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How to write rules

Page: DesignArticle.Article-WritingRules - Last Modified : Sun, 01 Apr 12 - 1199 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

I stumbled on a rule book lately that was badly written and I thought I should write an article that gives a few tips about how to write a rule book. This article focus more on the structure of the rules in order to teach the game accurately rather than the language issue.

Before writing a rule book, you should read rule books. That look weird to say but it's essential. Open your closet, pickup a few random games and analyze the content of the rule books. This will give you a good idea of how they are built.

This article will propose a structure of rule book which is not necessarily the best structure possible, but you should consider it before writing your rules. The other sections of the articles will list other rulebook features with their pro and cons including things to avoid

Rule Book Structure

Game Statistics: It's a good thing to start the rules with the stats of the game: Number of players, time of play, minimum age, etc. It makes it easy to setup the mind of the reader. The players won't read the rules of a 15 min game the same way than a 8 hour game.

Introduction: You should make an introduction of 1 or 2 paragraph that summarize the theme and the mechanics of the game . Look at your game from a very high level and explain the mechanics in 1 or 2 sentence. You must also explain shortly the objectives of the game in the introduction.

The introduction paragraph can be used for many other purposes. It can be placed as a description text on a website or it can even be used in the submission form. So make sure you put a lot of time on that introduction.

Components: A very important section of the rules is to list the components of the game . Most of the time, the reader will not have the game in hand, so he will have no clue of what's in the game. So he needs to create everything in his mind. Another problem that publishers sometimes have is that they cannot identify which component represent what. For example, you could have resources, but the players are not sure if it's the cubes or the disk supplied with the game that are resources.

So a good idea is to include pictures of your components, else there should be a description and quantities for these components. It's also in this section that you could insert anatomy of components. For example, you could have a picture where you show a card and explain the various parts of the card. Still, make sure you do not explain any rules in the component section. Only describe the components of the game.

Turn Order Summary: Dress up the plan of the turn order. This is some sort of map for your readers, it will tell them where they are going. List the steps of the game that the players must pass through. It's also useful to know what players can do in a turn by looking at the turn order summary.

Setup: List and explain the steps to setup your game. I like rule books where there is a big picture of the game with numbered area to tell you which setup step correspond on the picture. Fantasy flight and Games of Wonders does that. Even if you do not have a picture, numbering the steps makes it easier to understand.

Rules: This is the core of the rule book. Explain the rules of the game IN THE SAME ORDER than the rules summary. So players should be able to play the game step by step while reading the rules. You can include examples to illustrate complex parts of the rules, and you could also use pictures to illustrate the examples.

Some games could have basic and advanced rules. In this case, there should be 2 separate sections. Personally, I prefer when the advanced rules does not repeat the basic rules, it makes it easier for the player to know what has been added in the advanced rules without comparing every paragraph of both rule sets. Also, if you make changes to the basic rules, you will not need to also change the advanced rules. So it makes the rulebook much more consistent.

Additional Features

Additional Rules: After the rules are written, you can list other rules like variants and optional rules. Anything that is not essential to play the game.

Other Rules Section: Fantasy flight use this section in their rules and it is not the best thing to do. It's a section that list everything not related to the order of play that was hard to insert it in the basic rules. If you need to do a separate section, at least label it to something meaningful instead of "other rules". For example, you could call it "Character Management", "Combat Resolution". But again, I strongly suggest you place there rules in the core of the rule book.

Reference and Annexes: Again, since the reader might not have the game in hand, it could be a good idea to list any information found on the component of the game. For example, your game comes with unique ability cards, you could make a list of the cards in the rules. Or you could make a list of icons used by these cards.

Summaries: Many rule book use the last page as a summary that could include turn order, reference information, etc. Some summaries are also placed as a side bar of the original rules. The problem with summary is that if you change a rule, you also need to change the summary, and if you forget to do so, you could have inconsistencies. A cheap way to make a summary page is to display a table of contents.

Tutorials: You could use a step by step tutorial to explain your game. But this must be additional material to the rules that are placed into a separate rule book or at the end of the rules. Do not teach the rules of the game as a tutorial.

Glossary: If your game is very complex, it could be necessary to have a glossary. They are generally useful if there is a lot of keywords, for example, in the early version of magic the gathering, you needed to know what the keywords "Regenerate" or "Swamp Walk" meant since the effect was not written on the card. So they were listed it in the rulebook.

Things to avoid

Random pictures: In order to fill white space, you can place random ARTWORK pictures in the rules but do not place random COMPONENT pictures in the rules. The idea of displaying components is always to explain something. If you place component picture anywhere in the rules, it will simply confuse the reader.

Explain rules anywhere: Do not start explaining rules else where than the rule section like in the component listing, or in a glossary. Else when players will search for a rule, they will have to check in different places.

Flavor text: Flavor text can sometimes be interesting but do not place it in the rules. Having to read flavor text all the time simply break the flow of reading and inflate the rules for no good reasons. So keep them in a side box if necessary, else simply remove them.

Subjectivity: You should stay objective all the time when writing your rules. Avoid inserting comments or even insulting the reader (Yes, I have seen this).

Testing the rules

It looks weird to say, but rules need to be tested. First you need to know if people understand your rules. The best way to do this is to make players read the rules and play by themselves. Watch them play, take notes and answer no questions. If there is some confusion on some aspect of the rules, then these rules must be improved in your book.

Once the rules are "gamer friendly", now you need to proof check the rules for language errors. There are different ways to write rules, sometimes you can talk directly to the reader (ex: "You should do this") or sometimes indirectly (ex: The player should do this). The important things is to be consistent through the rules. Sometimes you can use the direct method on components, like card special abilities, while using the indirect method in the rule book.


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