Trying to improve my rule writing

Part of the journey of learning to be a better game designer is learning to be a better writer of rules.  This is something that is absolutely critical as, for most game groups, somebody has to learn how to play the game from written rules before teaching it to everyone else.  For many games, the rulebook also needs to be able to answer questions when some issue comes up in play.  This is all a very specific form of technical writing, and it's hard.
[Image stolen from Dan Brady on Flickr]

My experience so far is limited, but I am moving along.  The one tabletop game rulebook I have presented to the world as "finished" (I Know An Old Woman) has already received feedback helping me to locate more places where things are unclear -- and this is a very simple game, which just goes to show how far I have yet to go.  I have also helped with proofreading rules for other designers (helping to build up my ability to spot problems) and am in the process of helping rewrite a translation of the rules of a foreign language game.

I figure that one of the best ways of getting experience and building my skills is to just get out and help people out.  There is only so much time each week, but I can fit some work on other people's projects in between my own.  It isn't hard to find this sort of work on a voluntary basis: the forums on Board Game Geek, for example, regularly have people requesting help with various aspects of their games, including the rules.

It has been nice to see a number of blog posts, videos and the like turning up recently on the Internet with advice of rulebook writing.  The advice doesn't always agree, for example, Matthew Gravelyn wrote on his Designing Cardboard blog about writing concise rules, and then a month later,  Lewis Pulsipher released a short talk entitled "Too-Concise Rules Can Become Incomplete or Incomprehensible".

Of course, these two aren't really disagreeing: Gravelyn is aiming to cut out useless text, while Pulsipher is warning against cutting out too much, as you may impede understanding.  Basically, the acceptable length and complexity of game rules depends on your target audience.  In the end, you need to test the effectiveness of your rules.

A really great resource is a discussion from the Metatopia game design convention, featuring Geoff Engelstein (of Space Cadets and the Ludology podcast) and Gil Hova (of Battle Merchants and the Breaking Into Boardgames podcast).  This is almost an hour of solid gold with a lot of good advice, but I think one of the most interesting parts of the discussion is about how rulebooks need to meet two mutually-encumbering objectives: to provide a tutorial for the game and a reference for once you have learnt the basics.  The big take-away though is that writing rulebooks is hard and even very experienced people get it wrong.

A little more in-your-face is a talk given by Mike Selinker (of... almost everywhere) at  PAX Dev, where he gives 10 rules (well, 11) for writing rules, with examples of a whole heap of traps you can easily fall into and how you can keep out of them.  The talk is based on an essay he wrote in The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, which is a book full of useful advice from a great many knowledgeable people.  The majority of Selinker's rules can, I think, be summed up by "don't try to be too clever."

From all this stuff along with other sources, plus my own meagre experience, I am starting to build my own principles that I will try to use to guide my rulebook writing.  The top of my list is currently as follows:

  • State, in general terms, how to win the game right at the start of the rules. Details can come later, but the general idea needs to be there before anything else is explained in order to give context for everything that follows.
  • Closely connected to this, the rulebook needs to convey some level-zero heuristics.  This is a slightly technical term (see Characteristics of Games for plenty of discussion on heuristics), but basically I mean that on reading the rules, the players need to have a general idea about what they need to do to play the game and have a chance of doing OK.  If the players start with no idea of what to do, that is a failure of the rules.
  • Keep the language simple and consistent.  It may be necessary to define special terms, but do so sparingly and be really careful to stick to those definitions.  
  • Don't be afraid to repeat yourself in the rules in order to make sure that information is in appropriate places, but remember that if a rule is repeated, this adds an overhead for editing as a change in one place means checking everywhere else.
  • Proofreading is necessary but not sufficient.  A proofreader may decide that the rules read just fine, but someone trying to learn and play the game from the written rules may still have all manner of problems.  Blind playtesting the rules is essential.


  1. In the last couple of weeks I've come across two awful examples of rulebooks to otherwise decent games. One was the notorious "Mousquetaires du Roy" ("Worst rule book I've seen in... 42 years", said Tom Vasel, who isn't even 42 years old). That took a couple of hours of swearing to work out how to actually play the damn thing. The other was "Shadows of the Elder Gods" which is a small game with a couple of fiddly bits. I went straight to Youtube for this one and it all made sense when I saw it explained but that was no thanks to the rule book.

    In both those cases, the way the rules are set out forces you to flip backwards and forwards, making you hunt out the meaning of three or four terms before you can understand what it's telling you about what this piece of the game does.

    And for an example of good clear rules writing: Le Havre - The Inland Port. (2-player 30-minute version of Le Havre).

    1. Hi Tom. I've not looked at Mousquetaires du Roy, but I can't imagine it is much worse than Courtisans of Versailles, which really needed a rulebook editor who was a native English speaker to spend some serious time on it. I suspect both games suffered greatly in translation.

      Shadows of the Elder Gods... yeah, agreed, it's not difficult, but there are a few things that the rulebook does not make clear, which is a shame for a comparatively lightweight game.

      I've not tried Inland Port (or, to my shame, the original Le Havre), but thanks for the recommendation for the rulebook. It's always nice to find a good example.

  2. By far the most comprehensive coverage of rules writing I know of is my own audiovisual course "How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)" on Udemy. But, like the Kobold Guide, it is not free. (Discounts at my site Pulsiphergames.com)

    I intend to turn this into a small self-published book, but who knows when that will be completed?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Lewis. I admit I haven't yet taken one of your paid-for courses, but I very much appreciate your free content, so I may well go for it at some point.