Wasteland Wednesday – The one about rulebooks

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Today, Nathan is going to have a vent session.  A vent session about Rulebooks. I should preface this by saying we are not posting our rulebook just yet, but will share a picture of a player character we have yet to show off.

I was on Reddit last week and someone started a thread about why rulebooks in the board game industry are still routinely so bad.  This is something that I generally agree with.  Rulebooks in this industry are often not good.

Common issues with Rulebooks:

  • Super unclear writing and use of non-technical language for the game.
  • Missing Rules
  • Text from an older version of the rules that references things no longer in the game
  • Important rules that are glossed over or only exist in a sidebar or sample text
  • Rules that do a horrible job of explaining gameflow and goals and get too in the weeds with process
  • Bad or no visual samples.

Now, lets be very clear before I get started.  You can find examples of all of these in some of our rulebooks, especially old ones.  Especially old ones that I wrote mostly by myself when the company was tiny and didn’t have money to pay for editors to help.

So, let’s talk about why this happens, and in good faith and in all fairness I will be throwing myself under the bus with all sorts of examples of where things went wrong.  And I will finish with what we are doing to fix this, and why Wasteland Wednesday will have a great rulebook if it kills me.

Unclear writing. The first thing you need to understand about rulebooks is that they are technical manuals.  They have more in common with a procedure book at your job than anything fun.  Rulebooks are the dry boring necessary event that stands between you and fun.  The rulebook is a means to an end.  The rulebook is written in a way that most people never ever speak.  I worked in financial compliance for a long time, so I have some experience writing in dry boring legal-ease when dealing with regulatory inquiries.  I do not like to write in this style.  I like free form conversational speech.  Like this.  Where I can write crappy half sentences and make snarky remarks in mid-sentence about how much I think about Gilmour Girls (its great and on Netflix!) when I write an e-mail to Jon.  See?  That was fun, and that is a horrible way to write a manual.  Conversational text, long paragraphs, using multiple words to mean the same thing.  This is how we are all taught to write in school.  This is not how you write a rulebook.

These are things that destroy rulebooks.  I’ve certainly been guilty of this on games like Lost Valley where I wanted fun little asides to make the game feel really thematic.  Which I might have succeeded in, but then had to rewrite the entire manual and publish it again on BGG because people unfamiliar with the game had a hell of a time slogging through it.

Missing Rules.  Missing Rules happen for a number of reasons.  The nightmare scenario is a half-finished text document that gets put into publication before it’s ready to go through either laziness, deadlines or people with a lack of experience being involved.  We’ve all backed Kickstarters before that literally don’t tell you what spots on the board are for.  It happens.  It shouldn’t.  That is an absolutely inexcusable condition that I am thankful to say I have never been guilty of.

The more innocuous form of missing rules is simply one of familiarity.  The game designer knows how to play the game.  The publisher knows how to play the game.  The play testers know how to play the game.  The people at Cons who sit through demos know how to play the game.  Then 2,000 copies hit stores and a bunch of people who don’t know how to play the game look at the rulebook and have no idea how to play the game.  See, logical leaps and missing rules (especially edge cases) often get left out because everyone involved in the games development knows what goes in that blank space.    Mcuh liek tihs snntetce can be raed by yuor biran rgiht now.  If you know the answer to the puzzle already, your brain fails to recognize gaps in the rules.

The solution to this is to find a team of awesome gamers out there who will proof read rules for you.  Gamers who have never seen your game before who are really good at tearing a game apart.  Games don’t get released without blind playtesting (ok, well, games shouldn’t be released without blind playtesting), rulebooks shouldn’t be released without blind proofreaders.  We have 5! That we use for our games now.

Old Text This is one that I am super guilty of at times. We have an unannounced game coming out called StarFall.  I guess it is now technically announced.  It is awesome.  We will be sharing more before GenCon and at GenCon about it.  StarFall came with cubes that represented a currency called Stardust.  We changed those cubes to awesome wooden starburst pieces.  The entire rulebook calls them cubes.  Black and white cubes to be exact and we changed them to orange and white custom wood chits.  Until last night the rulebook kept referencing the wrong color cubes.  Oh, and also it kept saying the word cubes when no cubes were to be found.  This is a thing that happens and shouldn’t.  This is also why blind editors are important because they can stare at the component list in the game and scream “there are no cubes in this rulebook.  What the hell are you talking about”.

 Rules hidden in the sidebar. OH GOD NO.    DO NOT DO THIS.  THE RULES GO IN THE RULES, THE EXAMPLES GO IN THE SIDEBAR.  DO NOT ONLY MENTION I AM LIMITED TO 2 SELL ACTIONS OFF ON THE SIDE IN TEXT I AM UNLIKELY TO EVER READ.  JUST NO.  NOOO.  DON’T DO THIS.  I have done this before, and a lot with Lost Valley.  I try real hard not to do this.  I am super sorry, and will not let it happen again.

 Rules with bad gameflow. I was playing a game last week that will not be named. The rulebook spent 10+ pages explaining where I put my pieces, how much I had to spend to use a space, where that money went.  What that space got me.  What this space did.  How I could score a card.  And never once told me why I was doing any of it.  At the very very end it said “hey, you need 10 points to win”.  Oh, those are points.  I did not realize that those were points.  Now I know how to win.  Oh crap, I forgot how to do anything because it was all mush in my brain without context.  The game could have said “Hey bro, you need 10 points to win.  There are 4 ways to get a point.  Here is how you get those points.” And then spent the next 10 pages explaining how everything works and all the rules.  Then those details would have filled in missing gaps of a story I already mostly understood.  Instead of me staring at a page and going insane trying to make heads or tails of why the hell I would put a worker on spot Y and how I ever got more cards.

The new FFG edition of Merchant of Venus does a good job of explaining things for the most part.  You do some of 4 things on your turn.  You move.  You buy/sell.  You build a space station.  You maybe discover a new planet. “Oh hey, this game is easy”.  Here are 30 more pages of why it’s not easy.  “Ok, yeah, this is harder than I thought, but it makes sense because I know what I am trying to do in the first place and this is all just color added to what I already knew”.

Bad or no visual examples. Do not wall of text a rulebook (I know, irony given this wall of text blog).  Please don’t.  I get it, layout is hard.  The digital assets you need for the visual examples aren’t ready yet and backers on Kickstarter want a rulebook.  So, you wall of text me.  Don’t wall of text me bro.    Just show me.  Pictures are worth 1,000 words.  If you are telling me what I do in a game, you should follow that up with showing me what it looks like.  Then I can look at the board, look at the visual sample and my brain can process what I just read and go “ok, that makes sense”.  If you give me a block of text only now I have to look at the board, try and parse what you said and translate that text into action.  I might screw that translation up and play your game wrong.

Similarly, to the “missing rules” or “rules in the sidebar” issue, your visual should show me what you have already explained.  It should not be used as a crutch to not explain the rules.  The rules should not say “look at that dashed arrow and moving dude.  Move like that”.  You need the visual example to be just that.  Not a crutch for your inability to articulate a rule with text.  They go together.

The above game that won’t be named in sample 4 also suffered from this.  “Place your worker on the spot for the build action.  Then place a cube on the spot named something super esoteric.  On a subsequent turn other players may not do this other esoteric thing that is similarly named.  Good luck figuring that out jerko”.  Then I played the game wrong, hated it because it seemed way too punishing.  So I went on BGG to see if other people had voiced similar dislike (being a publisher means my dislike is privately shared with friends, or publicly shared with everyone if I’ve had 2 beers after a convention).  Then I read that I had (like many others) not gotten the rule right and the game is actually super awesome.

What we are doing about this.  So, now I’ve gone over the most common pitfalls.  How do we avoid them and what the hell is this guy going to do now that I’ve put a big giant target on my back as the guy who hates bad rulebooks.

Pandasaurus Games is changing the way we do lots of things.  How we get artwork, how we do QC checks on our games, how we layout game boards for maximum clarity, how we ensure gamers are getting good value in their box and how we take care of rulebooks.  We are going to have no less than 5 eyes that have never seen a game before read a rulebook.  Proof readers, technical writers, hardcore gamers, less hardcore gamers.  We are going to make sure that everyone gets it.  That things are clear, that they are properly numbered.  I have created for myself a 37 point inspection guide to proofs and rulebooks to check personally that everything is there and clear.  And we have outside parties who do not have any knowledge of the game do the same.

Rulebooks are often the last thing to be finalized in a game.  You are waiting on art assets for visuals, costing of components and all kinds of other things that are flashier and more exciting (like that artwork I promised you!).  This means the rulebook is often the final hurdle between your game going to the printers, and taking time on it means delays in release and delays in revenue and delays in gamers playing this super awesome game you’ve spent the last two years working on.  So, the rulebook usually gets a “good enough for government work” treatment.  Especially from small publishers.

I am not promising you we will never have a grammar problem or never have an unclear rule in a rulebook.  But we are taking steps and we will go above and beyond to ensure that we have the absolute best rulebooks in the industry.  Plaid Hat and more recent FFG games are sort of the gold standard of quality.  Which is not to say they are problem free, but they are really really really close.  That is where we are going to be from now on.  Starting with StarFall and Wasteland Express.

Now, I’ll get off my soap box and show you a cool Player character.  Meet the Fallen.  She’s awesome.  She drives a schoolbus, and we’ll have a lot more to say about her soon.


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