SHARE THE REASON
  • Explaining the rationale behind a request or recommendation
  • Equipping others with the purpose of an assignment and the significance of information
  • Giving the details, sharing the context and removing the mystery behind our words and actions
COMMENTARY
I live with a budding board game developer and playtesting their latest creation was simultaneously one the most joyful and frustrating experiences one can face. Our latest playtest went like this:
 
Designer: Here’s your game piece (hands me a Nolan Ryan Starting Lineup figure riding a velociraptor).
Me: Awesome. I have no idea what this game is about but I like it already. How do we play?
Designer: Get your dinosaur to the other side of the playroom.
Me: Ok. How?
Designer: (Rampages through a flock of My Little Ponies) I win.
Me: Wait, what?  Are we taking turns or is this like simultaneous play?
Designer: Everyone goes at once. Let’s start over. (We reset and both move our dinosaur riding baseball players the other side of the room.) I win.
Me: Sure, we didn’t tie?
Designer: No, the ponies stopped you.
Me: What?  How did the ponies stop me?
Designer: You didn’t jump on top of them.
 
And so it goes, back and forth, me losing game after game of Jurassic Park: MLB Hall of Famers as more and more rules are divulged after each turn.  We continue to playtest, and being careful to not break her spirit or creativity, we hammer out some standardized rules.
My little board game designer is slowly learning what even the most experienced board game designers are still trying to perfect – writing clear, thorough rules.
 
***
 
As an in-house reviewer for Everything Board Games, I spend a lot of time reading rules to board games. In fact, I read some rules for a new game this morning before work, and I have the rules for a game by Daniel Solis (who coincidentally was part of the advertising firm that helped with Funds For Learning’s award-winning on-hold message and marketing materials a few years back) sitting on my desk waiting to be read as I type.
 
Some rule books are clear and the lay-out makes the steps of each process well-defined, providing examples of gameplay and some common errors in interpretation. Others, not so much. I have quickly come to find that enjoyment of a game is closely related to ability to easily understand and quickly implement the rules.
 
So, when I was tasked with writing about the importance of sharing the reason, I thought of board game rules, and rather than spending this commentary going through my process of breaking down a rule book, I took to social media and asked board game designers and reviewers for their thoughts. Here is some of the feedback I received.
 
On why rulebooks are important:
 
Pround Games (Designer and Publisher: Chicken Run): One thing we always thought about with rules is that they’re the players’ only insight into our vision for the game. Rules are how we say to a player “we love this game, and if you want to love it too, we recommend staying within the confines of these rules.” Clear rules let the player see our heart for the game, and freedom in the rules.
 
Dane Trimble (Board game designer, Owner: Everything Board Games): Without rules there is no game, it is just unorganized play. Rules create organized play, i.e. a game. For board games, it is really important to have good, concise rules. First you want people to play your game the way it was intended to be played. Second, and most important, a bad first play experience will likely to a person off from a game for good.
 
Eric with What’s Eric Playing? (Board game reviewer and photographer): Rules are incredibly important, as they are the gateway into how the game should be played according to the designers.
 
Matt Quock (Designer and Publisher at Mountaintop Games): Rulebooks are a designer’s/publisher’s first and main form of communication with board game players. It is of utmost importance that the rules of a game are communicated with extreme clarity. A player’s first impression and first experience playing a board game are tremendously valuable in today's market, reinforcing the need for a great rulebook.
 
Absurdist Productions (Designer and Publisher, Churrascaria): The purpose of rules is to educate players and act as a reference source for questions. They should be well organized and they should scaffold and chunk information so that each section builds on the one before it and is easy to understand.
 
On what makes a good rulebook:
 
Angela Thomas (Designer: Survivors of the Silver Fleet): The best games are the ones that make it to the table, and learning the rules is the first step in that process. Having illustrated examples can help with complex mechanisms, and sometimes you realize that a part of your game is too complicated when explaining a particular mechanic that you thought was not a major part of the game takes up a major part of the rulebook. Also, you need to write for two audiences: the first-time player, and the player needing a reference and a refresh after a few weeks or months away from the game.
 
Gnu with MFG Cast (Board game reviewers and podcast): the best rulebooks have a full game turn in examples at the end, or throughout the book. If I can follow a few player examples throughout a full turn, I’m going to understand this. If I have to guess, maybe not.
 
Brody Sheard (Reviewer: Everything Board Games): Rules are best when there are headers and sub‑headers. It should be organized in such a way that one can look through and find the answer to a question without having to re-read everything else.
 
Eric with What’s Eric Playing?: I love games that have full rulebooks and then a Quick Start guide so I can just get the game set up and remember the basics between games. I would, in general, HIGHLY recommend having a few examples of a turn in a rulebook where different things happen to clear up ambiguity. To that end, the ideal rulebook for me is read cover-to-cover once, then I consult the Quick Start or examples later when I have questions. FAQs are nice, but if there are too many I won’t read all of them.
 
Absurdist Productions: The more concise and clear the rules are the faster the players will learn them and the faster they can start playing. The more complex the rules, the more edge cases, and variants, the harder they are to understand and learn.
 
On what makes a rulebook frustrating:
 
Fairway 3 Games (Designer and Publisher: Starving Artists):  1. Trying to be unconventional for theme reasons, 2. Adding “behavior commands” like “have fun”, and 3. Writing rules that can’t be read out loud. (Editor’s note: Fairway 3 Games has a great article on writing game rules.)
 
Gnu with MFG Cast: Most frustrating is when poorly written rules brings a game to a screeching halt (e.g. which effect happens first?).
 
Eric with What’s Eric Playing?: A lot of rules like inventing new terms for things, like banishing a card, or activating a die, or flippety-flooping a meeple. While that is sometimes nice from a thematic standpoint, it makes (the rulebook) really hard to follow when they are using terms like “banish” when (they could have used a more universal term for the action). Also, I usually read a rulebook for the first time RIGHT before playing. This means the rulebook needs to respect my group’s time. I can’t read rules to the group for an hour and expect them to still want to play. 
 
On developing and finalizing rules:
 
Matt Leacock (Designer: Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, Forbidden Island, Mole Rats In Space, and more here): Assume the rules are broken until they are blind tested. It’s similar to coding. You never test code in production; same goes for rules. (Editor’s note: Forbidden Island was my gateway game and to have its creator involved in this commentary was a really cool experience - Thank you for being a part of this.)
 
Ty Rucker (VP of Design and Publishing: Crypt Monkey Games): Start your rules as bullet points immediately while you are prototyping. This lets you scratch things off as you test and prepares you for your first draft. Be descriptive in a way that helps the player feel like they are "doing" what the game tells them they are. If your game is about a heist, players should feel like clever thieves, right?
 
Angela: Developing the written rules to a game, for me, is harder than developing the game. You need to write unambiguous rules that anyone can understand, but be concise enough that the rulebook isn’t intimidating for newer gamers. Write the rules down as soon as possible, and keep versioned copies of the document as the game evolves so you can track the wat things change over your many playtests.
 
Dane: When I work on rules, I sit down with the game and actually play it and make notes about the rules as I encounter different situations. Once they are roughed out, I make sure they are in an order that makes sense to someone trying to learn to play. Finally, I send my game away to be played without my help, only the rules.
 
Matt Q: Like much of board game design, rulebook development can be a very iterative process. It is important to get ideas onto paper as soon as possible, where they can quickly be read and improved. Playtesters and proofreaders are invaluable during this process. As with art and graphic design, an experienced rulebook editor can add significant value to your game's overall experience and it is well worth hiring outside help.
 
***
 
Many readers probably arrived at this commentary because of their interest in E‑rate (if not, welcome!) and are now thinking, “That’s great, Nick. Board games are fun and we get it, writing rules to board games can be difficult, but so what?”. Let’s take some of the above insights, change just a few words, and see if it is applicable:
 
USAC likes inventing new dropdowns for things… flippety-flooping fiber… it makes E-rate guidance really hard to follow…
It’s frustrating when poorly written E-rate guidance brings funding to a screeching halt…
The more complex the E-rate guidance… the harder it is to understand and learn.
 
You need to provide E-rate guidance for two audiences: the first-time applicant, and the applicant needing a reference and a refresh after a few weeks or months away from the E-rate program.
 
E-rate guidance is incredibly important, as it is the gateway into how E-rate should be done according to the program administrators.
 
E-rate guidance helps educate applicants and act as a reference source for their questions.
 
One thing we always thought about with E-rate guidance is that it may be the applicants’ only insight into E-rate program compliance.
 
E-rate guidance is the first and main form of communication with applicants.
 
The two worlds may not be that dissimilar after all.
 
***
 
Providing clear and concise direction is important, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Be careful to give the details, share the context, and remove the mystery behind your words and actions. Take time this week and consider how well you share the reason with others (and then invite them to play a board game).
 
***
 
Key Words and Phrases
Offer a rationale; Explain; Give details; Clarify; Describe; Put in plain words; Make clear; Enlighten.
 
Opposite Terms
Mystery; In the dark; Secrecy; Ambiguity.
 
*****

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