Some thoughts about writing rules for board games

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I’m a maths and physics teacher, I’m a science journalist, I’m a board gamer, and my habit for documenting complex things that I learn have in some circles given me the pet name “mr Manual”. I wrote my first summaries of board game rules as a kid, as well as game introductions other types of guides. In this blog post I want to share some thoughts about writing board game rules, since I’ve realized that not everyone thinks that writing rules is the best thing life has to offer.

The main points

The rest of the blog post contains different tips and ideas that might help you in writing rules. But there are a few main points that I think could replace all the others. More or less.

  • Know your audience. If you want to write well, you need to know who the reader is. In your case, the reader is most likely a player or potential player of your game. Some games are for seven-year-olds. Some are for hard core cube pushers. The reader’s needs and expectations are essential in creating a good text.
  • Writing rules is a skill. Some people have a much easier time writing rules than others, which is neither unexpected nor a bad thing. If writing rules gives you too much frustration, find someone to cooperate with. But it is also true that everyone can get better at writing rules.
  • Know when and why you break patterns. Following the trodden path is usually the right thing to do. The tips and ideas below are valid in most cases, for most people. But for some games it might be brilliant to not start with a game overview, and for some writers it might be a lousy idea to try to explain the game to someone else before writing them down. Breaking the patterns can give outstanding results, when done right. Use your head. Take the advice you find useful.

The long list

  • How to get started?
  • Tools and the process
  • Introduction rules or reference booklet?
  • Finding the outline
  • Finding the words
  • Creating a good presentation
  • Some other tips

At the bottom you’ll also find a description of the process when I write rules myself, plus some links for more places to get inspiration and ideas for writing rules.

How to get started?

One of the most difficult things can be getting started. Here are some tips.

  • Just write. Start somewhere, not necessarily at the beginning, and write down rules that needs to be remembered. Just getting started is worth a lot. It doesn’t have to shine – that can come later.
  • Explain the game to a friend sitting at the same table. Or better – do it to many friends, at several occasions. You will find that your explanation gets better every time: You become better at knowing how to start explaining, pinning down the important concepts in the game, showing how a round is played, and knowing which questions pop up at what time. After doing this a few times, try writing down the rules. Write them like you were telling a friend who is about to play the game for the first time.
  • Write in your first language. If writing in English is an obstacle (as it is for me sometimes), write in your first language. Or switch to your first language whenever you get stuck in translation and mark the sections so you can return to them. You will have plenty of opportunities to translate later on.

When should I start writing rules? I find it useful to start writing rules very early, even if it only is writing down some things for myself. It helps me organize my thoughts and see new potential synergies in the game. You will need rules for the first blind test of your game, and you will probably have better rules to hand out the sooner you start.

Tools and the process

  • Use a sensible word processor and use proper headers. A word processor and headers allow navigating quickly between different parts, creating a table of content, and also easily rearranging different sections of the rules. It not only saves time, but makes it easier to get an overview of the rules as a whole. This becomes more important the longer your rules are. I personally like writing in Google documents, since they are easy to share, comment and version control.
  • Worry about layout details later. Selecting fonts is not important when you start writing. Line and page breaks will change, and you will probably replace that image anyway. Write the text, add simple images, use the standard body font plus header 1, 2 and 3. Making everything look great is important, but not where you should start.
  • Write, rest, read, repeat. Some people can write decent rules in a single go. Some can even write good ones. Most can’t. When you feel that you’re done, either because you’ve come to the the last page or your brain hurts too much, take a break. Read the rules a few days later, and you’ll find places to improve and most likely have ideas for how to do it.
  • Let others read and comment on the rules. If you do, it is useful to remember that your main duty is to listen to the input, and at a later point decide what to do with it. As when asking for feedback in other situations, it is good to be specific. Here are some things you could as for feedback on:
    • Which parts are easier to read, and which are more difficult?
    • Do the rules start in a way that is easy to read? What should be improved?
    • Does the overall disposition of the rules work well? What should be changed?
    • I’ve rewritten section X. Do you think it is clear and fits with how the rest of the rules are written?
  • Use version numbers. Your game and your rules will evolve. Put a version number in a page header or footer, and increase it before sending the rules to playtesters (or printing them for yourself). Having version numbers on your game, not only the rules, can help a lot in keeping your sanity. Seeing the version numbers increase can also contribute to the feeling of having accomplished something, even when it feels like you’re stuck.

Introduction rules or reference booklet?

Two common cases for using rules is (1) when first learning the game, and (2) when you have played a while and need to look something up – be it half way through your first game or when starting game number twenty. These two cases often call for quite different ways of writing rules. Here are a few ways to deal with it.

  • Compromise. Write rules that you can read before starting your first game, but that also works as reference rules. This is probably easier to do if your rules are short.
  • Create two booklets. Or two sections within the same booklet. The first holds everything you need to know before the first game, as brief and light as possible, structured in the order first-time players learn the game. The other is the booklet with everything, including details and clarifications, structured according to the logic of the game.
    • An underused version of the “two booklets” approach is, in my humble opinion, to have a guided introduction game. A guided introduction game can use a completely separate booklet, where rules are introduced on a need-to-know basis. Open the booklet, set up the game according to instructions (which could be a non-standard setup!), read the first two short rules and start to play. Two rounds later, or when card X occurs, a new rule is introduced. And so on. Events in the game can be prepared to occur in a certain order, either by stacking decks or instructing players to do one or the other thing.
  • Two use cases in parallel. One way of making introduction rules and reference rules meet is to have them on different places on the same pages or spreads. You could have a text column with the lighter text aimed towards the first-time player, complemented with either boxes or a parallel column with details. Or on each spread have introduction rules on the left page and reference rules on the right. This allows having all the rules for a part of the game at the same place, but not burdening the first-time reader with the nitty-gritty stuff. A problem is that first-time rules and reference rules don’t always follow the same disposition, so compromises might be necessary.

A third common reason for reading rules is when players wants to refresh their memory after being away from the game for some time. One way of dealing with this is to have player aids where the rules summarized, which is good both for many use cases. Another approach is adding short summaries in each rule section – often right under the header, last in the section, or in the margins. Such summaries can also help first-time readers. Both(!) of these approaches can probably be combined with introduction rules and reference rules, without compromising too much.

Finding the outline

Some sections that probably should be included in the rules, in order:

  1. What should I expect from this game? This contains a game introduction as well as the game stats: playing time, number of players and so on. Some list game components as well. It has become more common to list playing time per player, rather than total playing time, which makes sense for many games.
  2. A quick overview of gameplay and the goal of the game. The overview should in very broad terms describe how the full game and a round is played. It should be short enough to attract readers. This fictive example is probably on the short side, but illustrates a depth that might be good: “Players start out as young actors. The goal of the game is to gain Fame and Fortune before round seven, when players retire. Each round players performs three actions, selected either from the common board or the special cards each player has. Each round a global event is drawn, affecting all players. A key ingredient is to keep an eye on what other players are planning, to anticipate which actions on the board will get taken.”
  3. Setup. An image of a completed setup is often of great help here. Numbered lists or headers are also useful.
  4. Playing the game. This is often the meat of the rules. If this section is long it probably needs an overview and sub sections.
  5. Game end. Conditions for game end and how to appoint a winner.

If your game is complex, “playing the game” will need special attention and you will probably try a few different ways of ordering sub sections.

The following sections may also be useful in rulebooks:

  • Reference section: A list of symbols, icons, cards, abbreviations or other things that players might want to look up during play. This could be a good way of not having to explain all special effects at the same time as all the other rules. Reference sections are often put on the back of the rules booklet, to make it easier to access.
  • Frequently Asked Questions: There may be edge cases that cause questions, and playtesting might have shown that some questions occur pretty frequently. These can be answered in an FAQ. (If a certain question arises often it is a sign that you should try to change the rules or perhaps anchor them better in the game theme. But you knew that already.)
  • Tips when playing: Some players think that a lot of the fun with games comes from figuring out how to play well, and writing down entire strategies in the rules is probably not a good idea. But pointing new players in the right direction can be appreciated. “If you’re playing for the first time it could be a good idea to make sure that you have access to all different kind of resources before the second age ends” and things like that. Pointing out things that might take a long time to discover yourself, but never were intended to be hidden information, could also be a good idea. “The Forest deck contains more ghosts, while goblins are more common in the Hills deck.”
  • Player aids or quick summaries: This could be the backside of the rules booklet, or separate sheets/tiles.
  • Acknowledgements: This usually mentions playtesters. I like the idea of also mentioning games that has inspired the game development.

Finding the words

In many aspects I find writing good rules pretty much a tacit knowledge – it is difficult to explicitly describe how it is done. I think that the bullets below are good approximations.

  • First give an overview, then go into details. Give the reader something to attach new concepts to.
  • Introduce the most central concepts early on. Again, try to give the reader something to attach new concepts to. Central concepts can help understand the other concepts.
  • Describe the most natural case first, then go into exceptions or edge cases. The rules don’t have to follow the order of play. “This is how combats are resolved. This is how to flee from a combat before it starts.”
  • Use the game theme in the rules. “The King’s Command” is easier to learn and remember than “special rule if you have more than five cards”. It can also improve the game experience.
  • Put name on things. Saying “the haunted places” instead of “location A, B, C or D” isn’t just quicker, it makes it easier to remember, refer to and think about. If some part of the rules is easy to forget it could be worth trying not only creating a name for the rule, but also a meme. “Haunted places hinder spells.” (But as always you should consider changing or removing rules that are easy to forget.)
  • Be consistent in the terminology, in particular with terms that have a technical meaning. Writing “buying” in one place and “purchasing” in another isn’t great, especially if there is a special effect taking place every time a player “buys” something. It could be a good idea to have a glossary or terminology list for yourself, even if it isn’t included in the rulebook.
  • Use standard terminology unless you have good reasons not to. You probably don’t need a new name for victory points or discard pile. Then again, it’s good to use the game theme in the rules.
  • Use simple, clear and correct language. Selecting words with precision is difficult but important. Use concise headers to communicate the content of each section. Use unambiguous language. (“The wood harbour allows trading wood in the ratio 2:1.” Is wood being bought or sold?) Alternate between short and medium length sentences. Keep paragraphs short. If English is your first language you could ask a non-native English speaker to read the rules, to get suggestions of where to make the language simpler.
  • Consider bullet lists if you find yourself stacking information in a sentence. Use numbered lists if the order is important or if the reader will go back and forth between the rules and the game (for example when a new phase in the game).

Creating a good presentation

I have much more training in explaining rules and writing them down than I have in creating a good layout for a rulebook. This is a shame, since a good layout is an important part of communicating. But here are a few tips anyway.

  • Readable and simple is first priority. You can use a fancy font for the game title, but everything else in the rules must be easy to read. A script font might fit the game theme, but if it slows down the reading it is almost never worth it. Use a font size that doesn’t lock people out – I’ve heard that 12 points is a minimum (but I could be wrong). Playing around with the number of columns or fancy ways of wrapping text around images can be fun, but it can also hurt readability. My general tip is that if you’re not a graphic designer or art director, always go for the plain vanilla option when it comes to layout and graphic design. It will often give a better result, and it will almost certainly make it easier for someone who knows their stuff to improve the rulebook layout.
  • Avoid italics, don’t use underline. Italics is difficult to read for visually impaired readers, and can also signal that the text can be glossed over. Underlining is almost never used for emphasis.
  • Use a lot of space. A short but dense rulebook is less inviting than a longer rulebook where you turn the pages quickly. Dense rulebooks are also more difficult to navigate. Use extra space between paragraphs, and even more space above headers. Consider starting new chapters on a new page. Have generous margins on the pages. In general: Don’t cram things onto pages.
  • Use images. Images can help communicate the rules, make it more enjoyable reading them and help creating the intended atmosphere.
  • Numbered pages is a good thing if your rulebook is more than a few pages. Some rulebooks use colour coding for different sections in the rules. (I’m partially colour blind, so colour coding has never appealed to me.) Numbered headers help navigating long rulebooks.

Some other tips

Using examples in rules is often a good idea. It can take a lot of space, but the human mind is built to remember and generalize from specific examples rather than taking the general and apply to the specific situation.

If you use examples, it can be a good idea to reuse players, characters or situations between the examples. It lowers the mental effort needed for reading the examples and can even be a bit interesting for the reader to see how the example game evolves. And make the examples personal – better to mention Alice and Bob than player A and B. Even better is probably to use “you” instead of fictive players.

Be wary of things that almost follow the general conventions. An example: In the adventure game I’m making, players move by rolling 3D6 and how many equal dice they got – rolling 1-1-5 lets you move two steps. Then players draw adventure cards – and an important rule is that players sharing a space on the board draw a shared card. The movement rule is so different from the standard roll-and-move that players won’t accidentally confuse them (and will notice if they do). The “sharing a card” rule, however, is only slightly different from the standard “everyone draws a card”, which makes it more important to emphasize this difference.

It can help your writing if you avoid mentioning the same rule in more than one place. It can be a bit confusing for the reader, and there’s a risk for getting inconsistent rules if you only change in one place later on. I find it better to refer to other sections, or to include explicit quotes from other parts of the rules.

Having video guides where you explain the rules can be a great asset for players and playtesters. Creating videos can take quite a bit of time, though, so don’t do it too early on. On the other hand, creating videos with rules can be a good way of forcing yourself to think through how to explain the rules – so the time can be well spent.

My own approach

I think that I write rules in these three stages.

The first stage is collecting thoughts. I write down headers, words or phrases – often in a hierarchical structure – and keep rearranging and adding to the list every now and then. This is often done many days before I start the actual writing, and can be done in very short sessions at a time. While compiling this list I gradually find a good approach for explaining the game. This usually means starting with one or a few central concepts that other concepts are hinged on. I’m looking for the feeling “if I start explaining here, most other things will be easy to introduce”.

The second stage is the Writing Session (note the capital letters). I try to make sure that I have quite a bit of time to spare (2–3 hours), ideally without being disturbed. Then I sit down and write. I believe that the question at the back of my head is “What do I need to tell?”, but at that point I am usually already so full of ideas of how I want to write the rules that I spend more time writing than thinking. If I’m lucky I get all the way through the rules before it’s time to turn off the computer and go to sleep. If not, I have to find another time to continue the work.

The third stage is reading and refining. This is repeated many times, and can be done in long or short sessions depending on needs and opportunity. In these sessions I find passages that needs improving, and either improve them right away or add comments about what needs changing. I might check that words are used consistently or update the terminology. I might have left some blanks in the first write-through, and these are taken care of in this third stage as well. An important part of this stage is reading through all the rules, from start to end, to make sure that they are consistent in content and language.

I should perhaps also add a stage zero: Know your game. Unless you know the matter well, you won’t be able to explain it well. This holds for board games as well as other things. If you’re the one creating the game, this is probably not the bottle neck for writing rules.

More inspiration

For anyone interested in diving deeper into writing rules I would recommend Curby’s Style Guide. Inspiration for this blog post has also come from these podcast episodes, worth listening to for anyone who wants to get better at writing rules: Ludology (episode 60), BGDL podcast with Jason Perez (September 2017), BGDL podcast with Jamey Stegmaier (October 2017), BGDL podcast with Dustin Schwartz (January 2018), BGDL podcast with Mike Lee (December 2020) and The Nerdlab podcast (episode 65).

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts, or more places to get inspiration for writing rules.

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