Nathan Hansen Games

Rules writing is probably one of the most important skills a board game designer/developer can have. It's the core of how we communicate with the player. It's how we put ourselves into the box to teach the game to the player. Except that if we were in the box the player could just ask us questions if something doesn't make sense. With a rulebook, they can't. So, how do we make sure they don't have to? The short, oversimplistic, and frankly condescending answer is of course to just write good rules. A truly comprehensive answer is probably too ambitious for this blog entry, but I think I can cover a few key points that I found lead to easier to understand rules.
I by no means should be seen as the final authority on rules writing. These are just my opinions. I think they are good opinions, but they are still just opinions.

Voice

In my experience, how easy it is to read your rules depend greatly on how conversational they are. Do you talk to the player or about the player? Take for example the following two essentially identical rules:
  • Each player on their turn, must place one worker onto an empty space on the board and carry out the instructions on that space.
  • On your turn place one of your workers onto one of the empty spaces on the board and carry out the instructions there.
Which is easier to read? Why? To me, the second is easier to read because it feels more like someone is talking to me. It's conversational. Where the first option refers to "the player" the second refers to the reader directly. On YOUR turn place one of YOUR workers. The first is more like an impersonal lecture. Not to say lectures are inherently bad. But if I had to choose between a lecture and a conversation, I'd almost always choose the conversation.

Word Choice

Does a player have to do something or is it optional? In the above worker placement examples, as written, the player has to place a worker. Make sure your word choices indicated whether or not something is optional. Must and May are very different conceptually, and yet I've seen a lot of prototypes in which they are used interchangeably.

In short, don't assume the player knows what you mean. Be explicit. But also...

Be Concise

How many times have you read a rule that was clearly longer than it needed to be? I recently played a worker placement game with a rule for the order in which certain workers were to be resolved in at each area. The areas could have multiple workers and they were to be resolved left to right. The paragraph explaining that was repeated for each area in the rulebook. This probably added a full page to the rule book. Wouldn't it be easier to make a universal rule that states that you always resolve workers placed in an area from left to right?

Structure

One of the most important aspects of rules writing is how we present the information. How it is structured. What sequence the data is actually revealed to the player in can have a huge impact as to whether or not they actually grasp it. We can use this to create points of reference or frameworks to help them understand the importance of specific rules.
For instance, when do you tell the player how they win or lose? How does that affect their understanding of the rest of the rules? If you do so at the beginning then they can keep that in mind while reading the remaining rules.
My preferred structure:
  1. Introduction
  2. Components
  3. Victory/Loss Conditions
  4. Setup
  5. Sequence of Play
  6. Each Step/Phase/whatever of Sequence of Play as a separate rule
  7. Universal Rules or anything that doesn't fit in the context of the Sequence of Play
  8. Credits

Introduction

This is mostly for flavor, but it's still important for setting the tone of the game and the rules. The tone will set other expectations for the player. If the Introduction is lighthearted and humorous, the player will most likely expect the game to be lighthearted and humorous.

Components

This section has two primary uses. One, it allows players to take inventory and make sure they have everything. Two, it allows you to give a very brief idea to the player of what the component is for. NOTE: I said very brief. Do not put rules on how a component is used here. A picture of a meeple and some text along the line of "This is a worker. Workers are placed in various spaces on the board to carry out actions there" Do not go into detail of specific rules associated with an individual component here. Basically, you just want to give enough information to help the player make connections later.

Victory/Loss Conditions

This is somewhere I think some designers may disagree with me. I like to put this here because I want my players to have this in mind while reading the rest of the rules. I've also commonly seen this at the end of the rules. I believe the logic for putting this exclusively at the end is to force the player read all the rules before playing the game. I think that is flawed logic. All it really accomplishes is making it so that the player doesn't have the victory and loss conditions in mind while reading about how other elements of the game work which may lead to them not picking up on some more subtle implications.

Now, that being said, I do sometimes think that in many cases it is good to have an abbreviated big picture version of the victory/loss conditions here and a more detailed version at the end of a rule book. But it is important to establish for the player what they are trying to do in at least a general sense.

Sequence of Play

A short paragraph or two and a bullet point version of how the game will flow each turn/round/however you structure your game. This also gives you an outline for how the remainder of the rulebook should be structured.

Each Step/Phase/whatever of Sequence of Play as a separate rule

This is where you call out each "bullet point" from the sequence of play above in detail and in the order they appeared. This allows players to walk through a turn while reading the rules. It could even make it possible to play the game for the first time while reading the rules.

Universal Rules or anything that doesn't fit in the context of the Sequence of Play

I like to put these near the end because they are essentially exceptions to the way the rest of the game works, but I can also see putting universal rule before the Sequence of Play in some cases. I think it depends on how likely it is to come up in the first turn. If it won't come up in the first turn/cycle of the game, put it at the end like I have here. If it will almost certainly come up on the first turn, put it before the Sequence of Play.

Credits

This should go without saying of course but... Give credit where due. Playtesters, proofreaders, graphic designers, and artists are all just as important as you. The game wouldn't exist in the final, publishable state without them. Anyone who had an impact on the game should be thanked.

Written by Nathan Hansen — July 08, 2016

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