Rules to Play By: How to make a compelling game manual
Most of the steps of game development have come fairly easily to Mike, Tommy and myself. When developing Mort-A-Mania, we spitballed dozens of different ideas before we arrived on the one we loved, but the process came as naturally as a friendly debate between the relative merits of The Office vs Parks & Rec. (Parks & Rec is better overall, but The Office has more material to quote.) As we moved forward into card creation, and the mechanics and flavor of the game came into their own, coming up with compelling ideas became more difficult, but never unmanageable. Throughout the entire process, we always felt like we were doing something we had been inadvertently training our entire lives to do.
Not so with The Rules.
What seemed initially to be an easy walk from rules "in the head" to rules "on the page" quickly became an Everest level trek that we had never prepared for. I mean, we knew the rules, right? How difficult should it be to write them down? Apparently, much harder than writing 93 unique cards.
The fundamental issue with writing rulebooks is the struggle between ease of use for beginners and absolute clarity for rules lawyers.
At first glance, these features seem to go hand-in-hand, right? Something that is perfectly clear should therefore be very easy to use, and vice versa. That is a fundamental principle of good design; eliminate ambiguity to promote ease of use.
As a counterpoint to this intuition, consider the passage, taken from the official USGA Rules of Golf:
The Game of Golf consists of playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.
1-2. Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions
A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.
1. An action expressly permitted or expressly prohibited by another Rule is subject to that other Rule, not Rule 1-2.
2. An action taken for the sole purpose of caring for the course is not a breach of Rule 1-2.
This, all together, constitutes the First Rule of Golf. It is one of the 34 core rules of golf, and is actually one of the shortest. Rule 20: Lifting, Dropping and Placing; Playing from Wrong Place, takes up seven and a half pages to itself. The rules, in short, are laid out as crystal clear as possible, and as such, are the worst possible tool for teaching the game.
If someone were to ask me how to learn to play golf, I would start by offering to teach them in person, or at least refer them to some helpful youtube videos. I would start with a basic overview of the goal of the game, how players attempt to hit a small ball from the beginning of the play area into a hole at the end, taking as few swings as possible. Then, I would demonstrate proper swing technique, along with a recommendation to hit softly and accurately, rather than whack the ball out of bounds. Other rules would be brought up on an as-needed basis, and many of the 34 rules would never be mentioned at all. I certainly would never give them that rulebook.
However, if I were playing golf with a well-versed group of players, and the unusual circumstance of a duck running across my putt occurred, I would be very happy to have my copy of The Rules of Golf, so I could consult Rule 19-1:
19-1. By Outside Agency
If a player’s ball in motion is accidentally deflected or stopped by any outside agency, it is a rub of the green, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, except:
a. If a player’s ball in motion after a stroke other than on the putting green comes to rest in or on any moving or animate outside agency, the ball must through the green or in a hazard be dropped, or on the putting green be placed, as near as possible to the spot directly under the place where the ball came to rest in or on the outside agency, but not nearer the hole, and
b. If a player’s ball in motion after a stroke on the putting green is deflected or stopped by, or comes to rest in or on, any moving or animate outside agency, except a worm, insect or the like, the stroke is canceled. The ball must be replaced and replayed.
The rules make it very clear, in nearly every imaginable case, what to do when an animal affects the path of the ball. In this case, the dense, awkward wording is helpful to players, as it eliminates ambiguities that would arise in simpler phrases.
The lesson to be learned is this: when writing rules, we are really writing two documents. One is an instruction manual, designed to provide simple, helpful information in a logical order to a new player. The second is a codex, explicitly laying down precise rulings to account for every contingency and unusual circumstance. These two documents require very different styles to be executed effectively, and as such, the writer must balance having both qualities without creating a book that is altogether too long to be useful. After all, the game ought to be fun, and in general, that means spending as little time digging through the rules as possible.
In Mort-A-Mania, we approach this by breaking the rules into two major sections. The first is a step-by-step walk through of a full round, clearly laying out what is to be done, by whom, and in what order. The second is a glossary of terms, keywords, and important mechanics, laid out in such a way that a player wondering about a certain aspect of play or unlikely circumstance can easily find the relevant ruling by searching for the related keyword. We find this system to be appropriate for our game, but every game is different. Some larger, more complex games have two separate documents; one 'Quick Start Guide' to get new players on their feet, and one 'Official Rules' to be the final say in all disputes or misunderstandings. Extremely complex games may go as far to eliminate some mechanics entirely in the Quick Start Guide, gently easing new players into the game while offering rich, deep game play to veteran players.
No one strategy is best, but target demographic is the most important consideration when deciding how to structure your rules. Before putting text on the page, think carefully about who will be reading this booklet, or sheet, or card. Think about how many games they have played that are similar to yours. Think about how familiar they are with gaming terms -- nearly everyone knows what 'drawing' a card means, but many players are unfamiliar with the concept of putting a card in their 'graveyard'. This also puts a limit on how many mechanics can be utilized. Too many new ideas will make new players shut down and become disinterested because it feels too much like work.
A good rulebook both teaches and clarifies, but it needn't (and often shouldn't) do both at once. Next time you sit down to a board game, give a monment's consideration to the rules. Are they easy to follow for a first timer? Do they give a clear indication of the goal of the player, and a clear roadmap to victory? Just as importantly, do they provide concrete rulings on unusual circumstances? Did the writer think of everything? Lastly, do these two disparate functions coexist in a logical, easy-to-use way? Is finding rules as intuitive as figuring out how to set the board up?
Asking these questions of the games we play, and of the games we create, is the best way to develop user-friendly, airtight rulebooks and player manuals.