Case Study: The Board Game Rulebook

Today we’re going to combine a couple of my hobby horses – good writing and board games – into a bizarre hobby horse chimera that might be distressing to look at, but will show us how, in addition to its many other benefits, good writing helps us have fun with our friends.  We’re going to talk about board game rulebooks.

Chances are you, my friend, do not spend a lot of time thinking about board game rulebooks, and you may not have even thought of them (though good for you if you did!) as a genre of writing.  But board game rulebooks make great case studies precisely because, when you get down to it, they all have the same concrete and identifiable goal.  You expect a rulebook, like a user manual or a recipe, to achieve exactly one goal: teach you how to do the thing.  The ultimate test of a rulebook, therefore, is very simple.  Does it or does it not successfully teach you do the thing?

I love assigning my students rulebooks or how-to manuals.  When we work on these, I will ask my students to write about how to do one of their favorite activities and produce three different versions: one for an educated adult, one for their younger siblings or their friends’ younger siblings, and one for space aliens.  Thinking about these different audiences leads them to some turns of phrase sent from the Gods of Making Teachers Happy (“Dawn and dusk are the best times to surf.  I’m assuming your planet has dawn and dusk.  If it doesn’t, put down this manual and go watch Planet Earth, then come back when you understand.”).  It also leads us into conversations about what we can expect our audiences to know and what we need to teach them, and how those expectations might change or (more importantly) stay the same from audience to audience.

These conversations usually lead us to a few key conclusions: no matter the audience, the writer whose goal is teaching should plan to define her terms, adhere to an identifiable and easy-to-follow structure that presents information in a logical order, and eliminate any and all squatters that do not help achieve the goal of teaching how to do the thing.

To prepare for writing this post, I chatted with my friend Chris Kizer, who writes the board game review blog To Play or Not to Play.  Chris and I talked about the importance of having a well-written rulebook, and how clear explanations of the rules make games more fun to play.

“The rulebook needs to be both a teacher and an arbiter,” he explains.  “[It] must explain the rules clearly so that people who have no experience with the game can understand them.  Once players have played a few turns of the game, they’ll internalize the basic rules.  But less common rules will create questions…not everyone will have memorized the rules, or memorized them correctly, so the rulebook sits as an impartial arbiter to ensure the game continues fairly.”

Makes sense.  But are those the only stakes for a well-written rulebook?  No, it turns out:

“Let’s take Monopoly as [an] example. In Monopoly, one player is designated the banker.  The banker has extensive access to the bank of money. And a sneaky, unscrupulous player may find ways to sneak some extra money into their personal coffers in the process.  That behavior violates the rules, and players will be understandably angry if/when they find out.  But if the rules don’t clarify that issue, then the argument can go on and on, and that game probably won’t be played again. 

“From a designer’s perspective, that’s not great. Presumably, they made this game because they thought it would be fun. Very few people get rich in game design.  And from a publisher’s perspective, this is bad, because while they have already made the sale, a bad response from players can lead to bad word of mouth and bad reviews, which will contribute to ultimately lower sales.  And all of that could be avoided by ensuring your rulebook is clear.”

To summarize, even if your product – your game, your invention, your restaurant, your WiFi-connected blender – is the greatest example of this product since Adam, if you introduce people to it with vague and haphazard instructions, users are going to jump off the train before they ever got on.  That has direct, bad consequences for you.

So how do you do that?  What do good game rulebooks do well that bad rulebooks don’t?  As Chris elaborates, a rulebook needs to teach players things in four broad categories: what the game is, how you win, how you set it up, and how you play.  “The best rulebooks follow this structure, make ample use of illustrations and examples to show the players what is being described in the rules, and have good graphic design to make the text easy to read.  Mediocre ones follow this structure, but their writing is unclear.  Bad ones disregard the structure and use unclear writing.”

Structure and clarity.  Sound familiar?

To put our money where our mouth is and provide some examples, let’s look side by side at the rulebooks for two very good games: Takenoko and Shear Panic.

Neither of these games is terribly complex.  Both feature beautifully designed components and cute animals.  Both usually take well under an hour, and both are family games you can play with young children.  I would recommend learning to play both of them, except that the rulebook for Takenoko is a work of art and the rulebook for Shear Panic is a war crime.

Here is how the rulebook for Takenoko explains the basic structure of a turn:

“A player must perform two steps in this order: 1. Determine Weather Conditions; 2. Perform actions and complete objectives.

The player rolls the Weather Die and applies the effect of the climatic conditions obtained. [The book then explains each weather condition, but we don’t need to go into all of that here.]

The player now has two actions to take, which must be chosen from among five options.  

These actions must be different from one another.  

To finalize their choices, the player puts two chips on the appropriate spaces of their individual board.  

The player chooses the order in which the actions are resolved. 

Then, the player passes the weather die to the player on his left.  

The five actions are described in more detail in the following pages.”

Even if you have no idea what this game is or how to play it, you now understand quite clearly how a turn works.  The player takes chooses two things to do, does them, and then passes the turn to the next player.  The book explains the things you can do, with beautiful illustrations and examples, over the next two pages.

Here is how the rulebook for Shear Panic explains the basic structure of a turn:

“Commencing with the starting player and continuing clockwise, each player will do the following in his turn (each step is explained in more detail further on):

A. Choose an action on the control pad and execute it.  The player covers it with a mutton button of his color.  This action cannot be used again for the rest of the game.  The flock marker is moved according to the action selected.  Player mats are available for all players to see and are not secret.

B. If the flock separates, gather your flock together using the return to flock die when necessary.

C. Move the flock marker according to the number on the action.

D. Score points depending on the flock marker position and the field.

E. Roll the sheep panic die (if the flock marker ends on a red space).  (Note: this occurs after a player has scored and does not give a player any further scoring on that turn.)

In case you’re wondering and don’t have time to read the entire 12-page rulebook, no, it has not been clearly explained at this point what the “flock marker” is (it’s the game progress token, but you’d be forgiven for not realizing that), the “return to flock die” is never called that again, and the book uses the terms “control pad,” “control mat,” and “player mat” interchangeably and willy-nilly.  The entire rulebook reads like that excerpt.  The more-detailed explanations of the five turn steps are likely to require multiple pass-throughs to understand what they want you to do.  Getting through it for a game that tops out at thirty minutes and should be suitable for children is such a chore that my secondhand copy came with a bootleg “rules summary” that the previous owner typed up, removing all the fluffy (har!) nonsense and condensing the gameplay into three pages.  And these days, when I’ve owned both games for years, my husband and I play Takenoko often while we rarely reach for Shear Panic.  First experiences matter.

If you want to see an even worse example, Chris recommends – or does not recommend – a look at the rulebook for Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Deck-Building Game:

First, there is no description of the game. The rulebook opens with a list of the boxes contents, then a table of contents for the rules. The table of Contents is divided into sections:

Section 1 is “Card Layout.”

The first thing the book does is zoom in on a card’s details to explain what each little number or piece of text on the card means.

This is important in a deck-building game, but we don’t know why we care yet.

why are we playing the game? what’s the goal? how do you play? I don’t know. But I do know that the blue number on my card is its diplomacy modifier, so I guess diplomacy is a thing in this game?

Section 2 is “The Player Area.”

This page of the rules shows your starting deck of cards.

You’d expect to find that in “Setup”…but setup is in Section 4, and it only addresses setting up the “Space Deck.”  We don’t know what that is either.

The “Goal” of the game isn’t addressed until Section 6, a.k.a. page 12 of the rulebook.  That’s also the section that explains how a game turn works.  Oh, and it’s 25 pages long.

I’ve never played this game, but I love both Star Trek and deck-building games, so I should be the bullseye audience here.  I don’t want to play this game.

What’s making the difference between these two (three) documents?  Like all good general-audience writing, the Takenoko rulebook recognizes that it exists to serve its readers, and “serving its readers,” in this case, means teaching them how to play the game.  It uses vocabulary that its readers are almost guaranteed to understand, clearly defines any specialized terms (the purpose of the “weather die” is self-evident at this point in the book), and adheres to an easily-followed structure of steps in describing the player’s turn.

The Shear Panic rulebook, on the other hand, loses sight of its goal within the first page.  Much space is wasted on charmless sheep puns and halfhearted attempts to entertain the reader, the book’s writer having forgotten that the burden of entertainment should remain on the game.  The obscurity of vision results in a frustrating experience trying to learn to play a game that, despite what the rulebook might lead you to believe, is simple.  The creators would have served everyone better by sticking to the basis: define your terms, adhere to a structure, get rid of the noise.

“But wait!”  you might be saying.  “The Takenoko rulebook comes with a comic strip at the beginning before it ever starts explaining how to play the game!  How come that doesn’t count as ‘noise’ in your book?”  Honestly, because it’s as disarming as a puppy sitting politely for his dinner.  One of your many responsibilities to your reader is to sustain your reader’s interest in what you have to say and what ideas or products you’re trying to sell.  Don’t tell me you don’t want to know more about this game after reading that opening comic strip with the emperor, the gardener, and the panda.  By contrast, the sheep jokes and puns in the Shear Panic rulebook not only aren’t endearing, they make the game instructions more confusing.  To this day, I don’t understand why that one move is called a “wool rule,” except that some ten-year-old thought it was clever.

Chris suggests adhering to the following guidelines for writing a board game rulebook:

  1. Don’t assume anything. Your players may be 50-year gaming veterans or brand new to the hobby. First impressions matter.
  1. Use clear, concise language. You’re not writing poetry, you’re trying to convey information.
  1. Understand the purpose of each section of the book, and stick to that purpose. Are you generating excitement? Teaching? Explaining a fiddly and complex rule? Clarifying something?
  1. Illustrations and examples are your friends.  Use them effectively.
  1. Get other people, from a variety of potential audiences, to read your rulebook, and listen to them when they point out the areas where you have fallen short.

To condense: awareness of audience, clear language full of illustrations and examples, clear organization, and incorporation of audience feedback.  Do you see anything that doesn’t apply to good old everyday writing?  Rulebooks make a great practical example because, to get their job done, they must adhere to the principles that ensure clarity and finesse in all written works.  Teachers, consider adding one to your assignment calendar next year.

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