Feb 6, 2006


I spent the weekend attempting to write up a preliminary rulebook for Battle Stations. My efforts did not bear much fruit. I have always found it difficult to write rulebooks. This is despite the ease with which I write rules. I believe I am skilled, relative to my peers, at crafting language that precisely conveys sometimes nuanced and complex ideas.

It is likely my ability to clearly communicate such things, combined with my analytical approach, that has consistently drawn me to administrative and/or judging positions in many aspects of my life, with gaming being no exception. My gaming friends have always called me a rules lawyer, but without the negative connotation that is usually attached to the term. At least, it hasn’t appeared to be in a negative manner; I could just be clueless. I have always been the one turned to for explanations of rules or situations in which rules seem unclear. I am not always right, but I hit the mark more often than luck would dictate and am generally considered reliable.

I also write in non-technical styles quite often. College has certainly demanded of me a nigh-continuous stream of observational, analytical, and argumentative writing. I had been writing strategy articles for a collectible card game company’s website until recently moving into a semi-supervisory position for the other writers. Whenever I feel the need to express myself I will usually write something for my website. This blog began in part because I wanted to write about a new topic in a medium which demanded a structure that I had not previously attempted. This has included my unsuccessful attempts at humorous writing. The point here is that I am not a person wholly unfamiliar with the quill.

And yet I can’t seem to write a good rulebook. It occurs to me that one thing I am not skilled at is constructing a narrative. In high school I challenged myself to attempt to write a (very) short novel, about 100 to 150 pages in length. By the time that I had reached approximately 50 pages I abandoned the project because of its so-far embarrassing output. Reading it, I saw that I had no talent for pacing. My storytelling used a consistent level of detail that was insufficient at some parts while becoming tedious in others. Any individual section was justifiably readable, but as a whole it was a mess.

I think the same skills used in storytelling can apply to writing a good rulebook. Your goal in both is to engage the reader in a way that they can apply what they have read earlier to the current section towards creating an understanding of a larger picture where all the details are meaningful because of their relationships. You need to be able to create contextual meaning in even the most discrete parts. The reader must comprehend why each idea being presented is important.

This admittedly self-serving theory would explain why I can write a rule that is anything but confusing yet when packaging these rules together the reader will invariably end up confused as to how to go about playing the game.

When learning a new game, I have almost never actually read the rulebook. It has always been a person already familiar with the game who walked us through the rules, usually from memory. This has not always been the perfect solution. You would not have believed my reaction when I found out after years of play that the “Tax money goes to Free Parking” rule was not actually part of the official rule set for that plight on true gamers, Monopoly. Still, I have almost always felt comfortable playing a game immediately following one of these personal explanations.

I can remember the day I was first introduced to Magic: The Gathering, which is no small feat considering my shoddy memory and that I must have been in the third grade at most. I asked to see the rulebook and my friend warned me that it would be better for him to just explain it. After I insisted and was handed a tiny booklet with more words than I was comfortable with, I relented and just let him teach me. As an aside, I believe even the rulebook itself suggested that learning directly from it was a poor strategy.

Back then Magic had relatively complex basic rules, as the "Interrupt" card type was still around and it made response resolution far too complex to understand. Those of you who are relative newcomers to it should just take my word for it that timing in the game has improved significantly since then. This and our ages meant that much of what my friend told me was incomplete, if not completely incorrect. Still, he told me enough to be able to play.

More importantly, armed with a limited internal understanding of the flow of the game, I was able to go back and read the rulebook after buying a starter deck of my own. Having a mental framework of the entire game allowed me to process these previously undecipherable rules. Over the years I developed into somewhat of a local expert on the game, and eventually began running unsanctioned tournaments for my friends and myself.

Years later I attempted to learn Star Trek and the first Star Wars CCGs by myself after their respective releases. This wasn’t out of desire, but out of necessity. Since these were new games, no one I knew played them. I didn’t even have access to other players online, as I was unaware of the company’s website for a long time. Therefore, they were a true test of the rules writers’ abilities.

The Star Trek rulebook was successful. I easily learned the key concepts and mechanics and settled into the flow of the game without much difficulty. I liked the game quite a bit and would play it for many years to come. The Star Wars rulebook was a different matter. I did not understand the “flow of the Force” mechanic. After many tries I was able to play mechanically, but the experience was draining and I still did not really grasp the overall flow of the game itself. I immediately quit the game.

When I moved and started high school I met about half a dozen people who played Star Wars at school. Just for something to do, I tried taking up the game again. One of the players re-taught me how to play in such a way that I now “got” the game. While I never became an avid player, I at least enjoyed it enough to play on an almost-daily basis.

This “Tale of Two Games” illustrates the pitfalls that can be had when writing a rulebook. Some might argue that the differing complexity of the games in question might taint this comparison. However, if Star Wars was more complex (which I agree with), it just meant that the rules writers needed to work harder to make sure the players didn’t experience the frustration I had gone through.

I’ve seen some recent CCGs use non-traditional methods for instructing play. One way is to have interactive software that shows a player the different cards in use and then allows them to play. Another way is having a small pack of cards meant to be used to simulate a game, with precise step-by-step instructions on what each player should do. The software method is nice because it allows free play while enforcing rules, whereas the physical card method requires forcing the players to take scripted actions. However, the software method is obviously far more expensive and not something easily applicable to board games.

One board game I’ve learned exclusively through the rulebook is Diplomacy. When I heard that there were only two types of pieces and only one piece could be in a space at a time, I thought to myself, “This will be the easiest game I’ve ever tried.” Boy was I wrong. The Diplomacy rulebook (note that this must have been a relatively recent printing, as I got it sometime during high school) was both good and bad. On one hand, it easily explained the rules for writing orders (even if convoy orders were a bit convoluted) and controlling territory. I understood what I had to do to win and how to go about it. On the other hand, it managed to bewilder me when it came time to resolve orders. There were innumerable rules on how to do this, and they were spread all over the book, with examples placed almost randomly. If this aspect of it was improved (not an easy task), I would hail it as one of the best rulebooks I’ve ever read. As it is, I decry it as one of the worst. I needed to read that sucker so many times that the wear on it would make one believe it was ancient parchment stolen from an insecure museum exhibit.

I recently bought Bang! I had heard a little about the game beforehand in the form of stories about particular sessions with it. However, I did not really know anything about the rules when I purchased it and had to learn it directly from the rulebook. I initially found it a bit unclear when it was explaining suits and “draw!”-ing and the different symbols on the cards. After a re-read and a perusal of the deck I felt comfortable enough to play. I did not like that I had to keep looking at the rulebook to learn what the library cards did. Those explanations should have been on the symbol-explaining reference cards.

When I went to write the rulebook for Programmer: Battle for Bandwidth, I decided to copy the structure of another game that used only cards.

The game in question, San Juan, was one that I had learned through the rulebook. I had purchased it after some of my friends told me to try it in place of Puerto Rico, a game which I am alone on this planet in not being able to stand. The rulebook did the trick; I only needed to read it through once cover-to-cover to be ready to play the game.

So I took the San Juan rulebook, extracted the section headings and methods of explaining cards, and applied them to Programmer, which at the time also only consisted of cards. It wasn’t a great rulebook, but I feel it got the job done. Unfortunately, I never got to do a blind playtest using it, because all of my testers were already familiar with the game. (I’ll post a copy of it here as soon as I have time to format it for this page.) It was this rulebook that I submitted to a publisher, but that’s another story.


  1. For Bang! - the rule book alone doesn't suffice. I printed out some player aids from BGG and made sure each player had one. I also found a FAQ which also helped. One thing that more designers should do is integrate player aids into the game itself and not force a player to go extra lengths to either find or create them.

  2. Agreed. For those looking, the files he mentioned can be found at: