Step 15: Rules for making Rules

Ok we’ve procrastinated long enough, now it’s time to actually write the rules for your game.  What’s that, you say?  Shouldn’t the rules be one of the first things you write?  Well, there are outlines and there are rules.

An outline is a point form list of concepts and mechanics that you use to keep your facts straight as you’re designing.  It’s what you come back to tweak after your playtests.  It helps you remember basic turn order and end game objectives and start game set up.  Much like prototype designing, it’s important to save each version of your overview.  Once you start playtesting you could find yourself going in circles – changing one thing only to change it back 7 playtests down the road as it might fit better now that you’ve made other changes.  At that time you will be thankful to have old copies of your notes!

Rules for our game, Jam Slam

Rules however, are a different beast.  Rules are the entire rules to the game.  This is the document that eventually will be what the publishers are going to read – so it has to convey every aspect of the game.  Unless you have a face to face meeting with the publisher (and more on how to do that in an upcoming post), these rules have to explain every rule for your game.

Think about this for a second: what’s your least favourite aspect of playing board games?  Most likely it’s reading or listening to someone read the rules.  This is why when we make our rules, we try to make them as close to what we would like to see in the final rules as possible.  This means that we give a lot of graphic examples of the gameplay.  This means that you do have to create these extra graphics – but you’re just repurposing your existing graphics into scenarios.  Bottom line is that we would never like to read a rule book that is only text – and therefore we’d never submit a rulebook to a publisher that was just text.

Take a look at some of your games and look at their rules.  How are they laid out?  Some use columns like newspapers to allow easier readability, some have a running summary down the side, which helps people who have played before but can’t remember everything, and some even give strategic advice on how to play.

How do you know if you’ve written decent rules?  There’s really only one way – blind playtest.  This is where you give your game and the rules to a group and have them read the rules and play the game – WITHOUT you making a single comment or answering any of their questions.  Man, this is going to be tough!  It’s really frustrating to see people playing your game incorrectly, but you have to let them play it out as that’s the only way you can see how they interpret your rules.  It will become ridiculously clear if parts of your rules are confusing or misleading.  You should always blind playtest your rules before submitting to a publisher.

One game we submitted to a contest was Jam Slam – and while we played the game numerous times with a ton of people, we never blind playtested the rules.  The game made it to the semi-finals but we received feedback from their playtesters about the game, and here’s what one of them said about our rules:

“In simpler games like this one, I think it’s extremely important that the rules are crystal clear. I think you are mostly there, but there are some issues. For example, the cards that you have to discard from your penalties can only come from the current round, correct? This is specified in the example, but it should be specified in the main rule. As far as the Goal Cards are concerned, it doesn’t say whether you use only the cards from the current round to determine if you’ve made the goal (as opposed to also counting leftovers from previous rounds). I assume you only use the current round’s cards, but it should specifically say this.”

So this is a perfect example of why it is imperative to have your game blind playtested before submitting to a publisher – or a contest!  For us, we hate writing the actual rules and it often comes later than it should.  That said, once we do write the rules, we try to spend as much time on them as we can to make it as perfect as we can.

-Jay Cormier

The only things I can add to Jay’s post are:

a) In my opinion, there’s no such thing as “too many examples” in rules. In working with other playtesters and designers, the one thing that is often commented on during blind test sessions is that a rule was misinterpreted. This is often the case when wording is ambiguous or made more friendly than technical. However, having a clearly illustrated and documented example or ten can clarify how the game is supposed to be played. This goes back to the graphic design segment: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a well illustrated example of gameplay can take players from “???” to “oh, that’s what they meant”. Words can often be misinterpreted. The designer’s intention becomes much clearer when paired with pictures to show the movement of pieces, the discarding of cards, etc.

In a more complex game, like “Belfort”, we are going to have to spend a lot of time over the next few weeks drafting out examples that can then be depicted graphically. Some games go so far as to have an entire sub section devoted to an example of a turn from start to finish. This may be the length we have to go to for “Belfort”. Sometimes, words just don’t do justice in explaining the complexities of a game turn.

Basically, when it comes to providing examples, the more the merrier. I’d rather you provide too many examples than too few.

b) Write accessible rules. – rules that suit the game play. I am known for being (overly) technical and writing (mind-numbingly) precise rules. However, they are very dull, dry and boring to the point of unreadability. For a fun party game, like “Train of Thought”, this didn’t work at all. The development team spent a lot of time reworking the rules such that the flavour of the game was captured and the integrity of the rules was kept.

c) A “quick start” rule section may be a good thing to include and then have more detailed rules available for the second play once the gist of the game is understood. Note that this doesn’t always work for every game.

d) Often times, you can do a summary of the rules on the back of the manual, on spare cards, or on a separate player aid. These are all excellent things to have in rules-heavy games so that players don’t constantly have to refer back to the rules. They are especially important to have in games where keeping your actions secret is important – if everyone sees you looking at the “How to Attack Your Neighbour” in the rules, you can rest assured that they’ll save their defensive cards in anticipation!

e) Proof-read your rules. Better yet, get someone other than someone intimately associated with the development of the game to do the proofing. And just get them to proof for spelling, grammar, and understandability – not to comment on the rules of the game per se.

-Sen-Foong Lim



2 thoughts on “Step 15: Rules for making Rules

  1. Pingback: Pitching to Filosofia and Asmodee, Part 1 | Inspiration to Publication

  2. Pingback: Rules for Rules Writing | Through the Void

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