The number of people who are willing to put in the effort to research rules online and figure out how to play your game is embarrassingly small, and it’s equally embarrassing to expect people to go through that effort. Players should be able to learn a new game easily, and the rulebook is the only interface they are guaranteed to have. The increase in great how-to-play videos and reviews has done wonders for the hobby… but, as designers, we cannot rely on them for players to learn our games. Too many games have poor, unapproachable, or useless rulebooks. If we expect people to actually play our games, we cannot allow that trend to continue.
CORRECT, BUT APPROACHABLE
Historically, I have considered rules writing to be like technical writing – it has to be precise, and it has to cover all cases. I used to write rules as concisely as possible, following good technical writing protocol such as “don’t repeat things, reference them instead,” like one would write computer code.
But there’s a problem with that: users have a tough time reading technical manuals! Nobody enjoyed reading the instruction booklet that came with their VCR. Nobody really understood it. As a result, it became cliché that nobody knew how to set their clocks.
My current preference is to write the rules in the 2nd person, as if you’re talking directly to the reader. Don’t say “each player takes…” Instead, say “give each player…” Don’t say “On his or her turn, the active player chooses…” Instead, say “On your turn, choose…” etc. I find that this simplifies the language and becomes a lot easier for the reader to understand and follow.
WORD CHOICE AND CONSISTENCY
In a rulebook you have to be very careful about language, word choice, and consistency. Grammatical correctness is important, because bad grammar sounds awful and makes people lose confidence that you know what you’re talking about. Writing clearly and correctly is the best way to ensure the reader will understand what you are trying to say.
Terminology needs to be consistent. Using two different terms for the same thing, or the same term for different things, is bound to cause confusion — don’t do that!
On a similar note, consistency of punctuation and capitalization helps people read and understand rules better. It’s easy to want to capitalize lots of game terms that might not be capitalized in regular English text. My current preference is not to do that – it just invites mistakes, and It Can Be difficult and Annoying to Read sentences Where Every third Word is Capitalized.
The same thing goes for bold and italics… too much of that is also annoying to read, so that type of emphasis should be used sparingly, if at all. Sen-Foong Lim just told me his current preference: use bold for key game terms in their first instance, then never do anything special with them again after that. To me that seems better than emphasizing every instance of a key word, but I’m not sure it’s really necessary either.
It should go without saying, but have your rules proofread. More than once. By different people. It’s easy to miss mistakes that you yourself made, and it’s easy to follow what you’ve written because you already know what you meant to say! Get someone else to read your rules and comment on what’s clear and what’s not.
Reading your rules backwards — from the end to the beginning — can help you spot typos and spelling errors.
IMAGES, IMAGES, IMAGES!
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The more images and illustrations you can use, the better. The best rulebooks include images of each component as well as graphical examples wherever possible.
Gendered writing is something that has always been an issue, but today more than ever is on the forefront of people’s minds. No matter what your opinion is on the matter, antagonizing anyone is a bad way to get more players playing your game! Inclusiveness is important.
That said, reading “he/she” or using the singular “they” can be confusing or off-putting as well. Careful word choice and sentence structure can avoid most of that, and using the 2nd person (as mentioned above) helps as well. I like to use specific characters/people in examples to avoid these sorts of problems completely — just make sure to include women in your example characters!
Most rules list components first, with images. That’s nice. I like to flip back and look at the images while I read the setup. You know what might be better than that? Combining the components and setup sections so that I don’t have to flip back and forth! TMG developer Andy Van Zandt taught me this trick, and I have yet to use it on a big box game, but picturing a component and then describing what to do with that component during setup seems like a great idea.
Rules organization can really help players understand the game better. Every rulebook should include the following items:
- Thematic Overview (including your role as a player and your goal in the game)
- Components & Setup
- Game Overview (including your ultimate goal, and what you’ll be doing each turn in pursuit of it)
- Outline of game structure
- A Game Turn
- Game End
- Determining a Winner
…and in that order.
WRITING FOR DIFFERENT READERS
There are really 3 audiences you’re writing your rules for:
1. The first time player looking to learn the game
The new player is the most important audience; you must ensure they can follow and understand the rules or they will never be able to play your game! All of the information above is aimed at writing rules for players that are completely new to the game.
2. The intermediate player looking for reference information
Often times, even when you know how to play a game, you find yourself looking up certain reference information. “How much money does each player start with?” “How many cards do we deal out in a 3-player game?” “How many Dragon cards before you have to fight a dragon?” It’s best to break any such information out in some way — put it in a boxed note, a chart, or summarize it in a sidebar — to make it easy for players to find without reading through the rules text. For example, never write “Deal 5 cards each for 2 or 3 players, and 4 cards each for 4 or 5 players.” Instead make a little chart like this:
- 2 players: 5 cards each
- 3 players: 5 cards each
- 4 players: 4 cards each
- 5 players: 4 cards each
3. The expert player looking for loopholes and edge cases
While you’re not really writing rules specifically for a rules lawyer, it’s best to ensure your rules stand up to such careful scrutiny. I said before that the rules need to cover all cases. If a situation can occur that is not covered by the rules, then the players may be unable to continue the game. Don’t leave such edge cases undefined! Even if a situation never came up in your playtesting, once thousands of people are playing your game, the edge cases will eventually occur. A proper rulebook will not leave loopholes or edge cases undefined.
I have found myself editing a lot of rules lately, and I have started to adopt these guidelines. I’m liking the results so far, and I’m hoping to find that players have an easier time learning and understanding them. They’ll be able to enjoy the games so much more without the rules getting in the way.