A lot of things can be done wrong while writing rules. Some of them can be pretty damaging to the way your game is received. While this small list of rules about rules is far from comprehensive, they are certainly worth keeping in mind when you wend your way through the mad maze of rule writing.
That’s the FAQ, Jack.
First; Should you have a FAQ section in brand-new rules? The whole idea of a frequently-asked-questions section is to correct things that you left out of the rules, or didn’t clarify sufficiently, the first time you printed the game. It isn’t to reinforce or repeat key elements of the rules that you want to hammer into the players. You can always use bold text to do that, or if you really want to highlight a rule, use an inset box with just that rule in it, but it needs to be in the rules in the section where it belongs, not hidden securely in an disorganized FAQ list.
If you already have a FAQ for the first edition of your rules, then in the second edition, relocate those rules to the sections where people will look for them. If you have some fiddly rule about movement that only applies to Golems in the Third Phase of the Fifth Round of the game on Tuesdays, then put it in the Movement rules for the game. That’s where people are going to look for it first, not in the FAQ section.
If you do stick rules in a FAQ section, then the players are first going to waste time futilely looking for that rule where it actually belongs, and THEN waste more time dredging through an unorganized FAQ list for the one factoid they actually want. This will not make happy gamers.
Another reason people create FAQ in new rules is to provide a catch-all location for fiddly rules that don’t fit anywhere else. If the rule is so fiddly that it doesn’t fit anywhere else GET RID OF IT. I remember one recent game design that had one rule that only applied to one card in the game. Solution? Get rid of the card, or fix the text on it so it falls in line with the rest of the rules.
When is a FAQ appropriate? After the game is published. Then, if a hundred people ask, “What’s a Wizard’s nose weigh?” then even though you put this clearly in the rules, you can stick it in the FAQ. Because it really, really, is a frequently asked question. And, of course, if you have actually left something out, or have an error, the FAQ after publication is quite useful for correcting that. And, if you have a heck of a lot of chaotic card interactions (think MtG or Wiz-War) an alphabetical clarifying FAQ is also extremely useful.
To summarize; don’t tack a FAQ onto brand new rules. If the rules are written well, then everything will be located in the place that people expect to find those rules. (And, in fact, if a rule IS in the main body of the rules, and you DO get questions frequently asked about that rule after publication, then you can put out a FAQ and proudly state, “It’s in section 5.2 of the rules.” You can then wallow in self-satisfied smugness.)
As a side note, putting FAQ sheets on BoardGameGeek is a great way to distribute and update them periodically.
The Death of Fiddliness
Secondly, since I already mentioned it; avoid fiddly rules. If you have a rule that only applies to extremely rare instances in the game (like a single card), get rid of them. It’s fairly obvious when I read new rules and reach a sentence that I know I’m going to forget a minute after I finish reading the rules. Also, there are rules that might apply to every component, but are so useless that no one ever takes advantage of them; excise these from your game. After a few playtests, you’ll see what choices players make, and if you’ve added rules that give players options that they never use, get rid of those options. Once you’ve taught the game a few times, you likely won’t mention them anyway because you’ve forgotten they were there. Even with something as simple as Monopoly, the first dozen or so times I played it, I hadn’t read the rules; someone else taught me. When I finally did read the rules, I was astounded to find out how many were never actually taught to me. Fiddly rules (like the Taxation space!).
Hierarchy or Anarchy?
Thirdly; regarding the hierarchy of rules introduction; don’t use unique terms before you’ve defined them. I see this a lot in rules writing. The writer will blithely write arcane undefined terms early in the rules either because he assumes that the reader will pick them up later in the rules or because he has the rules in his head as a cohesive block structure where all the terms are self-referentially merged and can be presented in any order. That’s not the way people read rules. A good rules structure introduces the components of the game, the setup of the game (now that the components are defined), then what a turn consists of (now that the setup and components are understood), then the fine details of turn phases, and what those terms mean. Players find it irritating when they read an undefined term, then come upon the definition for that term five pages later, then have to go back and find where it was mentioned the first time so they can see how it applies to the first rule, if they actually remember the first time they read it. With a 20 page rule book, it’s so easy to lose track.
Fourth item; Pictures; use lots of them. The clearest rules I’ve ever read depend on a crapload of pictures. Stone Age was great for this, with a two-page spread showing the setup. It might turn your 4-page rule book into a 10-page rule book, but it’s classy and well worth the extra few cents in production cost. I wish I’d done that in more of my early game designs!
One Rule to Rule Them All
Fifth; Use of redundancy in rules. I have mixed feelings about this. I sometimes use redundancy in rules because one rule will apply to multiple situations and needs to be reiterated in each part of the rules where it’s relevant. For example, a Punch in Wiz-War (5th edition) had several mentions; in the section defining cards, “If you don’t have an attack card, you can always Punch an opponent for 1 damage” and it appears in the section on combat, “You can always punch an opponent for 1 damage, but it uses up your attack for the turn” and it appears in the section on destroying objects, doors and walls, “You can punch a bush or wall down, given time, at 1 point per turn.”
The big problem arises when I edit the rules. If I change the damage a Punch does from 1 to 2 points, I can’t just edit the one place it appears. I have to read the entire rules, find every occurrence of the Punch rule and change them, and I still won’t be 100% sure that I caught every instance of it. If I’d used a single rule; “Punch causes 1 point of damage in the same or adjacent space, acts as your attack for that turn, and can affect anything that can take damage,” then when I did the edit, I only have to edit that one rule and I’d be 100% sure that I’d caught all the instances of the rule. In some respects, it’s like writing software; if you use multiple routines in different parts of your software to accomplish a single task, then some time in the future if that subroutine(s) requires an update, you’re going to screw it up, modifying one without remembering the other. This, too, is all about the Hierarchy, although there are arguments both ways. I personally like redundancy in game rules, since it reinforces certain important rules and allows people to find the answers they’re looking for more quickly. But, realistically, it makes the rules longer and introduces errors when editing occurs, and edits take a lot longer. If I were to recommend one way or the other, I’d tend toward the “have each rule in only one place.”
Your rules are the most important part of your game; I can’t tell you the number of games I’ve gotten rid of just because the rules were poorly written. This is the one place where you really need to pay attention to details and shine, and as always, playtest, playtest, playtest.
For further tips on writing rules that aren’t just my own pet peeves, peruse the wisdom of Seth Jaffee in his article, Following Rules is Hard, Writing Rules is Harder!
If you have your own suggestions on rules formatting, please comment. I’d love to hear from you.
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13 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
I used to have the same opinion about FAQs in a published rulebook. (“Why not just change the rules so that those questions aren’t frequently asked?”) I have a different perspective on it now, though. I’ve read enough comments and watched enough people use my rulebooks to know that people just miss things. They often don’t look where you would expect them to look. (I’ve even personally gone on BGG and asked a question that was answered in the rulebook exactly where it should be: I had looked for the rule, but I had somehow missed it.) I think something like a “Commonly Missed Rules” section or an “Important Reminders Before You Start” section could be appropriate, and I think calling it “Frequently Asked Questions” could work. Don’t plan on such a section if you can avoid it, but it might be necessary. Here’s an example. I expect our next game to have something like this, with this question:
> Q: Do you keep the cards you collect secret from other players?
> A: No. Cards are placed face up on the table after they are collected, public information for everyone to see.
(Even though the rulebook is very clear about this, cards make people think they might be private information. Most people get it, but in blind testing I have had a few people assume otherwise.)
Yeah, having an “often overlooked rules” section would be reasonable, or “important reminders before you start”. This would reinforce some of the rules with redundancy, while avoiding the stigma of calling it a FAQ.
Do you feel the same about an “Often overlooked rules” section? I’ve seen that a couple of times in rulebooks. Sometimes a rule is in the right place in the rulebook but a high percentage of people seem to miss it, perhaps because they don’t have the full context to attach it to at the time they read it.
Randy ninja’d my comment. 🙂
Really good points. As a freelance rules editor, I’m always interested in the topic.
I always criticize new rule books that include FAQs. Rewrite the rules so they’re comprehensive and clear instead.
Rather than call it “hierarchy”, I’m a big fan of saying ORGANIZATION. I’m a retired librarian and organizing information is what I do. Of course, not everyone thinks in the same linear way, but a highly organized set of rules will work best for a majority of people. And has the added benefit of being easier to search when you need to find a rule.
I’m not a fan of multiple rule books. Seems popular now to have a subset of the main rules with examples for a “Learning guide” and then the rest of the rules dumped into a glossary (which is NOT the best organization for actual rules).
As a proof reader, I always amazed by the variety of terminology used too. Some “writers” try to be narrative and pick synonyms for game terms in different places. Don’t. Technical jargon is great when used consistently. Use it and quit trying to be flowery.
Lastly, I’m tired of some game companies that can’t seem to write rules deciding it’s better to make an instructional video on the web and then just direct people to go there instead of reading the rules. Often they even deride their own written rules in preference of the videos. How about writing clear rules instead? Not everyone who buys your game is going to go online and watch your video. Make good rules and videos.
Sorry for the haphazard rambling. I’m rushed and need a good editor!
Excellent article and excellent comments from readers!
I almost always include a “Rules often missed or misunderstood,” based on what people appear to forget in playtesting (people who haven’t read the rules). Never occurred to me to put a FAQ in the rules to begin with, you’re quite right that it’s something to help fix inadequate rules.
I see many rules sets that don’t explain how to win the game until the end of the rules. Describing how to win should be prominent early on, then the actual how to win rules can be at the end. Knowing in general how to win helps the reader understand how the game works as he or she reads the rules. Otherwise it’s “why am I doing this?”
Repetition is a tough question. I try to follow the software guide and avoid repetition.
Mike Selinker says, if a rule is really hard to write, you ought to change the rule. I agree.
The only in-depth coverage of rules writing that I know of (3+ hours) is my audiovisual, self-paced course “How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)” ($25)
It’s easy to mock a FAQ in rules, but, sometimes, it *is* the correct approach (although you might want to label it “Fine Points” or “Frequently Overlooked Rules”).
Exception based games (with powers on cards that break the rules) might need a FAQ to cover weird interactions that come up rarely. Covering them in the main rules (even in sidebars) breaks up their flow or confuses new players, while a FAQ at the end (with subheadings to organize the questions) can let players easily find needed rulings when rare cases arise.
Sometimes, a game may have a few things that many players just won’t get, no matter how clearly you state the actual rule and provide an example. You may need to apply the journalism “Tell them three times” rule and add a Frequently Overlooked Rules section.
For example, when we rewrote the Pandemic rules, we had several years of knowing exactly what many players had a hard time “getting” and put in a short section at the end of the rules emphasizing those five points again. This helped some players.
People vary a lot and *learn things differently*. No one way works for everyone. You can’t write too defensively or you’ll bloat your rules, but sometimes Fine Points, Reminders, and FAQs can improve your rules. Like all tools, you need to use them wisely.
Excellent points Tom! BTW – looking forward to meeting you at Haiticon!
^This 100%! The whole time I was reading the post these thoughts were crossing my mind. I’ve spent 2 years developing a variable player power / blind bidding game. Some interactions are guaranteed to be missed by casual games the first time and some interactions are too confusing to explain before players have begun the game.
It’s funny – I think leaving out a Faq might make your rulebook look cleaner, but for some games, I really want it to be there. I looked at a several of the games that I learn from Rulebooks, and sure enough, if the game is fairly complex – they’ll have a “clarifications,” FAQ, or the equivalent.
I started hating FAQs in rules but this conversation has made me rethink that somewhat.
Too often I’ve seen FAQs used as a place to put awkward rules that are NOT actually in the rules themselves. That’s what gets me upset. The rules writer didn’t know where to put in some fiddly rule so rather than change the rule or write the rules better, they tack it on the end as an FAQ. This I am still opposed to! Rules need to be in the rules and well organized.
I recently edited a Kickstarter game rule book that had an entirely new rule ONLY in the FAQ. It was an odd situation, but one not covered in the rules as written so they threw it in the FAQ. I really think this is a horrible practice.
BUT, I can see where often missed rules need some redundancy (which I’m in favor of!) and restating them as an FAQ in the back to help make sure they are not overlooked makes perfect sense. Especially if it’s a later edition of a game where experience has shown what people actually misunderstand.
Excellent comments on the utility of FAQs. There are certainly times to use them. Generally, if I’m reading rules, I don’t read the FAQ, since I figure it’s there IF I end up having a question during play, and not to provide core rules. It shouldn’t be necessary to actually play the game. If it is, it should be called something else, as some of you have suggested, like “Important rules to remember” or some such. Calling it a FAQ just begs people to overlook it (especially if it’s conditional like the MtG FAQ, which grew to something like 20+ pages shortly after it first came out).