.

Adding context

Not expecting you, dear reader, to just take my word for it, I did a quick bit of digging into the games mentioned above. Batman: Gotham City Chronicles is, by all accounts, a great game. The biggest problem seems to be around rules confusion though. A couple of minutes on the game’s forums on BGG turned up threads like this one for errata and FAQ, which is currently at seven pages of questions, and has lots of errata relating to the rulebook. There’s another thread where players are pleading with the publishers to listen to them about the rules and player aids.

First Martians seems to have suffered with similar problems. Another dive into the murky depths of the BGG forums for the game reveals, among others, this thread of rules questions and errata, which is currently at 233 posts. First Martians is a game I really want to play, it’s super-heavy, and looks great. But the thought that I’m probably going to have questions, and that there’s probably an answer in the ten pages of that thread, is a big turn-off for me.

This is very much a problem of the internet age. The problem isn’t necessarily with poor rulebooks – that’s always been a problem – but with the fact that in a truly connected world, word travels fast. I can remember hearing about the First Martian problems on Facebook groups, back when I first got sucked into the hobby again. Everyone is capable of a quick search for a game, and very quickly knowing about any shortcomings – in terms of the rules, or anything else about the game.

Looking forwards

Technology’s irresistible growth is pushing into the board game space, and it’s only going to grow. I’m expecting to see interactive rules apps and tutorials becoming commonplace. I don’t think they’ll ever replace rule books, this is meant to be an ‘offline’ hobby after all, but the popularity of how-to-play videos, like the ones from Gaming Rules! and Watch it Played, prove that the hobby isn’t totally adverse to non-physical media. The best that publishers can hope to do is to strive for perfection, knowing that they’ll never reach it. Even in a world as connected as ours, with all manner of collaboration and meeting tools, mistakes can still slip through the net.

Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi created a pair of games released early on in 2021 – Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends. These games (which I will get around to reviewing!) are brilliant. Deck-building civilisation games with a huge number of asymmetric races and factions to play as. As a solo game, it’s about as good as it gets, but there’s a major omission in the rules. There’s a type of card which commonly turns up, and the solo bot is meant to just discard it. Unfortunately, that rule was missed in the rulebook, and it means players would treat it as an ‘other’ card and carry out an additional action for the bot, making the game much harder than intended.

Along with other errata and spelling/grammar mistakes, it’s a game that’s crying out for a 2nd printing and an errata pack to fix the original games. Luckily, for the designers and the publishers, through the magic of the internet they’ve been able to print an errata and answer questions. It’s only the sheer quality of the game which has kept people playing, and kept word of mouth spreading its gospel, but it goes to show that even with seasoned designers, and big publishers like Osprey, mistakes will always happen. If you play the Imperium games, you can download the errata here.

Final thoughts

I hope that’s given you a little insight into some of the pitfalls and problems that every rulebook faces, and an idea of the challenges the writers and editors are up against. So the next time you pull your favourite game off the shelf, and remember how easy you found it to learn, spare a thought for the hard work of the people who put it all together, and appreciate the huge job it did in teaching you how to play. They do a difficult job, and we owe much of our enjoyment of this wonderful hobby to the words and pictures inside.

Do you have any favourite examples of rules done well, or those done badly? Let me know in the comments below, or send me a tweet here – twitter.com/punchboarduk. If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy others I’ve written in the blog section.

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