For most gamers, the rule book will be their first experience with a brand new board game. If they can’t make it through the rules, your board game is as good as having never been sold in the first place. It doesn’t matter how good the game might be, or how fun and unique the mechanics are.
It’s one thing to blind play test the rule book once it’s made, but that only helps after the rule book has been already been written. Just writing the rules down on a piece of paper isn’t good enough. Just telling the player what they do on their turn isn’t going to be good enough either. So what is it exactly that makes one rule book stand out above all the others? How do you know if your rule book is even ready to be tested?
Rule books have three primary jobs. First and foremost a good rule book should be able to teach someone who knows nothing about the game in question to play the game as well as teach others to do the same. The second job is to act as a reference when questions inevitably come up during a play session. A good rule book needs to be able to do both jobs, and it needs to do both jobs well. Far too many games will do one or the other well, but few and far between can manage both. Lastly, a rule book should act as a player’s first introduction to the game. It should never be assumed that the player has any familiarity with the game, mechanics, or theme. The rule book should market the game to the player reading it just as much if not more than anything on the box.
That being said, here is a list of rules that every good rule book should follow:
1) Treat every player as if they are brand new to the world of board games
That isn’t to say that the rule book should be talking down to the player, but simply that the rule book should not assume that a player will be familiar with mechanics or themes within the game. If the game is a deck builder, never assume that the player is familiar with Dominion. It shouldn’t even be assumed that a player is familiar with what a “deck builder” is. Any term used in a rule book should be clearly defined in a way that a brand new player will understand.
2) Never make assumptions about who your target demographic might be
Just because a game was designed with a very specific type of person in mind does not mean that type of person is actually who will be playing the game. Obviously a game centered around the HP Lovecraft mythos will be attracting fans of HP Lovecraft, but assuming that every player will know about the mythos is the first mistake a rule book is likely to make. Once again it is important to remember that the rule book shouldn’t be talking down to players. The theme and flavor of the game can be introduced in a way that doesn’t alienate new players, while also keeping those familiar with the themes interested in what is being explained.
3) Use non-gender specific pronouns
This really should be included alongside, rule #2, but honestly it needs to be clarified on it’s own terms. It may be a surprise to some, but not all people who play board games are men! Whenever possible, rule books should use the singular they. A rule book that exclusively uses “he” to refer to its players is automatically ignoring at least half of a game’s potential players. It doesn’t matter if your game is the most brotastic brofest ever made. Use gender-less pronouns.
That being said, if the singular they is too formal sounding and the rule book in question is setting the mood for the players, there are plenty of alternatives to using “he” to refer to everyone. Rule books that choose to use in-character examples can easily alternate between using “he” and “she” to refer to different players at different times by using varying characters within the game. Saying “once the first player has taken his turn, pass the dice to the second player to start her turn” is perfectly acceptable. This method still has the downside in that it focuses on gender binaries, but it’s still better than using male pronouns for everything.
4) Include a clear list of contents
One of the best things about buying a brand new board game, is going through all the bits and pieces. Punching out cardboard tokens, sorting through decks of cards, and sorting out plastic figures will always be one of the first things that a player will do upon opening the box. Often this will even be done prior to turning the first page of the rule book. Every rule book should have a clear and concise list of included components. Ideally every component should be named and have a photo or illustration of what that component is for easy identification. A new player should be able to go through everything in the box and confirm that everything they need to play is present and accounted for. It’s also important to help the player understand what each piece is, so that when the rules refer to those pieces later on the player will already know what they are.
5) Create a consistent vocabulary
Every major aspect of your game should have a clearly defined word or words that can easily be referenced. Components should be clearly named, and when mentioned in later portions of the rule book those names should be consistently used. If a game has multiple decks then each deck should have a unique name. Avoid using colors for names as those players who are colorblind could have difficulty picking out the correct pieces. Every phase of the game should have unique names. Specific actions should be broken down into a concise set of named actions. Whenever using a vocabulary term in the rule book it is useful to use bold fonts to further clarify that the term being used is important and repeated throughout the rule book.
6) Break down setup into specific steps
Far too few games will spend very little time on the process of setting a game up for the first time. It is easy for anyone familiar with a game to set it up, and for that reason designers and rule writers tend to underestimate the importance of setting a game up for the first time. Setting the game up should not require players to flip haphazardly through the rule book. If a game has specific things that need done only for the first time playing the game, a first time setup section should be included separate of the standard game setup. If setup changes depending on the number of players, include those changes in each setup step. Setting up a game should require no knowledge of how to play the game except for an understanding of components, which should have been clearly defined before reaching the setup portion of the rule book.
7) Clearly state the goal of the game
Without going into complicated details of the mechanics of the game, players should have a very clear idea of what the goal of the game. The easiest and most straightforward way of winning should be considered the goal of the game. In a game based on victory points, the goal of the game should not be stated as “get the most victory points” as victory points will mean nothing to a player that doesn’t understand how you get them within the confines of the game. For example, in Terra Mystica the goal of the game is to have the biggest connected city and the most devout followers. Only after the generic goal of the game is stated, should the specifics of how you complete that goal be described, or in Terra Mystica’s case: the player with the most victory points.
8) Break down everything players will do on their turn into specific steps
The most important thing that players need to know in order to successfully play a board game is what they can and can’t do on their turn. If turns are broken up into multiple phases, each phase should be specific and each step within that phase clearly defined. This needs to be the most easily understood section of the rules, and when testing the rule book the players’ actions during their turn should get the most attention.
9) Slowly add new concepts, always starting with the simplest rules before adding complications
It is best to think of a rule book as a series of transparency sheets layered on top one another. Start with a very simplistic understanding of the game as a whole. Each time you add a layer, it should enhance and clarify the layers below. Using the player turn for an example, if a turn is broken into phases which each have their own actions that players can choose to take, the rule book should give an overview of the phases and what they entail on a basic level. Only after the phases are explained in basic terms should each phase be given finer detail. Adding another layer, if a phase has multiple actions a player can take, those actions should be listed in a concise fashion first, before going into specific details with the rules of each individual action.
10) Never repeat rules
The rule book should never talk down to players, and should instead assume that players have understood everything covered previously. If the rule book repeats itself, it creates confusion on the player by making it harder to find the specific rule for reference later in the game. It can also have the adverse side effect of insulting the player’s intelligence.
11) Include an index
Once players have learned to play the game, inevitably issues will come up that require referencing the rule book for clarification. Even the best rule books will require a quick look up every now and then. Once a vocabulary has been created for use throughout the rule book, it should be simple to include an index on the last page to make it easier to find where those keywords are discussed in detail. For games with larger rule books, breaking the rule book into two parts, one for reference and one for core rules can be extremely useful. However, if this method is taken it needs to be done very carefully. The reference book should be the only book experienced players need to open. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find one specific rule between two different rule books.
12) If all else fails, include a FAQ and/or commonly missed rules section
During blind play test sessions it should become very obvious what rules and concepts are most often missed or questioned by players. In many cases it may not be possible to better clarify those issues by better organizing or wording the rule book. An easy solution is to include a frequently asked questions section at the end of the rule book. Alternatively, having a commonly missed rules section can be incredibly useful. Both of these options are good ways to be sure that the most important and possibly confusing concepts are clearly covered, and possibly worded in a way that players will make sense of after having finished the rest of the rule book.
13) Never underestimate the power of quick reference sheets
The back of the rule book is a great place to put things that players will have to reference often. For example, including the phase order for a turn or the steps to complete an encounter can make the players’ life much easier in their first few games. If the game relies on a lot of iconography, having those in an easily accessible place that doesn’t require flipping through pages of the rule book is a requirement. Including several reference sheets so that players do not have to pass around a huge rule book constantly can be a huge benefit as well.