Good Day Internet!
Today we’re continuing our preparation for external playtesting with the rulebook.
There are two main reasons you should have a basic rulebook prepared for external playtesting: The first reason being if you forget what happens in a specific situation, or forget which version of a rule (or rules) you’re playtesting, you have a reference to go back to.
You may think that seems a little silly (me? Forget the rules to my own game?!? Yeah, right), but it does happen. You have to remember that your game is constantly changing and there’s a chance you accidentally use an old obsolete rule (I can attest to this happening to me). The other time this usually happens (or to me at least) is when an edge case comes up. Although you may have written the rule for it long time ago, remembering what it is is difficult because it doesn’t happen every game (it’s an edge case for a reason). So despite how fantastic of a memory you have--or think you may have--having a rulebook so you don’t forget your own rules is important.
The second reason is if you have a designer team: the rulebook will help to keep you all on the same page as to what rules are being played with (ask Allysha how many times I’ve caused her agony by not explicitly telling her what rules we’re playtesting with). This will also aid in making your explanation of the rules smoother when you go to playtest as you both will know what needs to be said.
Alright, so maybe you’ve never written any sort of rulebook, how-to, or any other kind of instructional before and want to know: What should it look like?
Good question. :)
To begin this discussion, we need to go over the purposes of a rulebook. The two main purposes are to: 1. teach new players how to play your game and; 2. act as a reference guide to experienced players (for further discussion on this topic checkout this video by Gil Hova from Metatopia 2015 featuring himself and Geoff Engelstein).
The below format serves both of those purposes. It presents the game in a way that makes it easy to learn to new players (giving the overview and flow of the game before going into the specifics), while additional subheadings make it easier to navigate for experienced players. This is the format we always use when initially writing out a set of rules.
Intro/Overview: Your background story/recap on what situation the players are getting themselves into. It sets the scene (thematically, usually) for the entire game.
Components: This isn’t so important for playtesters at this point, but is important for the final rulebook and print and plays (PnP). This way players (including yourself) know whether or not there are missing pieces, or in the case of PnP players, if they have everything they need in order to play.
Objective: What the players are trying to accomplish. It should also make it clear how players are competing (free-for-all, teams, cooperative, etc.). This is the more technical/mechanical explanation of the 'Overview'. For example: “To be the last player with multiple spaceships orbiting the black hole”.
Setup: How to get the game ready for play. There shouldn’t be anything in here that mentions what components are used for or why they are important--save that for the 'Gameplay' section. Just make sure that in this section everything is laid out clearly--if diagrams are necessary (they almost always are) don’t be afraid to put those in!
Gameplay: The main gameplay section tells you how the game is broken up (rounds, turns, phases, etc.) and summarizes what players do in each of those stages. This section should explain the flow of the game from start to completion.
Once that’s done, you go into the gameplay specifics, which should be explained in the order in which they occur in game. This is where you explain exactly what happens during each turn, action, round, etc. You also should have sections dedicated to complicated subjects and their edge cases (for instance, our section on Collisions for “Pulled into Darkness”).
One game which Allysha feels does a decent job of explaining its different gameplay sections and exceptions is the original Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Game (TCG). It lays everything out in a particular order for easy learning, but it can also be navigated easily during gameplay.
Game End Conditions: What initiates the end game (ie. once the last card is drawn, at the end of the fourth round etc.), when the game is actually over (ie. each player gets one more turn--including the player who drew the last card), how players tally their points, and restate what the victory requirement is/who wins.
Following this guideline should give you a rulebook that is easy to use for new players while not leaving experienced players utterly frustrated. You may have to customize this layout for your game and include additional sections (like a glossary of icons, or card anatomy) for the final rulebook, but this format will serve well for any game. It’s always good to start with the outline first to make sure you have everything covered and know what may need it’s own section.
There’s a lot more to rulebooks than this, but now is not the time for that. Hopefully, I can get Allysha to do the next one (on rulebook specifics and editing) as a “guest post”.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.