Please Write Better Rulebooks

posted in: Commentary | 2

Dear Publishers,

I grow weary. I’m tired of yelling in frustration at your rulebooks. I’m fully willing to admit that the problem is partially my fault–I’m reading more and more rulebooks as I play more new games for The Thoughtful Gamer. Rulebooks aren’t fun to begin with. They’re an obstacle to fun that we only tolerate when they’re necessary. I also typically enjoy heavier games than most, and that means more complicated, harder to write rulebooks. I often rush through them too quickly and miss things that are plainly written, hoping that through the course of my first play I’ll be able to iron out the wrinkles.

But I think you’ve got to shoulder a lot of the blame too. I can’t say if rulebooks are better or worse than they were before, and that doesn’t matter. What matters is when, in a game where you pull chits out of a bag, if “discard” means setting a chit aside or placing it back in the bag. What matters is when there are key words on cards that don’t ever appear in the rulebook. What matters is when I can barely figure out how to even set up your game, or when the rules as printed make the game literally impossible to win.

I’m not alone with this frustration. Earlier this year the Spiel des Jahres committee commented on all of the poor rulebooks they had to suffer through. While some might disagree with their decision to immediately remove from competition any games that didn’t meet their standards for rules, I think it’s a good idea for that award, because it’s designed to be for families and people who aren’t necessarily board game nerds. It’s also the most prestigious award for board games at the moment, and I’m fine if it tries to uphold superior standards in all aspects of production. A rulebook would have to be quite bad before it affects my score, but I can completely sympathize with the committee’s frustrations.

Anyways, I did some thinking and polled people on twitter. Publishers: here are some things you should watch out for with your rulebooks.

1. Please define all of your key terms.

A rulebook has no room for vagueness. Rulebooks are logical documents that should be as clear as possible. They should also account for all of the key words that appear in the game. If I pull a card that tells me I can do something very specific, I should know precisely how that action functions for me in the game. Not thematically, as that can be misinterpreted easily, but mechanically.

This seems like it could go unsaid, but so many times in the past few weeks I’ve been frustratingly flipping through rulebooks trying fruitlessly to figure out what words mean. I suspect the solution to this is simply to monitor some blind playtests, but some publishers maybe don’t bother to test the efficacy of their rulebook?

2. Please provide an iconography guide.

Good rulebooks will simply have this on the back cover so players can easily reference it and figure out what that weird symbol means. A real treat is when everyone gets their own player aid, so no one has to share. But more than once I’ve seen icons explained all throughout the rulebook, which is fine for learning the game, but no reference, which is a pain and a half. Don’t do that!

3. Please don’t overburden your rulebook with fluff.

Look, I enjoy a funny rulebook with all kinds of thematic storytelling, but that kind of stuff should be clearly distinct from the actual rules. A rulebook isn’t just for learning the game, it’s for re-learning a game after it’s been a while since your last play, and for looking up forgotten rules quickly mid-game.

Because rulebooks have to be multi-use, some companies, like Fantasy Flight, have started issuing two rulebooks for their games: a learning guide and a reference book. That works pretty well, but a great rulebook can do everything well in one tome. So keep the jokes and theme off to the side where they can be appreciated on the read through and ignored when trying to find a specific rule.

4. Please use appropriate emphasis.

I’m a bit torn on the traditional wargame rulebook format. It’s exceedingly logically structured and works incredibly well as a reference guide, but learning a wargame for the first time can be needlessly confusing. I’m convinced the major problem is one of emphasis. This isn’t limited to the legal document-style rulebooks either–more prose-style books can have this problem just as easily.

The issue is that when I’m learning to play a game for the first time, I don’t know which rules are crucial to understanding the game and which rules are there only for certain rare mechanical interactions. I also don’t know which rules are going to be unintuitive to a regular game player and which rules function as you might expect.

In wargame rulebooks I often get fatigued by relatively unimportant rules given the same visual emphasis as key foundations to the entire game. There’s only so much mental focus I can give a rulebook when I’m trying to learn a game for the first time, and my main goal is to understand the fundamentals, knowing that I can look up individual situations when the need arises. If I have no way of knowing what the fundamentals are, I waste a lot of time trying to figure that out and end up missing a lot.

In other rulebooks the most common problem is almost the opposite–they tend to bury very key sentences in the middle of large paragraphs with no easy way to find that key statement again when you need to confirm a rule.

The solution to this is tricky, and it takes a good deal of dedication to most effectively highlight the most critical aspects of the rules while making the entire thing work as both a learn to play guide and reference.

5. Please use gender neutral pronouns.

I’m not the most “woke” progressive person in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t see any reason not to use they/them as pronouns in your rulebook. It’s relatively simple to avoid confusing situations and it avoids the social problems with gendered pronouns as well as sidestepping the clunkiness of “he or she”. Seriously, it’s not a big deal and it’s how we talk anyways.

6. Please hire a pro

Writing rules is difficult. Fortunately there are a number of people out there who write and edit rulebooks professionally. You don’t want the reputation of being that publisher who always has crappy rulebooks, and you don’t want to spend an annoying amount of time on BGG post-release answering easily-avoidable rules questions.

From what I can tell the two most prominent rulebook people are Paul Grogan and Travis D Hill. By all accounts they’re great people, very good at what they do, and don’t charge nearly as much money as they ought. Export the hassle!

What are your biggest rulebook annoyances?

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2 Responses

  1. cliosboardgames

    Very true! I would add: Provide an index. If I am looking for a specific game concept and cannot find it in the section I expected, I’d rather not helplessly browse the rulebook cover-to-cover.

  2. Dr Tinkle

    Couldn’t agree more, especially with the fluff. Fewer words, clear info, play game. On which note: examples. Can’t count the times I’ve wished for an example of play or similarly relied on a good pictorial example.

    And if I may add a smaller one: a quick set up guide. As said above, so many times we re-read rules to re-learn a game. I am struck by how many of my games have post it notes in them for set up, E.g. the number of cards drawn into a starting hand. A quick reference set up guide would so often help that is devoid of any fluff or explanation.

    Just my two pence…

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