Good Day Internet!
Today we’re going to discuss what to do, and what not to do, when writing your rulebook and why. Go ahead and grab a drink and a snack--it’s gonna be a long one (we examined sections of 7 different rulebooks all for you)!
If you haven’t been following us for that long, or don’t remember, we did a blog post before on Intro to Rulebook Writing. If you haven’t read that post, we suggest you start there before continuing on.
We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get moving with our first topic:
TOPIC 1 -- Order of Operations/Consistency in Train of Thought
Our first blog post on rulebooks focused on what the layout of a rulebook should be. This first point focuses on making sure that layout is followed, the sections themselves flow well, and that the transition between sections is smooth.
Dead of Winter - Thumbs Up
We recently played Dead of Winter and were pretty impressed by the rulebook. Overall, the game was easy to learn because the rulebook was easy to navigate and reference in game. The layout and flow were exceptional, as best illustrated by the “Rolling For Exposure” section (page 11) and related sections.
"Rolling for Exposure" occurs after attacking a zombie or moving a survivor to a new location. The section is located after explaining both the “Actions that require an Action Die” (including "Attack") and the “Actions that do not require an Action Die” (including "Move a Survivor"). Both the "Attack" and "Move a Survivor" sections reference "Rolling for Exposure" (including the page number in the "Attack" section), which is fantastic for navigating the rulebook. Attacking examples are done immediately after the "Attack" section and partially show how "Rolling for Exposure" works. Although it jumps ahead, it makes complete sense to put it there instead of waiting to explain "Rolling for Exposure" and then showing an attack example.
The "Rolling for Exposure" section reiterates when the roll is made (making it easy to reference in game) and lists the 4 possible results/effects. The last one mentioned is “Bitten” in which “the survivor is killed and the bite effect spreads”. The next subsection immediately after that line is “Spreading a Bite Effect”. You may be thinking that’s not a big deal, but we’ve seen rulebooks where the one action/effect etc. that requires further explanation is in the middle of the list and it disrupts the flow and train of thought of the reader because it leaves a question unanswered. Having an unanswered question creates noise in a reader’s mind which may reduce their understanding of the rules. Placing the “Bitten” effect at the end of the list to make the smooth transition into “Spreading a Bite Effect” does wonders for the reader’s train of thought. It doesn’t give space for the reader to ask any questions and gives them instant satisfaction, which in turn gives them peace of mind.
Last Night on Earth - Thumbs Down
The Last Night on Earth rules are probably some of the most frustrating I have ever read. Rules and entire sections are consistently misplaced and out of order, things that don’t need further explanation (like how you should thoroughly shuffle the cards before each game) are reiterated multiple times while more complex situations are explained once, page references are non-existent, the “Game Components” and “Card Types” sections aimlessly blab about different components (often saying they’ll actually explain them later), and there are a high number of grammar and punctuation mistakes.
For the sake of this blog post though, we’re going to focus on the inconsistency of language, train of thought, and proper order of this rulebook.
On page 9 of the rulebook, the second and third sentences of “The Game Round” sections read: “During the Zombie Turn, the Zombie player(s) get to move and attack with their Zombies as well as possibly spawn new Zombies. During the Hero Turn, each Hero gets to take their actions, in any character order they wish.” The first sentence describes what the Zombie player(s) get to do on their turn. The second sentence describes how the Hero player(s) takes their turns. These are two completely different thoughts and sections. The what belongs there since the first part of “The Game Round” should be an overview of the turns. On the other hand, the how belongs later under “The Hero Turn” when describing the specifics of a turn. As we can see, this inconsistency in train of thought is actually a result of improperly dividing up rulebook sections and subsections.
TOPIC 2 -- Being Assertive with Word Choice
When writing rules you have to be a straightforward and clear. The reader must understand exactly what you are talking about without question. There is no room for interpretation in rules so word choice must be assertive as to remove all doubt.
Shadows over Camelot - Thumbs Up
The second paragraph of “Moving to a new Quest” (page 12) in the rules for Shadows over Camelot reads: “To travel, simply grab your Knight’s miniature and move it to any destination Quest of your choice. The distance between your Quest of origin and the destination, and the relative position of these Quests on the map is irrelevant. Each move always requires a single Heroic Action”. This language is clear and there is no room for misinterpretation. As a player, you know how to move, where you can move, and how many actions it costs. The second sentence is a little unnecessary, however, it removes any doubt that distance matters in determining how many actions it takes to move and it goes along with conversational tone of the rulebook. Still, the rule would have been clear without it. But the first sentence is an excellent example. Clear, concise, to the point.
For an even better example, take a look at the first couple paragraphs of the “Make an Attack” section (page 13) in the Betrayal at the House on the Hill rulebook. We didn’t include it here because we wanted a more condensed example, but it’s top notch in terms of writing and word choice.
Tsuro - Thumbs Down
In the rules for Tsuro, the first sentence under the “Draw Tiles” section states: “For the first few turns of the game (or throughout a two-player game), only the active player draws a path tile from the draw pile, replacing the one he or she played that turn”. The ending of this sentence “replacing the one he or she played that turn”, can be interpreted two ways: The drawn tile replaces the played tile’s spot in the active player’s hand, or; The played tile is removed from the board and replaced with the newly drawn tile. Most players will assume the first, but they shouldn’t have to assume what the rules are. That ending is completely unnecessary and the rule would be clearer without it. An even better option would be replacing it with “at the end of their turn” to reaffirm when the action takes place, adding clarity to the rules.
TOPIC 3 -- Properly Grouping Information (Especially Edge Cases)
We’ve kind of gone over this already in the first topic focusing on Order of Operations. However, this is section is going to focus more on where the information is put rather than how it’s divided up and the flow of the rules. Relevant information all in one place ensures navigating the rulebook during play is simple. Bora Bora does a good job of this in their “Expand action (via land path or water path)” section (page 4).
Bora Bora - Thumbs Up
The “Expand" action section not only explains the action, but also how it ties into the “Woman/Man” action, what other action is only available when you expand, and the edge cases (we should also mention that on the side of each page is a rules summary--an incredible reference tool during gameplay!). Scoring victory points for the adjacent fish tile (the other action only available when you expand) is the only part that requires you to look in another section. However, if you went to refer to the “Expand” action section in game, you would see this is the only time you can score fish tiles and that it has something to do with the “Red God” (that section and associated page number is referred to in the paragraph), which should trigger your memory. If it doesn’t, the page number is there for you so you can easily flip to that section and figure it out.
Additionally, having the edge cases included, telling you what happens when a hut is already on the region you expand to and that no player can have more than one hut per region adds to the section’s comprehensiveness. Beyond the “Red God” section there is no question players could have about the "Expand" action that isn’t covered in that section. That’s exactly as it should be because if a player wants to look up what a certain God does, they should be able to refer to a God card section and not have to guess what that God could possibly do to figure out what action section to start skimming.
Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 - Thumbs Down
An example of why not putting all the relevant information for an edge case in one place is a poor choice is the “United States Isolationism” rules (page 12) in Axis & Allies: WWI 1914. "United States Isolationism" rules state that for the first three turns of the game the United States is neutral with Allied sympathies and on the 4th turn they enter the war as part of the Allies. If attacked before the 4th turn, they enter the war on that turn. Basically, they can’t be the aggressor until they are attacked or until the beginning of their 4th turn. Until then they are “neutral with Allied sympathies”.
Those rules are fine and dandy, but it doesn’t explain at all how the Central Powers are to treat the United States during its isolationism time. What happens if before the 4th turn a Central Power wants to move through a space solely occupied by United States units? The United States is technically not hostile towards the Central Powers yet so can the Central Power pretend they’re not there? Or is that considered an attack? And what about if an Allied force wants to move into that space? Technically the United States isn’t friendly towards the Allied forces yet either so are Allied units allowed to move into that space at all? These questions come down to figuring what “neutral with Allied sympathies” means in terms of hostility towards the Central Powers and friendliness towards Allied Powers. Somewhere from page 11-23 of the rulebook lies the answer, and quite frankly, our group still debates this topic.
To make matters worse, the answer changes depending whether the units are located on land or in sea because they have different combat and movement rules. Despite this, some of the information is combined in sections and others are separated. Needless to say, it’s a helluva annoying experience not being able to make it past the third turn without having to stop play, thoroughly analyze the rulebook, and debate the interpretation(s). If the "United States Isolationism" section was expanded to include all of that information, there would be no problems, and we would be easily able to reference it in game (instead of gallivanting around the rulebook).
Although we’ve pointed out some flaws in a few rulebooks, we still play and recommend these games to others (Tsuro and Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 are some of my favourites). A flawed rulebook doesn’t mean a flawed game. It just means it sometimes causes frustration and confusion when first learning and playing a game.
That’s it for this week. Join us next week when we most likely don’t talk about rules (no guarantees). By the way, did you know editing is kind of what we do? Well, it’s what Allysha does and Kevin dabbles. If you’re only looking for some quick tips though, feel free to ask :)
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.